The Day God Ran

I must admit that I have always been fascinated with the 'Parable of the Prodigal Son' and would focus on the black sheep of the family leaving home and receiving the forgiveness of the Father. My fixation on the prodigal was such that I virtually ignored the other characters of the story--especially the elder brother. In this story there has always been a strong, vibrant current in Christianity which underlies the mercy of God and God's joy at a sinner's repentance and more so in the last couple of generations has this current been emphasized. In line with this conscious emphasis, attention has turned to the actions and attitude of the father and results in the question, "Is it not true that the merciful father is the major character of the story?" Indeed, from a literary point of view, the father seems to be the one who links the other two characters of this story and holds everything together. Without the father, there is no forgiveness or banquet or joy. And without the premise of the father's expression of joy over his returned son, there would be no explanation for the reactions of the elder son and the sublime answers to him.

As we continue our journey on this Fourth Sunday in Lent, I would like to see the Father as depicted in this parable as God and the active role God plays in the grace God offers to all of us, the prodigal longing to come home.

The parable begins with the son holding his hand out, demanding (not asking) that he get his share of inheritance right now, up front. A kid with his hand out isn't an unusual picture, as any parent knows; but in this case it's a particularly shocking one giving the cultural conventions of the time. Jewish law dictated that when the father passed away, the eldest son would get two-thirds of the estate ("a double portion") and the next youngest son one-third. But as Jesus tells it, Dad was still alive and well. So the younger son commits an egregious offense by basically saying, "Pop, I wish you were already dead. Forget the family business and, for that matter, the whole family. I'm outta here."

After he offends his loving Father, this suddenly wealthy kid begins to live it up in some foreign (Gentile) country. There he squanders all the property by living a wild and undisciplined lifestyle. But after he's blown it all and is flat broke, he hires himself out to a Gentile pig farmer, which is about as un-Jewish as he can get. Pigs were an abomination to Jews (Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8), and people who cared for swine were cursed. The picture of a young man, hungry and destitute, sitting in the filth of a pigsty envying the slop of those who were horking down would have qualified this man as below the depths of any dignity.

But in the midst of the pigsty, in the ditch of life is also a place of revelation. Just as Lutherans found, in the Theology of the Cross, and in the "scandal of the cross, God reveals His greatest glory." In the midst of piles of pig poo, the boy "came to himself" and decided to go home. This is a striking expression in verse 17 that puts the state of rebellion against God as a kind of madness. It is to me a wonderful stroke of art, to represent the beginning of repentance, even if motivated more by pragmatism, as the return of sound consciousness. Just as Plato affirms, that redemption is the coming of one's self to admitting that we are sinners in need of returning to our Father's house. The prodigal was described in the Merchant of Venice, I, ii as "When he is best, he is a little worse than a man; and when he is worst, he is little better than a beast." This is paraphrased by William Shakespeare as "insanity" in sin that seems to paralyze the image of God within us and liberate the "animal" inside. Thank God that he came to himself and began the process of repenting by realizing and accepting that the love of his father and returning home was far better than "freedom" in the far country. It is God's goodness, not just humanity's badness that leads us to repentance (Rom 2:4).

This Prodigal reminds me of the story of a kite that was flying and the kite began to talk to itself. The kite said, "If only I could get rid of this string. If the string wasn't holding me back, then I could fly. I could fly above the clouds. I could fly as high as I wanted to. If I could get rid of this string, there would be nothing holding me back. I'm limited by this string." One day the kite got its wish. The string broke and the kite came crashing down. What the kite did not realize was the same string that kept it down kept it up. Cutting the string did not make it freer. The Prodigal realized in the pigpen that when we cut the string of dependence upon God in search of more pleasure, the same string that seems to hold you down also keeps you flying high. God wants us to trust him and let God hold the string. Staying connected to God keeps us from falling.

This young man made up his mind that he was going back to the Father, who is God. Just as he had left the Father in the beginning, now he leaves everything else behind to go back home. So he leaves the far country. He leaves the far country and formulates a bright new plan of his own for faking out a quasi-life for himself: a life as a hired hand. He thought his sonship was lost but there is a possibility that maybe the old man will be senile enough to make a deal. And I can imagine that, as he was traveling back to his father's house, the closer he got to familiar territory, his pace slowed down so that at a point he even hesitated. He wondered if he was making a right decision; he wondered how his resolve to become his Father's servant sounded. And as he got closer and closer and could see the Father's house from a distance, his heart was pounding, his hands were sweating profusely. The Bible tells us that the Father simply sees the corpse of a son coming down the road, even with nearsighted vision, saw the glimpse of his son. And although he didn't see the full image of him approaching, he knew by his walk that it was his own. Then the Parable tells us that the Father who is God ran to meet his son and because of this, on this Fourth Sunday of Lent, I am glad that God ran because it informs us that God is willing to meet the Prodigal, us, where we are. The young man had the burden of sin and guilt upon him, and the load was so heavy for him to carry, but the Father shows us that it is in these times that God is willing to meet us in our situations of despair. Consistent with the Lutheran theology, God running to meet the prodigal son shows us that when we try to obtain our salvation and right standing with God through works righteousness, we need a heavenly Father who meets us and dwells with us in our pain, in our anguish. God meets us in overcoming our troubles, to heal the deepest of wounds, to endure the greatest of hardships for our sake. God is our hope for the hopeless. God is our strength when we are weak. I can imagine that the Prodigal, as he was approaching his Father's house and saw him running, thought, "I will say of the Lord, He is my Refuge and my fortress; my God, in Him I will trust." (Psalm 91:2)

God is nothing like that! The Day that God Ran speaks of his omnipotence (all powerful), omniscience (all knowing), and omnipresence (present everywhere). God sees all, God knows all, God is everywhere, and He can do everything. God knows where we are, what we are, who we are, and He knows what we need. We do not have to reach a certain level or place to encounter God, for God meets us where we are. Just as the Prodigal, who left home by asking his Father to 'give me'  is now at the beck and call of the Father in displaying submission to his will and says 'make me.' He was willing to be a servant! He says, "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son." This tells us that repentance involves not the admission of guilt or the acknowledgment of fault but the confession of death.

Let me quote from Robert Farrar Capon in regards to the nature of confession. "Confession is not a medicine leading to recovery. If we could recover-if we could say that beginning tomorrow or the week after next we would be well again-why then, all we would need to do would be to apologize not confess. But we never recover. We die. And if we live again, it is not because the old parts of our life are jiggled back in line, but because, without waiting for realignment, some wholly other life takes us residence in our death. Grace does not do things tit-for-tat; it acts finally and fully from the start." (Between Noon and Three {San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982), p.77). Of course, the father did not ask him to "earn" his forgiveness, because no amount of good works can save us from our sins. This should be our posture in this Lenten season. As Psalm 51:1 tells us, "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your loving kindness; according to the multitude of your tender mercies." In the far country, the prodigal learned the meaning of misery, but back home he discovered the meaning of mercy. Every confession a Christian makes bears witness to this, because every confession, public or private, specific or general, is made and given subsequent to the one baptism we receive for the forgiveness of sins. We are forgiven in baptism not only for the sins committed before baptism but for a whole lifetime of sins yet to come.

The Day that God Ran also informs us that God is willing to suffer for our sake--those who are prodigals living in the far country. Most interpreters of verses 20-24 depict the Father's attitude as that of our Heavenly Father toward sinners in answering the accusations of the scribes and Pharisees. I believe that the Father--our God--rejoiced in seeing his son coming back. God who is rich in mercy and grace, and great in his love toward them (Eph. 2:1-10) welcomes us back, but this is made possible because of the sacrifice of His Son (God's self) on the cross.

In Eastern culture, old men do not run; yet the father ran to meet his son. Why? One obvious reason was his love for him and his desire to show that love. But there is something else involved. This wayward son had brought disgrace to his family and village and according to Deuteronomy 21:18-21, he should have been stoned to death. If the neighbors had started to stone him, they would have hit the father who was embracing him! What a picture of the length of the Father's love to reveal the love of the Prodigal in affirming that, without the sacrifice of the cross...His cross, there would be no altar of mercy, no place of restitution, no fountain of cleansing in being reminded of our baptism, no river of life and no source of provision. The willing sacrifice of the Father to be stoned by the neighbors reveals to us that God loves us. That God is willing to turn the emblem of shame, even for God's own self through Jesus, to also be the cup of salvation found in the Eucharist; willing to turn a symbol of guilt to be the channel of grace; to turn an icon of madness to be a symbol of mercy; the sign of condemnation being subject to the law and being in Bondage of the Will as a way to receive justification by God's grace that can only come through sacrifice and suffering. The Father's being an active and sole means of grace allowed the Prodigal to be brought home and into right relationship with the Father (God).

I am glad on this Fourth Sunday in Lent there was a day that God ran to meet us--all of humanity sinking in the despair of guilt and shame--straight from the pigpens of life. Our heavenly Father restores us in meeting us where we are through love and in sacrifice.  It shows the kind of celebration that God has when wayward sinners come home--by changing their clothing from rags to the finest robes. The main point of this parable is to remind us all of the embarrassing lengths to which God goes, in the person of Jesus, even running to meet the prodigal son to make that homecoming a reality.

Our challenge is to be like that Father, our God, who ran and opened His arms to the lost, those who are bullied, those who are discriminated against for their sexual orientation, those who are seekers and even doubters of the faith. It is the mission of the church to open its doors to all the lost souls in this life. In fact, just opening the doors is not enough. The God who runs to meet our needs teaches us that we must be willing to race out to the sidewalk, into the neighborhoods, and up to closed doors, proclaiming the promise of forgiveness and extending embraces of welcome and acceptance. Like the waiting father in this week's parable, the church, filled with Christ's love and Christ's joy, just can't sit still and wait for the slow, hesitant approach of lost ones. Like that prodigal son's father, it is our mission, our mandate to "jump with joy" at the sight of the lost stragglers journeying slowly in our direction. Help them get the picture that, in Christ, their failure isn't final or fatal.