I feel rather certain that the father in this story is intended to be an image of God. Of course, the point of emphasis has to do with the attitude and actions of the father, not the maleness of the father. God is not male or female. God is not a person the way we are persons though God is able to relate to each of us personally. God is Spirit. Gender is irrelevant. The question is: As God’s sons and daughters how are we called to be like God, whether we use a father image or a mother image or some other image? And that question, unlike many questions that we ask about God, has an answer that is really pretty simple: the most important way we are called to be like God is in the way we love others.
We can become more like God in the way we love, first, by becoming more inclusive in our acceptance and compassion for others. Bibles that list headings before segments and units of text generally call this section the parable of the prodigal son. Unfortunately, that sometimes influences how we read the story, and we may miss the wider message of the parable. This story is not just about a rebellious son who comes home; it’s about two sons and how much the father loves both sons and the extent to which the father will go to draw both sons into a loving relationship within the household.
What is important not to miss is that father loves both his sons equally. We usually emphasize his love for the son who returns home, but the father loves the elder son who refuses to join the party as much as he does the younger son who has returned.
The older son is angry and bitter and upset that the father is displaying such love toward the younger son who treated the father with disdain. The older son has been obedient and faithful. He says to the father, “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. But when this son of yours [did you catch the separation, the distancing] came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes you killed the fatted calf for him.”
Then the father responds, “Son [He calls him son. Despite his refusal to join the party, he is the father’s son.] you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours [can you sense and feel how inclusive and sweeping that declaration of belonging and acceptance is]. “We had to celebrate and rejoice” says the father, “because this brother of yours [he could have said “son of mine,” but he says “this brother of yours” for they are all in this together, they all belong, they are one family] was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
Luke points out in his introduction that the Pharisees and scribes were upset with Jesus because of the way he welcomed to table fellowship tax collectors and sinners. Clearly from Luke’s point of view the elder son represents the critical religious leaders and the younger son the tax collectors and sinners. We should not make the mistake of thinking that because Jesus confronted, challenged, and critiqued many of the Pharisees and scribes that he did not love them or view them as God’s children. In fact, on three different occasions in the Gospel of Luke we find Jesus eating with Pharisees. We should never assume that because Jesus had a deep passion for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed that Jesus didn’t care about the well-to-do or the religious leaders. Jesus loved the oppressor as well as the oppressed, and instructed his disciples to do the same. Love your enemies, he taught, pray for them and do good to them. The reason, says Jesus is because God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” “Be merciful [or compassionate],” says Jesus, “just as your Father [or Mother] is merciful [compasstionate] (see Lk. 6:27-36).
As you well know, before Nelson Mandela became president in South African there was an oppressive system of apartheid in place that gave white people huge socioeconomic and political advantages denied to blacks. In Mandela’s early days the white employees who were part of the past administration were anxious, sure that they would be swept aside in favor of those who never had a chance before.
A few weeks after his inauguration Mandela met with his staff. The staff representative, after complementing him on his victory said, “Mr. President, I do not know how to put this. Our reason for requesting this meeting is simply to know why you are torturing us.” Mandela was shocked. He said, “Wait a minute. Did I hear you say that I am torturing you.” He said, “I clearly understand the meaning of the word ‘torture’, and it is a word I hope will never be used to describe how I relate to other human beings.”
The staff representative said, “I am sorry, Mr. President, may I say it again? All of us here, Sir, know that our jobs in here have to be terminated. What is troubling us is that since you took over you have not said anything to us.”
Mandela said, “Help me to understand. What were you expecting me to do?” The staff representative replied, “Mr. President we understand very well why you should have your own people around you. All we want to know is when the changes will be effected?”
With a huge smile on his face, Mandela looked around and cast his eye on everyone in the room. Then he said. “But you are my people. Since I came into this office, everything has been managed extremely well. I am pleased with the way you are working. Unless you do not want to work with me, all I can say is that I find you very supportive and competent in your role. Maybe you would like me to request formally, ‘May I work with you.’” There was total silence. They were all stunned. Then he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, since we know that silence means consent, you will excuse me because I have to attend to my next appointment.” With that Mandela walked out of the room.
Whether you are a sinner or a Pharisee, the prodigal or the angry brother, Christian or Jew or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or something else, American or Asian or Syrian or whoever, God says “You are all my people.” The more we realize our sense of belonging and connection to everyone else, that we all constitute God’s household, then the more we will be empowered and energized to love all people. And the more inclusive we become in our love of others, the more we love like God.
Second, we become more loving like God when we become more forgiving of the faults and offenses of others (and that includes ourselves). This story teaches something very important about forgiveness. The father’s disposition and commitment to forgiveness is unconditional, even though the capacity of each son to receive forgiveness is conditioned upon his response. God forgives unconditionally, but our experience of God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon our response to God’s forgiveness. We have to receive the gift. That’s just the way forgiveness works. And this is why we pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.” Forgiveness always flows in two directions at once.
In the story when the father sees the son from a distance returning home, he runs to his son, embraces him, and kisses him before the son says a single word. The father does not wait till the son confesses or repents before he envelops him in love. The father has clearly already forgiven. And the story seems to suggest that the younger son doesn’t really have a deep change of heart until he experiences the unconditional acceptance and forgiveness of the Father.
The son who has taken his inheritance and squandered it finds himself in a place of desperation. The text says, “he came to himself” [NIV, “came to his senses”] “It doesn’t say he was sorrowful for the way he disrespected, disgraced, and demeaned the father. He realized he was in desperate straights and that the hired servants/employees in his Father’s house had it much better off than he did. So he makes a decision. He comes to his senses. He says, “I will confess that I have sinned, that I am no longer worthy to be called his son, and ask him to treat me like one of his hired hands.” Can you sense that there is no deep change of heart here? The son is basically looking for a way out of his desperate circumstances and he knows that being a hired hand in the household of his father would be a much better place than where he is?”
But when the father sees him coming, he runs to him filled with compassion and joy and welcomes him home, showering him with love. The father’s love is outpoured before the son even has an opportunity to say anything. In response to the father’s unconditional forgiveness and lavish display of love the son says simply, “I have sinned and am unworthy to be called your son.” He doesn’t say, “treat me like one of your hired hands,” as he intended. No more bargaining, you see. No more manipulating. He casts himself on the mercy of the Father. I get the impression that the son is stunned by the Father’s unconditional forgiveness and welcome.
When the returning son says, “I am unworthy to be called your son” the father in essence says, “Nonsense.” And the text says that the father quickly put a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, and draped him in his best robe, all of which functioned as a visible expression of his sonship and how glad the father was to have him home. Whenever I hear someone say we are all unworthy sinners I like to respond by saying, “It’s true we are all sinners, but from God’s point of view not a single one of us is unworthy. On the contrary, we are worthy of God’s magnanimous love because we are God’s daughters and sons. Would you ever say to a son or daughter, “You are unworthy of my love?” Of course not. And neither will God.
And with regard to the older son who is bitter and angry and refuses to celebrate with the family the father goes out to him. There is no condemnation. Just love and inclusion and forgiveness: “All that is mine is yours, come join the party.”
Lastly, if we are to become more loving like God, we will become more vulnerable, more willing and able to confess our faults and weaknesses to others, and risk rejection and security for the sake of others. The father is not afraid to express his deep feelings of love and pain. The father breaks all protocol and runs to the returning son, embracing him and kissing him in a fit of joy. The father does not care what others think of his position or honor or reputation. He goes out to the angry son and begs him, pleads with him [the father is not above begging] to come home and join the celebration. The father is open and vulnerable.
Anyone who loves deeply will be hurt deeply. But those who know in their gut, in their core being that they are loved with an unconditional love by God do not fear such hurt. The experience of God’s unconditional love gives us the courage to be vulnerable, to take risks, to be open and honest and express our deep feelings.
Paul Tournier was a Swedish physician who became widely known for his gift of healing – not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. He points to the time he was practicing as an internist in Geneva as the turning point in his career. Being a religious man he began attending a small meeting in a home where people were simply being themselves, sharing deeply with one another their hurts, joys, failures, and sins. He claims that it was in this context of close community that he was spiritually transformed. When he returned to his medical practice, he found people opening up to him. Instead of talking exclusively about their physical symptoms, they began to talk about their lives. The reason they were able to open themselves up to him, is because he had become a remarkably open person.
I have no doubt that Jesus was a very transparent and open person with his disciples. In John’s Gospel Jesus says to his disciples, “I do not call you servants, I call you my friends, because everything I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Jesus was open and transparent and shared with the disciples out of his own experience.
Obviously, we must use discretion and wisdom in our sharing with others, but the more we are secure in God’s deep and permanent love for us, the more we are free to risk and be vulnerable in our friendships with others.
Henri Nouwen points out that there is a self-emptying to this process of loving like God. He writes, “There is a dreadful emptiness in this spiritual fatherhood. No power, no success, no popularity, no easy satisfaction. But that same dreadful emptiness is also the place of true freedom. It is the place where there is ‘nothing left to lose,’ where love has no strings attached, and where real spiritual strength is found.”
The more we are able to love like God the more we are able to let go of our false selves, our littles selves in order to clothe ourselves with the Christ self, and the more we will be able to see the worth and value of all people, the more we will be able to forgive others without strings attached, and the more we will be able to share our sorrows and joys with each other.
Our gracious God, you are the perfect lover. We will never love perfectly. We all love with mixed motives. Our love will always be flawed in some way. We will never reach perfection. But we can grow. We can become more like you in the way we love one another. But the pressures to conform to our culture are great. It seems today that a lot of Christians are becoming more confined and narrow in the way they love, rather than becoming more inclusive. And we all struggle with unconditional forgiveness and getting past our fears and insecurities enough to be vulnerable and transparent. But your love can move us forward. Your love can take away our prejudice, our desire to get even, our resentment and bitterness, our fears and anxieties and free us to become more like you. May it be so. Amen.