Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. “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 son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The prodigal son sets out telling his father in a patriarchal society I want my inheritance now, which basically means you are as good as dead to me. Give me my money because we will not be talking from here on out, so what relevance is there to your holding it on my behalf. I’ve killed you in my heart so give me something for my hands – it is all you are useful for, this moment of exploitation.
And so the father gives what is demanded, not out of right – he was under no obligation to discharge the inheritance prior to its appointed time – but out of wisdom. Cutting the check will create immense pain. But that pain – and the separation soon to follow – will one day yield a heart finally ready to receive the promise and presence of the father.
And so the journey begins with alienation and withdraw and self-centeredness, but it begins well equipped. The prodigal son has material resources, boundless potential and incredible opportunities, even coming from a great home. He is, in effect, a millennial success story. We are the most well educated – I didn’t necessarily say intelligent – but the most well educated, technologically advanced and economically mobile generation to have ever lived, and are also the recipients of the greatest wealth transfer of all time. We are the prodigal son setting off. But this young person enters into the secular world fully equipped and well educated and having been nurtured with the best of intentions and yet has no spiritual depth, no spiritual vitality, having fundamentally misunderstood both the character and intention of the father. And this misunderstanding and misinterpretation predicates a series of increasingly tragic decisions.
The son enters into the world believing the lie that his value exists in the materialism and prosperity that is allowing him to control and manipulate others for his own objectification, but soon discovers that once this materialism has been successfully exploited by those around him he no longer has value and is treated accordingly. He abuses his father. He abuses the world. He is abused by the world. The unbreakable spiritual law of judging others comes to be – having rejected his father, he finds himself rejected, not by his father but by the world he thought would embrace him. Having thrown away love at its essence he does not even have lust at its most empty.
He also believes the lie that to become himself he must necessarily reject his father’s definition – that independence from the father will somehow materialize clarity of being. The path of the son is one of having a cadre of young superficial friends who view him the same way he views them – as people to be used for casual sex or fleeting relationships, as objects and means to a personal end. And this lifestyle, built on a tragically misguided view of God, leads to isolation and alienation as the world pushes back, as it reveals itself, as he wakes up from his life to discover that all of his equipping and resources and options only gave him the power to destroy himself. And he finds himself far from home, alone, unworthy, abused. And naturally so, because when you think your value is built on what you can offer others or how you can use them, then when you no longer have material resources to expend, when you are no longer economically mobile or physically appealing, then you are not valuable to society. And if your worth comes from being viewed as valuable to society than when you no longer have purchasing power the only existence you have is becoming a commodity, and the world trades on your dignity and humanity and value -and this is the journey of the prodigal son, whose entrance into the options of life goes horribly off course because his view of the Father’s character and intention is horribly misguided.
Into the anxiety and ambiguity of setting out from home his arrogance leads to his alienation and ultimately his own abuse as he believes that he should be treated as he has treated others. But he realizes something, not just that materially things were better back home but that he has broken a relationship that needs to be healed, and behind the economics of his actions in returning he acknowledges the truth that his understanding of the character and intention of God had destroyed his life because his decisions had been based on false data. And so we find the Father is experienced in coming home.
The father has been watching. Waiting. Ready. As soon as the willingness of the soul appears on the horizon of heaven all that the father has becomes again the possession of the son. It becomes ours again too. A robe and ring are given to those returning from the things of earth to the presence of heaven. The father gives the son all of what he had before because it was never about the money. If it was about the money the father would have never given him the same wealth the son had asked for and squandered. No it was about the heart. By giving the robe and the ring the father shows first the value of celebrating the returning child and second that what the father had – all of it – was always the possession of the son. He didn’t need to demand it. It was always his. He just loved it more than he loved the father who gave it, and so it did him no good. All the gifts of heaven that God has given you in your life will prove the means of your destruction unless you have a love beyond their using in your soul. It is when charisma becomes manipulation, when compassion becomes abuse, when art becomes arrogance, when ability becomes ego, when beauty becomes commodity, when talent comes the treasure rather than the means by which to show the One who gave it. The father knew that now – now – the son was ready for all the wealth of the house, because the heart of the child could receive having finally comprehended the character of its giver. We can therefore never have what heaven has unless we receive who heaven is.
But there is another child whose own heart needs healing. Hearing of the father’s love he withdraws to himself. The father who ran to the prodigal is the same one who walks the distance to speak to the heart of the child obedient in action but deceived in soul. The father is immediately accused – you are not fair. You treat him differently than you treat me. You’ve never given me anything. The father quietly responds with the truth. We had to celebrate because he was lost and now he is found. And all I have is yours. Never given? You’ve never asked. The father corrects the lie that his wealth was inaccessible. That is a lie he immediately resolves. Why are you laboring for what you already have? says the voice of the father. And so both sons are living in deceit, believing that the father must be taken from or worked for when all that ever mattered was being present with.
And so here we are. We must come home from the lies and find rest with the truth. We can work and never know the one we are working for – an issue Jesus addresses as well – and we can wander and never discover the who we are looking for in the what we are looking in. We must understand that if we have the father we have a place in His house because we have a place in His heart. And all He desires is for us to acknowledge that we need to come home. He waits with a robe and ring for all who in their heart and with their hands are ready to give into the journey back. We might think that God might give us a shred of what used to be. And we cannot comprehend that what awaits is not a repeat of what was but a promise of what already is. The prodigal son imagined that his best possible option in life was having what used to be, and so often we do the same, asking God to restore us rather than receive us. The prodigal son hoped for a minor improvement of his circumstance, and he discovered total healing for his soul. And so God always outdoes our desires when they point us to home with Him.
May each of us, today, tomorrow, hereafter, make the journey back towards who He is. And for those of us embittered with our hardships, sullen and withdrawn as the Father knocks on our hearts, may we realize that we have never lacked access, but willingness. We’ve always had what we needed for joy in our labor. We just never realized it was ours for the taking and His delight in the giving.
The Father is better than our bitterness, more loving than our lies and wealthier than our despair.
May the road wind forever and always to Him.