11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
Is it too simple to suggest that there are two kinds of people in this world? – selfish, impulsive, wasteful rule-breakers who take advantage of everyone and don’t really care who they hurt (until of course they hit rock bottom and come running back for another second chance); and holier-than-thou, ultra-responsible, hyper-critical, self-righteous hypocrites who are overly angry and judgmental toward everyone who does not play by their rules (and perhaps secretly jealous of them)? Yea, that’s probably way too simple.
But to the degree that Jesus captures the tension between these opposing forces of human nature in the two children who inhabit his parable, especially if you recognize both of those forces intertwined in your own life, then Jesus just might be preparing you to be surprised by God’s amazing grace. And the instrument of that grace in this story is the father, who many would identify as the God-character here, and justifiably so, I suspect … after all Jesus often called God “Father” in prayer and conversation … makes sense, doesn’t it? Personally though, I’ve been resisting jumping to that conclusion in my own interpretation. Not that I’m opposed to it; just that if we locate that kind of shockingly extravagant grace in God alone, then we might miss the biggest surprise of all.
So this is how I see it, at least this time around. This parent, who is filled with such overwhelming love for those two children that you might assume they’re being spoiled rotten, responds to their every need and want without hesitation. This may not be the wisest approach to parenting (and I’m pretty sure it’s not God’s approach); but if you’re a parent, I suppose you may indeed feel that depth and breadth of love for your children (or your grandchildren), a feeling so profound that if possible, you would give each them just about anything that might ensure their true happiness.
Now in this story, the father says to the younger son, “sure, if this is what you really want; here’s your full share of everything I have.” – unbelievable, over-the-top generosity! And we all know how well that works out for the kid. Meanwhile, the older son has lived a perfectly faithful life, at least by his own estimate – never making unreasonable demands of his father, obeying every instruction, and working hard at building up the family fortune – because sooner or later it’s all going to be his … until that spoiled brat, kid brother returns, and dad is gushing all over him.
What are we to make of the father’s situation here? So filled with love, manipulated by both children in their own selfish ways, trying his best to do the right thing for each of them, yet sensing a divide between them that is wide and deep, and still growing. I really feel the father’s ache in this situation. And what I see is him going out of his way to meet each of them where they are at, offering forgiveness and encouragement to both, assuring them that there is more than enough love to go around, and that they don’t have to stay stuck in old behaviours or hold onto old grudges. And even though Jesus doesn’t tell us the ending to this story, he opens up its grace-filled possibilities to all of us.
I imagine the parent in this parable (even though not always making the best parenting decisions) sensing a profound internal presence of God, who whispers sacred words of guidance and support, “You possess all the grace I have to share … so wherever and whenever you feel challenged to offer my grace freely, especially to those you feel don’t deserve it, know that I am with you; and I will never stop encouraging you to risk wasting my grace by loving those who might not appreciate it.”
And that, my friends, is the big surprise … it’s not so much that God forgives that excessively and extravagantly, but even more that you can too … in fact, you are the instrument through which God’s amazing grace is made available to troubled relationships around you, if and when you also are willing to imagine that same profound internal presence of God, whispering those sacred words of guidance and support to you, “I will never stop encouraging you to risk wasting my amazing grace.”
Amazing grace, how sweet that sound.