Some Bible stories ring so true that the protagonist, the object or the lesson becomes part of our everyday language. Most states have a Good Samaritan law to protect people who are trying to offer aid to someone in immediate need. Small but sacrificial gifts are still known as a widow’s mite. And everyone knows – or has been – the prodigal son. That’s the son who had it all, wanted more and wasted what he had. It’s the child that breaks the parent’s heart and sees life sink to a place they never could have imagined, but their family did. That’s the son who, in time, will want to come home, but is unsure if he can. We all have seen that sort of son. Some of us have lived it.
Oddly enough, the real primary character of the story is not the wayward child. He is more interesting perhaps and maybe has a more sordid, emotionally engaging saga. But the parable Jesus taught was not about him. It was about his dad. We all wish we had a father like that, and thankfully, some did. We all want to be a parent like that, but find it is not as easy as it looks. Not by a long shot. Our own stories, hurts, our woes and weakness inevitably play out on the stage of parenthood. And our best imitation falls far short of the standard set by the father in this story. Or by the one of the One who told it.
Of course, the point of the story was that God is like that dad, waiting for the penitent child to receive. The other encouraging implication is that, when we try to be like our heavenly father, we can be a better version of the earthly variety. And our kids will stand a better chance of being the person and parent that you and God both long for them to be.
One of the hardest parts of being a father, at least for me, is measuring my words and responses when my emotions are running high. It is easy to say the wrong thing, or the right thing wrongly, in moments like that. I’m the father of two adult sons, and Pop to their three uniquely marvelous girls. For God’s sake, I want nothing more than to get it right, for their sake too. And yes, at some level for mine as well … How did he do it? How did he manage to speak perfectly into imperfect moments with a lot riding on it? For a hint, let’s look at what the father in the story really said.
There are a handful of words and actions that emanate from this divine daddy. Four stand out. First, he said what the son was trying to prove. “You are free.” Notice he didn’t say “You are ready.” Perhaps the hardest part of parenting is having said the former before we can affirm the latter. Thankfully for this son, and all our ours, that fitful beginning did not lock in an irreversible ending. And that’s because of what the old man said next.
“You are loved.” He longed for his return and never gave up heart or hope for the boy he raised. He did not make his love conditioned on lack of foolish behavior. Or the presence of some performance or achievement that makes the dad feel better about himself. God is way better than that. He loves his children no matter what. Would to Him that we should all love like that.
“You are forgiven” is a recognizable theme. But my favorite is perhaps the one that follows. “You are enjoyed.” The wayward one came home, and love and forgiveness threw a party for all to attend. I’ve released a couple of children – “ready or not here they come.” And I’ve loved and forgiven them as, gratefully, both my fathers have me. But I find myself now in the season of life when I want more than anything to marinade in a relationship marked by joy. There are too few models for that out there. Some daddies drift away. Some pass away. Some can’t find their way past the judgment born of unmet expectations. Some have been so scarred by life that they just don’t know how.
But tucked away in the middle of the Gospel of Luke is a story to remind us that this kind of relationship is by God, possible. And for that matter, with God as well. You are free, loved, and forgiven.
And in the best of all situations, these movements make their way to their final and ongoing resting place; joy. We all want to have fathers capable of that. And, man, how we men long to live in and leave that kind of paternal legacy. If we do, know this. It will be born of the comfort, hope, and direction we find in the one true father, who is, in his eternal essence, always like that. And wants us to be as well.