The Running Father

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

Jesus’ most famous story has no official name. 

Over the centuries it’s been called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or the Two Brothers, or the Lost Child, or the Unforgiving Sibling, or the Waiting Father. 

What we know for sure is that there are three characters.  There’s the rebellious kid who runs away and makes a mess of his life.  There’s the Goody Two Shoes big brother who stays at home admiring his collection of Sunday School perfect attendance pins.  And there’s the father of these two boys, who loves them both and doesn’t care who might think he’s foolish for doing so. 

So who is the main character?  We can make a case that they all deserve the spotlight.  Let’s look at each one in turn over the next three days. 

Jesus’ story, which is found in Luke 15:11-32, begins with the younger son’s demand: “Father, give me my share of the estate.”  It’s hard to overstate the edginess of this request. The Palestinian audience who first heard these words must have been appalled.  This young man has committed the ultimate sin. 

In so many words he has said, “Father, drop dead.  You’re no good to me alive.  All I want from you is your money that will be mine when you’re gone.  So, if you don’t mind, let’s pretend you’re gone now.”  It’s hard to imagine a more painful insult to any parent.

With a breaking heart, the father realizes that his son has no desire to be in relationship with him.  So he complies.  He divides up the estate.

The boy takes off into the wide, wide world.  In Judeo-Christian tradition, this describes the relationship that all of us have with God.  Each of us has said, in one way or another, “Father, I wish you were dead.  You crowd me.  My life would be so much happier if you weren’t hovering over everything I think and say and do.  So give me my blessings and leave me alone.” 

What does God do when we relate to him like that?  He says, “Go.  Go out and see if life is really happier when you are out of relationship with me.”

Author H.J. Duffy remembers when his teenage son was so excited to try out his new surfboard that he plunged right into the breakers, ignoring the warning flags that had been posted for dangerous surf.  Immediately the booming voice of the lifeguard rang out: “You are an inexperienced surfer.  Return to shore.”

Humiliated, the boy returned.  He asked the lifeguard how he knew he was a beginner.  “That’s easy.  You’ve got your wetsuit on backwards.”

God’s love is such that he doesn’t stand on the seashore of our lives and shout into a megaphone, “You are an inexperienced, completely ill-prepared rebel.  Return home at once.” 

Incredibly, God lets us go. 

At first things go brilliantly for the boy in Jesus’ story.  He has the time of his life.  The word “prodigal” (“excessive, irresponsible, reckless, and wastefully extravagant”) isn’t found in the original text.  But centuries ago it became associated with his over-the-top behavior. 

He quickly runs through all of his assets in “the far country.”  Once again we turn to the scholar Kenneth Bailey, who observes that this would be the equivalent of his ATM card suddenly being rejected.  His friends disappear.  Jesus assigns to him the ultimate nightmare job for a Hebrew boy – feeding pigs. 

He gradually “comes to his senses,” as Jesus puts it.  He wakes up.  He realizes how far away he is from where he started.  He not only grasps in his head but feels in his gut his separation from his father.  He longs to go home.

But what will his dad do if he ever shows his pig-feeding face around town again? 

That would be a no-brainer in first century Jewish society.  The typical father would beat the living tar out of such a disrespectful son, as a warning to every other boy in the neighborhood.  It would be a kind of community service beating. 

But this boy wonders, in his heart of hearts: Is there a possibility that my dad will take me back?  He’s haunted by the last look that he saw on his father’s face.

He begins to formulate a plan.  He will play Let’s Make a Deal.  Certain that his relationship with his father is broken beyond repair, he rehearses a little speech.  “Dad, I don’t even deserve a cot under the eaves of the stable.  I know I can’t be your son any more.  Could I at least be one of your minimum wage workers?”

He leaves the distant country and begins walking in the direction of home, no doubt burdened by the thought of trying to clean his own slate for the rest of his life.

The last thing he suspects is that his father, the very one he has wounded, is about to clean that slate for him.  

Luke 15:20 tells us, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” 

The astonishing detail is that the father runs.  Dignified gentlemen in the time of Jesus walked through their paces slowly.  To run meant to show your ankles to the neighbors.  To do that was to risk ridicule. 

This Father couldn’t care less. 

While we ourselves are still a long way off – even while we remain in our distant countries of doubt, anger, cynicism, and hopelessness – God the Father is waiting.

What would it be like to turn toward home?

He will run to receive us with open arms.