By Chris Wright
This is a surprise. There I was in that story told by Jesus, and suddenly, I’ve come to life.
The story has been called, ever since, “The Prodigal Son” — a bit disappointing, really, since — No, I’m not the prodigal son, it’s really about me, the Father in the story, and actually I have two sons.
Anyway, here I am — I’ve come to life, as Jesus intended, really. Rather like those books by Cornelia Funk, Inkheart, where the characters in a story come to life when a certain person reads them.
And look — he’s even given me the script — not that I could ever forget my own story.
So, OK — I’m fictional, but Jesus is real, and his audience, the people who listened to his story, were real. Did you notice them? The religious people. The ones who were keeping all the rules, and were always there in church — the synagogue, doing all the right God stuff. They saw Jesus being friendly with all the wrong people — the “sinners” — and even eating with them, and going to their parties! And they condemned him for it.
“Don’t you take sin seriously?” they asked. “You shouldn’t mix with people who are sinners, or you might get what’s coming to them.”
So Jesus invented me. A father. And I’m sure he was thinking of his own Father — as well as himself, of course, in the things he tells about me.
What can I tell you about myself?
I’m very blessed, actually. I’ve become quite wealthy, I have some good land to farm, with flocks of sheep and goats and some cattle too. I’ve got servants and I’ve got the largest house in our village, up on some higher ground at the center of town, with two stories, upper rooms big enough to hold large parties, and an outer courtyard for kids to play and people to meet. I’m very respected in town, as an elder — a senior citizen. I’m an honored VIP.
And I’ve got these two sons. So of course, they would inherit all my land and flocks and wealth when I die. Two-thirds to the eldest (double portion), one third to the youngest. That was a great future for them to look forward to, but of course it would be a long way off (I hope), after I die.
But one day, the memory still shocks me, my younger son came and said, “OK, Father, I want my share of the inheritance. But not sometime in the future. Give it to me here and now, my share of the land and the flocks.”
Such a thing was unheard of in our country. There is no provision in any of our laws for a son to get his inheritance before his father dies. And it was deeply insulting — it was as if he couldn’t wait for me to die. Actually wished me dead! I couldn’t believe he could ask such a thing! It was like a knife wound in my heart. For I knew that if I gave him his share, what he really wanted was to take it and leave home — go his own way, get what he thought would be freedom and forget about me.
I think Jesus made me feel the way his own Father God must feel, when you human beings, you real ones, choose to walk away from him, to take all that God gives every day of your life, but then live as if he didn’t exist.
What is it like for God the Father when we ignore him, refuse to give thanks to him, to live in God’s world as if God were dead? That’s how I felt.
What should I do? What would you have done? I know what the village would expect me to do — I should have had him thrashed, and not only refused his demand, but I should have cut his inheritance as punishment. Or disowned him completely as my son.
Wanting me dead! I could show him who’s alive and well and in charge!
But I didn’t do any of those things. I loved that boy. I did what he asked, divided up the inheritance and gave him ownership of his share of the land. The rest of my household was completely shocked that I allowed myself to be treated like that.
And so was the whole village when they found out what had happened — as they did quite quickly. For my son put his share of my property up for sale and got a buyer in a few days! A few days! It usually takes months or years for property to change hands in our culture. But, you see, he had to act quickly, for the whole village condemned him for the disgrace he had brought on me and his family, and therefore on the whole village. They accused and despised him.
So he just took the first offer he got, took the money and left — left home, left the village — he had to, he could no longer live in the house of a father he wanted dead, or a village he had disgraced. As far as they were concerned, even as far as our family was concerned, he was as good as dead.
But I loved that boy. Even though he no longer loved me, even though he wished I were dead, even though he had taken what was mine, and gone off on his own. He was still my son, and I longed to have him back.
Well, I have business contacts who travel extensively and I asked one of them to try to keep an eye on my son and bring me news when he could. So he did, and I heard that my son had not only left the village, he had left the country! — gone to a foreign land, a land of Gentiles and pagans. That was even more painful and shameful for me to hear — and the village knew too. It was a terrible disgrace to us all.
But he was doing OK, my friend said. Spending the money. Having a good time. Lots of friends, not a care in the world, it seemed. Except that he was doing all this with what still really belonged to me, and doing it all without a thought of me either. It was so hurtful, so painful, for me who still loved him. Did I tell you that yet? I really loved that boy.
Then one day my friend brought terrible news. There had been a long drought and famine in that foreign country. Food was scarce and expensive. My son had no money left, had hired himself out to a farmer in that land, a pig farmer! My son, my heir, living like a slave with unclean animals in a foreign land. It broke my heart. I wept when I heard that news.
And the village heard the news too, of course — they know everything in our village! And they were very satisfied to hear it. “Serves him right,” they were saying. “He’s only got what he deserved for the way he treated his father. That’s what happens to sinners like him. And just right too.”
And then I realized that Jesus knew those real people who were listening to him would agree with the village! The religious people who kept all the rules and did all the right God things. They would be saying: “Good story, Jesus. That’s the right ending. We’re glad you do understand how serious sin is, though we still disapprove of the company you keep. At least you realize that sinners come to a sticky end. They deserve what they get, just like that son in your story.”
But Jesus hadn’t finished his story, so I haven’t finished mine.
I’d always thought my son would never return home, but then I began to hope that perhaps, now he was in such a desperate state, maybe he might just decide to come back home.
As I told you, my house is in the upper part of the village, and we have upper rooms, where you can see out over the village streets and out to the countryside. So I started going there early every morning for a while to watch — I knew that if he came back at all, he would try to sneak back into the village very early before people were up and about, to avoid the shame and abuse he was bound to get in the street.
So I watched and waited. And one day, I caught sight of him — out there in the distance in the countryside, approaching the village — a pitiful sight he was too, but my son, my son! I’d know him a mile off.
But I knew what would happen if he reached the street at the entrance to the village. He’d timed it wrong. People were already up and about — I could hear the town waking up. So for him to get from the edge of the village, through the streets and up to our house, he would have to face condemnation, hatred, mockery, rejection, humiliation. They would abuse him, probably spit at him and throw stones, set the dogs on him, or worse. He had brought disgrace on the village, so they would take their revenge on him, probably beat him up and throw him out of town.
I couldn’t let that happen. But there was only one way to stop it. I had to get to him first.
So I rushed down from the house and out into the street — calling my servants to follow me.
And I did something I had not done since I was a boy. I ran! You need to understand — older, respected men like me just don’t run! Because to run you have to lift up the long robe we always wear in public, which reaches right to the ground. And so you expose your legs — which is a terribly shameful thing to do in public, for a man or a woman. You just do not run in public!
But I ran. I ran down that street. People were shocked. They stared. They pointed. Some of them laughed and jeered. My servants were so embarrassed and could hardly keep up. Little boys started running beside me to make fun of me. It was deeply humiliating and shameful. But all I could think of was my son, and the joy of seeing him again, and for the joy that was ahead of me, I bore the humiliation, despised the shame.
I put myself in the place where my son would be if I didn’t get to him first. All this abuse and shame would be his — should be his — in this street. He was the one who deserved it, but I was the one who took it. I humbled myself to save him from humiliation.
I loved him so much, I bore the shame that was his, and ran to him.
When he saw me coming and recognized me — he stopped, as shocked and amazed as the people catching up with me. He was about to fall at my feet, probably meaning to kiss my feet, but I grabbed him first and threw my arms round him — he was in rags and he stank, but I kissed him. I kissed him. He sagged, I kissed him again — my son, my runaway son, my disgrace of a son, but there in front of all those people, I did the very opposite of what they expected, they just couldn’t believe I still loved him after the dishonour he had brought on me. I showed how much I loved him, I honoured him, I kissed him.
He released himself from my arms and made a little speech — it almost seemed as if he’d rehearsed it.
“Father,” he said — he hadn’t spoken that word to me even when he left — “Father, I have sinned — against God and against you. And as things stand, I realize I’m not worthy to be called your son.”
I thought he was going to say something more, but he just stopped, and stood there looking at me, his eyes wide with astonishment and tears.
The crowd was gathering — word had spread through the town like wildfire — so I needed to make sure they understood that this was not just some moment of emotional madness. So I turned to my servants and gave some sharp orders, as loud as I could so everybody could hear.
“Quick! Back to the house. Fetch the best robe in the closet — the one I wear on special occasions. And get the signet ring of our family that gives authority within the household. And for goodness sake bring some sandals also — only slaves and children go around barefoot like he is now. My son will not walk into town on bare feet.” One of the fastest ones raced off. Then I called two more and said — again very loudly, so the whole village would know:
“And this evening we will have a party to celebrate this day. So get a goat from the flock and sacrifice it for a feast. No wait, that’s not enough. The whole village is invited (I called out) — kill the fatted calf, we need enough meat for everybody. I want the whole village to understand and accept what I have done for this son of mine and to honor me by coming to celebrate with me.”
By then the other servant came back, and I took my best robe and put it around my son. I put the signet ring of our family on his finger, and tied the sandals around his feet. I gave him back his dignity, and his belonging, and his self-respect. I gave him back his life, really.
And as I did so, I announced to the whole crowd: “This is my son!” They thought I would have disowned him. “He was dead” (he was indeed — dead to me, to the family, to himself really), “but I have given him back his life.” “He was lost, but I have rescued and restored him.”
And then I walked back up that street through the town with my arm around my son, having saved him from the humiliating treatment he would have got if I had not got to him first.
When we got back inside the house, I asked him, “What else were you going to say when you stopped?
“Oh Father, he said, I was so desperate back there. There was no food. And I had no money to buy any, even had there been. I actually envied the pigs, and even wished I was a pig — just to eat the pods they were eating — which I couldn’t, of course. And when I begged from some passersby, nobody gave me anything.
“So I thought, I have no choice but to go back to you; but I couldn’t imagine you would want to take me back as a son, at least not immediately. So I came up with a plan. I thought — if only I could get you to listen to me one more time — we could do a deal. I could work for you as a hired craftsman, as an employee — and then, when I’d earned enough, perhaps I could pay you back what I took, and you might then take me back as your son, if only I could pay you what I owed.
“Well, that was my plan, that’s what I was going to say. But when I saw you running out of the town to meet me, when I saw what it cost you to do that, when I realized that you loved me enough to suffer humiliation for my sake — and then, when you embraced and kissed me like a son — I couldn’t say any more. At that moment, the idea of doing a deal seemed a pretty bad plan. So I shut up.”
And indeed it was! Crazy idea! I almost laughed at how stupid it was! He thought he could pay me back with money that I would pay him anyway! Take my money to pay me what he owed me! And even if he’d worked as a servant all his life he could never make up for the shame and disgrace he had brought me, not to mention the pain and grief and anger at what he’d done. No, he could never repay that debt — and I didn’t want him to! I didn’t want him as a servant, but as my son again — and the only thing that could do that was what I had just done — out of my own love and grace and forgiveness.
At that point in the story, Jesus was looking directly at those religious people who kept all the rules and did the God stuff. It’s as if Jesus was saying to them, “If my Father and I chose to show costly love and compassion to the people you despise — the outcasts, sinners, lowlifes — and to love them enough to restore them and give them new life, then you ought to be celebrating, not complaining and condemning.”
And I think Jesus was saying to any of those sinners who were listening, “It doesn’t matter how far away you’ve gone from God, come back to him, come back to the Father, come back to Jesus, and you’ll receive a welcome you never expected!”
But my story isn’t over! Jesus hadn’t finished!
So there we are, in the upper rooms of my house, with crowds of people there, having a great party. I hired a local band, so there was music, drumming and dancing, lots of roast beef to share, plenty of wine too, kids playing in the courtyard downstairs with the servants. A great time! People were so amazed at what I’d done!
Any moment, I expected my older son would arrive — I knew he had been out in the fields all day. He would come in, kiss all the guests one by one in greeting, apologize for being late and in his working clothes — go off and change and come back and enjoy the party too.
But then I heard a commotion outside in the courtyard downstairs. It was my older son’s unmistakable voice — raised above the noise of the music. He had a way of shouting at the servants that I didn’t like much.
“What’s going on here?” he shouted very loudly. Everybody heard. And they all knew him too. It went quiet. I just about heard one of the lads telling him, “Your brother has come back, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has been restored and reconciled. And your father wants you to come in and celebrate with him.”
Then I heard my son exploding with anger. “No!” he yelled, “I will not go in, never! My father must be stark raving mad! No, no, no” — and everybody could hear, and felt desperately embarrassed for me. For this was a terrible insult — yet another one for me as a father from my other son, who everybody thought was such a good boy. And in my own home, but with the whole village listening!
So — what should I do? What did they expect me to do? They probably thought I should order the servants to seize him and lock him in an inner room until tomorrow, when he could be given a severe thrashing and warned never to speak of his father like that again. But I didn’t.
For I loved that boy too. Did I tell you I loved my sons?
For the second time that day, I chose the costly path of humiliation. With all eyes on me in the room, I left, I went down the stairs, I went outside to him (just like I’d gone out of the town to my younger son) — and rather than demanding an immediate apology, I pleaded with him to come in. He had insulted me terribly, yet I pleaded with him — when really he should have been the one pleading with me not to punish him then and there.
But he was raging! He was yelling! — and still everybody could hear.
“Look!” — he shouted — not even addressing me respectfully as Father — another insult. “All these years I’ve been slaving away for you like a servant, and kept all the rules you set — but you’ve never paid me a penny or gave me a goat for a party with my friends!”
I mean, why did I need to pay him, he was not a servant, but my son, and the whole estate that was left now belonged to him, when I died — or did he wish I was dead too?
It seemed that all this time, he was there in my house, but he didn’t think of himself as a son, but as a servant. He was as lost as my younger son. He was obeying me not because he loved me, but because he thought he had to, because he had to earn something from me, and now he was angry because I wasn’t giving him what he thought he deserved as the “good boy.”
“But when this son of yours comes back” (he couldn’t even bring himself to call him his brother) “who has squandered a third of this estate on prostitutes” (where did he get that from? I know my younger son had been living it up and spending my money, but I’d never heard that he’d sunk to sleeping with Gentile prostitutes. My elder son was making that up, I’m sure, to blacken the name of his own brother with such accusations — he knew everybody could hear — and ruin his chance of being accepted back into the village). “When he comes home you kill the fatted calf for him” — which wasn’t really true — the party was not in honor of my runaway son, but in honour of me — the father who had restored him and given him back his life. I had called the whole village to accept and celebrate what I had done, forgiven him, given him back his family home, reconciled him to us, restored him to life, rescued him from being lost. I had done all that for him, so of course people needed to celebrate and rejoice with me.
My eldest son’s anger was terrible, and insulting, and so wrong. But I answered him calmly, “My child,” I said, trying to soothe him, “You’ve been with me all this time, and you know that this whole estate belongs to you in the end. But it was essential for us to celebrate what happened today.
“I know that your brother doesn’t deserve my love and forgiveness — any more than you deserve all that you get from me already, or that you have to work to earn it somehow.
“It’s not about who deserves what — it’s all about my love, my grace, my choice, because I’m your father. It’s about my willingness to humiliate myself first for his sake — and now also for yours. Because that’s who I am. That’s my character as your father. And I’m sorry if my love and grace are such an embarrassment to you.”
Of course, I’m speaking for Jesus again, aren’t I? — which is OK, since he invented me to do that. He is speaking to those religious people — who had never “gone away,” had never broken the rules — and who couldn’t accept Jesus eating with people they called “sinners,” and he’s saying:
- One son went off and broke all the rules, and rejected the love and authority of his father.
- The other son stayed inside and kept all the rules, but he behaved like a slave and never really enjoyed a relationship of love with his father.
Both sons were lost! One was lost far away, the other was lost right here in his home.
But one has come back now, and I have restored him, with costly self-humbling love, bearing the shame and disgrace that should have been his. I have reconciled him to myself, and that is why I am eating with him now — and if you won’t come and eat with him, then you can’t eat with me and I can’t eat with you.
I wish I could go on. I wish I could give you a happy ending to my story. I wish I could say — “So the older brother came in, was reconciled to his brother and his father, they had a great party, and all lived happily ever after.” But I can’t, because Jesus didn’t.
Jesus didn’t end his story — he just stopped. Leaving me, the father, standing there waiting and wondering what my other son will do. And of course, Jesus was forcing those religious people to decide what they were going to do, how they would end the story for themselves.
Well, I have to go soon, now the story has stopped, but before I do, maybe this is what Jesus wanted me to say.
Here we all are in God’s house. And we’re all very different.
Maybe there are some who have gone far away. You just came into church this evening for some reason you don’t understand. Maybe you’ve broken a lot of rules. Maybe you’ve been living as if God were dead. Maybe you’ve wasted a lot of your life on stuff that still leaves you empty and hungry.
To you Jesus says, “Come back! Turn round. Repent. Know that the moment you turn to God, you’ll find God running toward you with open arms and a kiss of welcome — your heavenly father, and his own Son who bore your sin and suffered in your place, so you can be reconciled to God and become part of his family, a child of God.”
Maybe there are some, perhaps more of us, who never left. We kept all the rules. We did all the God stuff, but every now and then we get so angry because God isn’t paying you what you think you deserve (life gets so tough and God doesn’t cut you a fair deal); whereas some of these people who don’t deserve it are having a party with God, it seems! It looks like you’re part of the family, and yet you are resentful and angry inside, thinking of God as an unfair employer, not as your loving Father.
To you Jesus says, “Come in! Like the older son should have done. Stop trying to earn or deserve what you never can. God’s love and grace are free, and they are for you, if you will join the Father’s party, and welcome those whom he welcomes and eat with those he eats with.”
Well, I have to go. The story’s told. But I’ll be back. I’ll come to life in your mind whenever you hear that story told again, and in the meantime, I hope you’ll understand why Jesus invented me, and listen to what he said, what I said.
The Rev. Dr. Chris Wright is international ministries director of the Langham Partnership International.