Rivet your attention on him. Don’t take your eyes off him. Observe his actions and reactions. Listen to him, feel his heart break, sense the depth of his relentless love. He is the central character of Jesus’ greatest parable.
The father. The spotlight is never off him. He is at center stage the moment the curtain goes up. He dominates every scene even when he’s offstage. The two sons are but supporting characters, vivid contrasts to the father.
Change the scenery and his gracious love still thunders through. He speaks both when delivering his eloquent lines and when he silently waits. Who is the father? Jesus hoped we’d ask. The father is God; and God is the real prodigal. This is the parable of the prodigal God!
Shocking? Perhaps. But read Jesus’ amazing drama again. Then check the definition of prodigal. It means extravagant, lavish, unrestrained, and copious. That describes the father more than the sons. Their negative prodigality is set in bold relief to the creative prodigality of the father. And in the shadows: God.
Prodigal! Let the word stand. Take any of the alternative definitions, it still holds true. Tradition assigned it to the lost son. It belongs to the father. His love knew no limits, his forgiveness no boundaries, his joy no restraint — prodigal love for the lost.
Jesus’ parable was in response to the Pharisees’ criticism of His involvement with sinners. It is the story line of the whole autobiography of God, lived and told by Immanuel, God with us.
What is God like? Look at the father. Behold what God was doing and would do through the Parablizer Himself. It would mean Golgotha, but would never end there. Wasteful? Lavish, extravagant, excessive? Yes! Especially when you consider the disastrous defection and the ultra-violence of man. Why track him in the corridors of conscience in the far country? Why this in-spite-of love? What did we do to deserve that? Nothing. That’s the mystery and wonder of it all. But we need love, forgiveness, and reconciliation more than breathing, food, or sleep. That’s what He offers because that’s what He is. The Prodigal God.
The parable will have its full, intended impact on us if we dare to live in the skin of one or both of the lost sons. Some of us may be in a far country of rebellion. Others of us may never have left the father, but the far country is in our minds and hearts. In either case, Jesus wants us to meet our Father Almighty.
The tender word “Father” soars above all other designations in the autobiography of God. More than a projection of the qualities of earthly fathers, it is a name that demands its own definition, by the Father Himself, through His Son. He taught His disciples to pray “Our Father”; punctuated His message about God with the sublime word; and articulated ultimate trust with His last breath on the cross, “Father!” The parable of the prodigal God was taught by one who was the Word of God saying, “This is what I am like. This is how much I love you.”
The prodigality of the father in Jesus’ parable is focused in several startling ways. The drama has barely begun when we are aware of the first: benevolent approachableness.
“A certain man had two sons” (
Why would the younger son want to leave a father like that? There’s no hint of harshness. No rigid dictator, this father. He longed only for his sons to enjoy the fruit of his labors and careful accumulation dependant on him.
Linger for a moment on the meaning of our inheritance from our heavenly Father: the resources of life; intellect, emotion, will; healthy bodies and a beautiful world filled with the delights of existence. Enjoy! But with one qualification: that we acknowledge that they are gifts and praise the Giver.
There’s the problem. We want to claim them as our own, without Him, and live the lie that what we have and are is the result of our own clever creativity. A problem as old as Adam and Eve. The stupidity of independence. But then, none of us does very well with the realization that one could not breathe a breath, think a thought, or earn a dime without His momentary blessing. But we try! Like the younger son, we have to prove ourselves to ourselves. We all want to be the one thing we can never be: god over our own lives.
But there’s a deeper reason why the impetuous son wanted to get out on his own. What he could not emulate he had to eliminate. The son wanted to reproduce the quality he saw in the father. He wanted to be like him, but on his own terms. The assertiveness he felt in leaving his father was mistaken for happiness. His basic error was that he thought self-gratifying indulgence would make him happy. He had to prove that he was as good as, or better than, his father. The “I’d rather do it myself” syndrome had begun to eat at him. Soon it would nearly devour him.
There’s a word for that. It has lots of synonyms, but at root it’s sin. But the younger son committed sins. There was the one taproot sin of willful rebellion. Independence. The desire to be great on his own. Sow a thought and you reap an act. The seed of defection was sown long before the act of desertion.
The father let him go, the second evidence of prodigal love. The father loved the son too much to restrain him. He knew that love only possesses what it releases. We only have what we give away. Our hearts beat as one with the father. We feel the wrenching agony of the separation, the good-byes with so much unsaid. Did the son know that he broke his father’s heart?
Be careful how you answer. The question implies a deeper one. Do we know when we break God’s heart? We do just that every time we turn our backs on Him, resist His control, refuse His guidance, and renounce His goodness as the source of our lives. Some of us have packed up our share of the inheritance and have left the Father as if never to come back. Others of us leave in a thousand little ways that result in a life fractured from God.
The far country is the realm of rebellion. More than geography, it is a condition of the soul. It may be a total rejection of a faith that was once warm and dynamic. Or it may be relationships, priorities, or involvements which focus our self-indulgence or aggrandizement. These are aspects of every one of us who has left the Father and dwells in the land of self-will. Those are the things we leave out when we are reminded that all that we have and are is His gift for faithfulness and obedience. What is your far country?
The younger son left for the far country in a decisive departure. He renounced his dependent sonship. Most of us drift into the same condition. Little things at first. Then our plans. Soon our money. Before long our deepest relationships. Finally our hearts. We are too pretentious to admit that to others — often even to ourselves. But we are no longer at home with God. Prayer becomes difficult and then exists hardly at all. God’s guidance for life’s decisions begins to seem irrelevant. We say, “After all, how can God be concerned with the personal lives of millions of people? He expects us to do some things for ourselves.” Soon it’s everything!
An uneasy embarrassment flushes through us when we meet people who talk about “knowing” God. Too emotional. We are intimidated by any intimacy with the Father. Things we permitted ourselves in either fantasy or action become part of the equivocation, “Well, why not? Everybody’s doing it!” But most of all, the Father is not very important to us. We live our lives. He’s “up there,” if at all. What’s down here becomes our far country.
The lost son of the parable is too often the easy characterization of the offscouring of humanity-drunks, dope addicts, sexual indulgents, criminals. These people are easy to identify as those who squander their inheritance of life. Many of us are not squanderers with problems, but just wanderers from our potential. Whether we are sleeping it off on a park bench or working it out in an executive suite, the plight is the same. Worship in a rescue mission for a bowl of soup is the same at base as worshiping in the “right” church for an image. Both reach a god far below God.
There are many forms of destitution. A mother whose children have become her only reason for being is no better than a prostitute whose men without meaning are a way to a meal. There’s a sloth of inactivity and a sloth of overactivity; a brokenness of financial bankruptcy and a bankruptcy of financial success as an end in itself. The haves and have-nots share a lot in common beneath the surface: both can miss the reason they were born.
The hero in Winston Churchill’s The Far Country is guilty not of wanton dissipation of appetite, but of the rejection of his inbred, inherited ideals and dreams. He gradually lowers his values and his conviction of right and wrong in the practice of his profession. There are many ways of squandering our inheritance. We can dissipate our true worth as quickly as our wealth. In fact, many of us are tempted more by the former than the latter in our far country.
One Sunday evening after worship, two people arrested my concern. One was a street person whose life had hit zero below bottom. The other was a man who could not appropriate the gift of grace because he said he was living a full and satisfying life and had no needs! Both were lost sons in the far country.
And so are we when anything or anyone is used to fill the emptiness. There are no nostrums for the incurable homesickness for the Father, but we try. Success, position, recognition, accumulation — like the lost son, we use good things inordinately for the wrong reason. The people and things he misused in the far country were not bad. It’s what he did with them and the substitutionary satisfaction they provided. His values were loosened and a frantic lust for expression dominated his impulses.
What would we do in a strange city where anything was permissible because nothing mattered? Now add to that a strong intoxicant of seemingly limitless wealth to buy any person or pleasure you want. Remember: no rules, regulations, restrictions! What would you do?
I know a man who, when he travels in Europe and arrives in a city where he is absolutely sure no one knows him or cares, and with a fat wallet filled with unaccountable local currency, he gets an attack of gluttony, lust, and carelessness. There are always plenty of people to help him. Until the money runs out!
The lost son was not on the town for a lost weekend fling. He thought he had left home for good. His inheritance was tender for a new way of life. One thing mattered: what he wanted when he wanted it. After all, wasn’t the money his? Wasn’t he in charge of his own life now? Nobody could tell him what to do. No one dared, as long as he could pay for what he demanded.
We could leave that as an impersonal exposition of the parable if it were not for the fact that it’s painfully true of life, our- life. What have we done with the gift of life? Most of us are living in a frantic search for meaning, purpose, and significance. We stuff our lives with what we can taste and touch, save or sell. The question is not, “What will we do when the money runs out?” but “What can we squeeze into life and acquire before the undertaker arrives?”
This far country will take all it can get. The only thing it has to offer is stark reality apart from the Father. The defecting son found that when his resources were depleted. A famine hit the land of his evasion. But the trouble gave him tread. The famine around him eventually forced him to realize the famine in his soul without his father.
His descent into despair was rapid. Jesus describes that descent in vivid words which would make any Jew’s teeth rattle: the rebellious son lost all of his money; then he lost hope. Hunger finally drove him to become a hired servant of a citizen of the far country — a lowly misthios, a day laborer, the bottom of the three ranks of servants. A doulos was at the top — he was responsible for the men and maidservants, the paides and paidiskas. The son was hungry enough to be willing to surrender his dignity and freedom, and attach himself (the Greek means “pinned himself”) to his new master as a misthios. A pitiful end to his search for autocracy!
He had left his father because he wanted to be free to be himself. Now under a new master, he was to find out how shallow that self was. Look at him! A Hebrew feeding swine, which his ancient religion abhorred; so hungry he was willing to eat the carob pods the forbidden beasts refused. What ignominy!
It was then he came to himself. This means he saw himself as he was. It’s not easy to take an honest look at oneself. We all resist it as long as we can. To face the complicated complex attitudes, reactions, thought patterns and personality traits which are the real ME is frightening. Often it takes a tragedy, or the loss of a cherished relationship, or a disintegration of our carefully erected defense mechanisms.
Coming to ourselves implies just that: seeing ourselves for what we are, what we could have been, and what we may become. It’s the strangely-wrapped gift of the far country. A gift that enables us to see what we have done with the gift of life without moment by moment dependence on the Father. Then we can call it all by the right name: Sin. Unblemished reality that frees, the liberating realization. Why am I living this way? “I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight!'” (
Note that the father of the parable did not step in to save his son from reality in the far country. There were no dispatched guardians standing by to soften the blows of coming to himself. The father allowed the shame and the degradation. Prodigal love again!
So often I hear people ask if God sends difficulties. He doesn’t have to. Life offers more than enough. We cry out, “What’s the meaning of this, God’?!” He patiently waits until we can humbly ask, “What’s the meaning in this, God?”
It’s then, like the son, that we come to ourselves. Why do we insist on trying? A terrible loneliness sets in. It pervades our whole being. We want to go home. Thomas Wolfe was wrong, you can go home again! The motive doesn’t matter. Hunger drove the son. A hunger no food can satisfy drives us. Our problems are only a focus of our deepest plight. What has happened around us drives us to realize what has happened in us. Life without the Father is no life at all!
Now the parable tells us what kind of prodigal love awaits us each time, every time, we return to the Father. He has been waiting, watching, longing for us. Behold your God! This is our God who sees His son a long way off and runs to meet Him. Jesus’ picture of the father running down the hill to greet his son implies more than meets first glance. It was considered very undignified for a senior man to run. Aristotle expressed the same shibboleth: “Great men never run in public.” but look at prodigal love give wings to the father’s feet. He can’t run fast enough; his legs won’t respond quickly enough to express the expectant longing of his heart to welcome his son home.
Whatever else you believe about God, don’t miss this. He runs to us. Our least response unleashes His immense, uncalculable responsiveness. Right now your God and mine is running to meet us and enfold us in His arms!
What a progression of lavish love! “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him” (
This is the gospel in miniature: unmerited favor and love. Forgiveness is offered before we ask. We dare to ask to be forgiven because we are forgiven already. The invitation is for all the lost sons and daughters hearing this, and for all the lost or wandering dimensions of our lives. The invitation is to come home. The simple decision to respond sets the prodigal Father running toward us.
Have you ever been embraced and kissed by God? I have. Often. When I deserved it least and needed it most, He held me with tender, strong arms. It’s happened not only after times of failure or resistance to His will, but also after seeking to handle life’s complexities and problems on my own.
Recently, I was in a bind of frustration on trying to pull off a miracle on my own strength. I believed it was God’s will and something I should do for His glory. But God’s work done with our strength never succeeds. I was cornered on every side by impossibilities. A dear friend was concerned about me and the project. She felt compelled to pray for the Lord’s wisdom for me. In her quiet, an answer came: “Tell Lloyd to get rid of the shackles.” When she told me I was alarmed. What shackles? I searched my life for some area out of His will; some secret, unconfessed sin or attitude.
Then one night when I was all alone in prayer, the membrane of assertiveness broke, and I was able to confess my sin of determination which was blocking His power. A willingness to let go replaced the stubborn compulsion. I discovered the shackle — fear of failure. The Lord seemed to say, “My son, I love you whether you succeed in this venture or not. Give it to me. Only then can I give it back to you as a gift.” Then I knew what to confess. All the Lord wants from us is complete dependence and daring faith. Then He can bless us.
Look at the extravagant blessing the father gave the son to welcome him home. Prodigality! The embrace and the kiss of reconciliation were followed by lavish, symbolic assurances of love. The father’s astonished servants must have run after him to meet the son, trying to keep pace with the old man’s burst of energy. They were there to take the sublime commands. “Quickly, bring out the “best robe” can mean either the father’s own robe, the robe kept for the honored guest, or the son’s former robe. Any, or all, are implied by the father’s love-drenched command. It was his way of expressing delight and unrestrained excitement. After all he had done, the son was still an honored guest not only in his father’s home, but in his heart.
Then a ring was placed on the son’s calloused, dirty hand. The signet ring was symbolic of filial bonds no failure could break. It was the father’s way of saying, “You have been, and always will be, my son and recipient of love.” Then he noticed his son’s bare feet, a telltale sign of the slavery to which his son had fallen. “Put sandals on my son’s feet. He’s no slave. He’s my cherished and beloved flesh and blood.!”
What more need the father say or do? He’s already done so much more than was deserved or expected. But the whole household and the countryside must share the father’s joy. “Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this son of mine is dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found” (
That’s what happens with God and all the company of heaven when you and I come home by faith. The heavenly celebration is repeated each time we come back after a time of trying to live without Him in ventures or relationships of our lives. The realization that we have the capacity to bring our heavenly Father joy is the liberating nature of the Christian life. Can it be true? Yes! His Son knows and He told us in a parable we can’t forget. Jesus has caught our attention, indeed.
Reprinted from Autobiography of God by Lloyd John Ogilvie. (c) 1979, Regal Books, Ventura, CA 93006. Used by Permission.