The Prodigal Father - Luke 15:11-32

The Prodigal Father
Luke 15:11-32
June 17, 2012
Rev. William J. Kemp

I can't remember if it was in college or seminary, but one of the first things I learned about the Bible is that, contrary to common understanding, it is not a story about humanity searching for God.  Rather, it is a story about God searching for us. 
Yes there are many calls in the Bible for us to seek out God: 

"Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near."[i] 

"Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you."[ii]

The fact remains, however, if all the seeking were left up to us, we and our Creator God would pass each other like the proverbial two ships in the night.   When reading the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, there are times when you can feel God's frustration with us. 

"I've made myself available to those who haven't bothered to ask.  I'm here, ready to be found by those who haven't bothered to look.  I kept saying 'I'm here, I'm right here' to a nation that ignored me.  I reached out day after day to a people who turned their backs on me, people who make wrong turns, who insist on doing things their own way.  They get on my nerves, are rude to my face day after day, make up their own kitchen religion, a potluck religious stew."[iii] 

Totally exasperated by Israel's shepherd-leaders because taking care of themselves was a higher priority than taking care of God's people, the Lord speaks through Ezekiel, "From now on, I myself am the shepherd.  I'm going looking for them ... I'll go after the lost, I'll collect the strays, I'll doctor the injured, I'll build up the weak ones and oversee the strong ones so they're not exploited."[iv] 

The parable which is traditionally called The Parable of the Prodigal Son is preceded by two shorter parables, one about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep and searches for one lost sheep, until he finds it; and the other about a woman who turns her house upside down looking for a lost coin, until she finds it!   And when the lost sheep and coin are found, there is unbelievable joy in heaven.  God is like that.  

That God should seek us is a major theme of the Bible.  It is made clear almost on the first page.   We hear the Lord pass in the rustling grass,[v] calling out to each one of us, wherever we are:  "Adam!  Adam!  Adam, where are you?"  We reply:  "I heard you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked.  And I hid."[vi]   That's so like us, hiding from God, yea, running away from God.
Once I grasped this as a major theme of the Bible, a hymn I remember from growing up in the church suddenly made sense: 

I sought the Lord and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him seeking me
It was not I that found O Savior true,
No, I was found of Thee.[vii]

It's not a very catchy tune.   Even though the tune is called Peace, which should endear it to this congregation, it doesn't compare to the all-time favorite:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind but now I see.[viii]

Note the passive voice!  The point is that God initiates our relationship. “This is love:  it is not that we loved God but that [God] loved us..."[ix] It’s not that we find, but that we have been found.  "Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee," claimed St. Augustine.  I also believe there is an even greater truth when you invert that quote:  "God's heart is restless till we find our rest, our home, in God."

Love caused Your incarnation,
Love brought You down to me;
Your thirst for my salvation
Procured my liberty.[x]

That's how one of our Advent hymns puts it.   Not only do our souls thirst for God,[xi] God thirsts for us!   How can we miss?

Which brings us to The Prodigal Father.   I like identifying the parable that way because Jesus introduces it by saying, "There was a man who had two sons."  The Father clearly has the lead role in this story.  Also, not only is the younger son a prodigal (wasteful, extravagant), so is the elder son and so is the Father a prodigal (generous to a fault, extravagant, spendthrift). 

Sometimes when burdened by life's persistent questions, people will say, "When I get to heaven, I have a lot of questions for God..."   When I get to heaven I'm going to ask, "When you consider the human race and how we have thumbed our noses in your face and how we have defaced this beautiful world you gave us to care for, why have you wasted your time and your very self on us?  Why didn't you just wash your hands of us, as Pilate did of Jesus?  I suspect God's answer might be heard in the words of Hosea:  "How can I give you up ... My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender ... I won't act on the heat of my anger ... for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst..."[xii]

So the Father in the parable does not greet the younger son who wasted his inheritance on wild living with these words:  "You good for nothing blankety blank.  How dare you spend your money like you did.  How dare you ask for your inheritance, which really means you wished I were dead!  Don't come around here looking for forgiveness."  Instead, the Father leaves the house and runs down the path, makes a fool of himself in view of the neighbors, embraces his son and orders his staff to prepare for a welcome home party that makes Nik Wallenda's celebration pale in comparison.

Nor does the Father turn to his elder son and say:  "You self-righteous prig!  All this time I thought you served me out of love, but it was only out of a sense of duty.  You look down your nose at everyone who doesn't see things as you do.  You have no sense of joy.  And why don't you?!  The farm has been deeded over to you.  I can't give you anything more me than I already have."  Instead, the Father leaves the party to seek out the elder son, who was just as much a lost soul as his brother, and begged him to swallow his pride and to come inside, to join the party and discover how life was meant to be.

That's just how thirsty God is for us and how persistent is God's pursuit of us.   David Goldman's herculean effort to be reunited with his son, Sean, reflects such thirst and persistence.  The story unfolded nationally about two years ago.

At the age of 4 Sean was abducted by his mother and taken to her native Brazil where she remarried and tried to erase the Goldman lineage from her son.  Thinking that his wife and son were on a short visit to be with her family, David received a phone call to say that they arrived safely and everything was fine.   Then David received a second phone call, on Father’s Day no less, saying that their life together was over.  Even though she admitted that David was a great father for Sean, she said she met someone else and was going to begin a new life in Brazil and would keep Sean with her.

Time does not allow more details, but if you are interested, you can Google the story.  When Bruna died while giving birth to another child, her family still laid claim to Sean and tried all sorts of legal shenanigans to keep him there.  As you might expect, the whole experience left David Goldman emotionally and financially drained.  But David never gave up and he succeeded in bringing Sean back home to New Jersey just in time for Christmas 2009.

A few weeks ago, a month before Sean's 12th birthday, Meredith Viera interviewed him on Dateline.[xiii]  During the five years he lived in Brazil, Sean said he was confused.  "Where's my dad?" he wondered, often to himself, lest he make his Brazilian family angry at him.   Yet he never forgot his dad.  Meredith talked to him about the nice life he had in Brazil (the family was quite wealthy) but Sean replied, "but I didn't have my Dad."   When he and his father finally were allowed to meet, he admitted wondering where his Dad had been for four years.  He never knew his dad was looking for him.    "How did you feel when you saw your Dad?" Meredith asked.  "Just joy and happiness."  If only he knew that his dad was looking for him, perhaps he would have been less anxious during those five years he had to wait.

I deliver Meals on Wheels once a week.  One of my clients has had a particularly hard life.  She's quite infirm and gets out of her chair only with great difficulty.  She is divorced and finances are always an issue.   She has two daughters.  One lives in the area but they often don't get along.  The other lives up north.   She also lost a 3-month-old and a 10-year-old at some earlier time in her life. 

A couple of weeks ago she told me that her daughter in the north was diagnosed with breast cancer.   That was not good news, but cancer is not necessarily the death sentence that it once was.  Last week, however, she told me that the bad got worse and the prognosis for her daughter was about a year and a half at best.  Life sure has dumped on this woman. 

I was caught off-guard, however, by what she expressed as her major concern.  "I don't think my daughter has found the Lord," she said.  "I know where my younger children are because they died before the age of responsibility, but I'm not so sure about my daughter."

Why, I thought to myself, of all the burdens she had to carry, why did religion have to be one of them?   She needed a word from Jesus:  "Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."[xiv]   If only she could know that God was on the lookout for her daughter.  Since there were 17 hot meals in the trunk waiting to be delivered, I only had time to say, "I believe God will never stop looking for your daughter until he finds her, if not in this life, then surely in the next."

One of the most insightful meditations on any passage of scripture is Henri Nouwen's, Return of the Prodigal Son:  A Story of Homecoming.   His reflections were motivated by his study of Rembrandt's painting of the same name at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.  The book was published twenty years ago and tells a most poignant spiritual journey.   “Here is the God I want to believe in,” says Nouwen,

a Father who, from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms droop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders. His only desire is to bless.[xv]

Nouwen emphasizes that this is no story of cheap grace or easy forgiveness. 

What I am called to make true is that whether I am the younger or the elder son, I am the child of my compassionate Father.  I am an heir ... Indeed, as child and heir I am to become successor.  I am destined to step into my Father's place and offer to others the same compassion that he has offered me.  The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father.[xvi]

We are called "to be merciful, just as our Father is merciful."[xvii]  That's no call for cheap grace and easy forgiveness, but neither is it a turn to burdensome religion with all its infinite rules and regulations, doctrines and dogmas.  It is clearly a call to life, "a more and better life than [we] ever dreamed of." [xviii]

[i]           Isaiah 55:6
[ii]           Matthew 7:7
[iii]          Isaiah 65:1-3, The Message
[iv]          Portions of Ezekiel 34:11-16, The Message
[v]           See the hymn, This Is My Father's World
[vi]          Genesis 3:10, The Message
[vii]         Author unknown; Tune:  Peace
[viii]         Hymn #280, The Presbyterian Hymnal, 1990
[ix]          1 John 4:10
[x]           Paul Gerhardt, 1653; Hymn #11, The Presbyterian Hymnal, 1990
[xi]          See Psalm 42
[xii]         See Hosea 11, Common English Bible
[xiii]         April 27, 2012
[xiv]         Matthew 11:28
[xv]          Henry J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, (Doubleday,  1992), p. 95-96.
[xvi]         Ibid. p. 123
[xvii]        Luke 6:36
[xviii]       John 10:10, see The Message