8 – The Prodigal Father
“So he divided his property between them.”
As I have read and re-read the story of the father who loves both his sons, I need to revisit the phrase that Helmut Thielicke uses. I think it is only partly right, when he calls the primary character in this story, “The Waiting Father.” He had me convinced for years. The story is about the father. But it was the word “waiting” that began to bother me.
There is no doubt that the Father is waiting at home, instead of running after the runaway. But that is only one of the images that this parable leaves us with. For in other parts of this account we see him in a whirl of activity as he runs and calls out instructions, and goes out of his way to help both sons come home.
I have chosen another name for this greatest of all stories, but I doubt that it will get wide usage. I would like to call it, “The Parable of the Prodigal Father.” Not, prodigal, with an apostrophe “s”, the Prodigal’s Father, but instead, “The Prodigal Father.” For the father is certainly more prodigal than the older son is; and he is even more prodigal than the younger son.
I checked with the Oxford English Dictionary just to check out my suspicions. I was right. The parable is mis-named. The word “prodigal” means to spend lavishly! To give away extravagant amounts. A reckless abandonment of wealth. It is to be generous almost to a fault.
Now the son was prodigal in the spending of his new-gained wealth. He said, “Easy come, easy go.” The text says, “He squandered his wealth in loose living.” But that is his only moment of prodigality. The rest of the story he is a taker and not a giver, a consumer not a benefactor.
The Giving Away of his wealth
But the father is the ultimate prodigal. The second sentence of this story reveals that immediately. The younger son says “gimme” and in the next breath the father divides his wealth between his two sons. In one fell swoop he gives away everything. He doesn’t simply give one part to the departing son, and retain the rest for himself, but he divides his wealth between them both. That is lavish prodigality.
Here is no miser responding with the words, “Over my dead body! When I’m gone you can have your share, but until then, not a chance.” The father is a giver!
The Treatment of his servants
Later on the wandering son is in the pigpen, thinking about home. What image comes to mind? “How many of my Father’s hired hands have food enough and to spare.” This father has been generous, not only to his sons, but also to his employees.
In those days hirelings eked out a minimal existence with long hours and short wages. The servant class always lived on the borders of starvation, just like the profligate in the pigpen. But in the father’s house we have an employer who pays more than minimum wage. The workers have enough and to spare. The father is the extravagant one.
But the prodigality of the father is not finished. He is extravagant emotionally. He sees his son coming over the brow of the hill. What does he do? I know what might tempt some of us.
Seeing him come back, we go to the study, sit in the big chair, bring out the account books, the symbols of authority, and wait for him to enter. A servant shows him into the study. We wait for the wanderer to speak. We let a stony silence envelop him. We watch him sweat as he tries to find the words. Finally we speak. “Well son, nice of you to come home and visit your family. Plan to stay long?”
Not this Father! He is no poker player concealing his feelings. There is no ambiguity about how he feels about the returning son. He runs for all he is worth, tears of joy coursing down his face, as he grabs his son and hugs him and kisses him and kisses him again. The son tries to speak words of apology, but the father cuts him off. Words can come later. Right now he just wants to touch him, hold him, squeeze him, make sure it’s not a dream. The father is a giver. Here is no prosecuting attorney of a parent, but a father filled with joyful relief.
And the prodigality is only just begun. Before the returnee can catch his breath and wipe his eyes, the father is on the spend again. Bring a robe – put it on him! A ring for his hand! Shoes for his feet! Kill the calf! Get ready for a feast!
Who knows what the cost was to the farming operation when the wanderer took his portion of the wealth? He had taken the money, and abandoned his share of the workload. Perhaps they had had to be careful about expenditures. Maybe that’s why the older brother had not felt free to throw a party for his friends. But when the lost one comes home, forget the budget, forget frugality, forget fiscal responsibility. Order in the caterers, hire the orchestra, push aside the furniture and let us dance and sing! It is the father who is the prodigal.
Many have noted that the parables of Jesus have a sharp edge. Jesus is aiming these words at part of his audience who are suspicious of any kind of prodigality. Jesus is saying to those Scribes and Pharisees, “You misunderstand God. You have made him into a judge with clenched fists, instead of a father with open hands and open arms. You have made God into a miser, who gives forgiveness with reluctance, and then only to those who grovel low enough and apologize profusely enough.” But Jesus is saying, “That is not God. God is the prodigal who gives and gives and gives again. He is the God who gives full measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.” Jesus knows that God is not at all like the God that the renegade prophet, Jonah, preferred. Jonah thought that God was way too soft on sinners. (Jonah 4:1-4) The religioso of Jesus’ day felt exactly the same! They needed to hear this story.
There is a second audience, however, that needed this word about God. Notice how these parables are introduced. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to hear him.” To those people Jesus is saying, “You too have misjudged God.” You think you have wandered too far and been gone too long, that no longer is there a way home. Don’t believe it! God is not like that at all. Take one step towards God, and God will come racing towards you with arms wide open to welcome you.
God is not a passive deity. Instead he is the extravagant Father who will open up his house to any and all.
In recent years there has developed within Christian Evangelicalism a debate on “the Openness of God.” In the first half of the 20th century there were two schools of thought that divided Christendom in the West. Out of Protestant Orthodoxy of the 19th century, arose Classical Liberalism. In response to this development, there arose Christian Fundamentalism that often was as conservative as Liberalism was innovative. The results were that the Christian churches bifurcated, going off in two separate and often antagonistic directions. Into that terrible breach stepped the Neo-Orthodox theologians, trying to retain the best of both worlds and to avoid the over-emphases of either. Those of liberal persuasion saw the new movement as still too conservative, and Fundamentalism sensed it to be much too liberal. The positions hardened as each faction demonized and villainized the others.
In the last half of the 20th century Evangelicalism developed. It arose out of, and in reaction to, an overly conservative Fundamentalism, seeking to move towards the center without moving as far left as Neo-Orthodoxy had appeared to move. Sometimes it preferred to call itself Neo-Evangelicalism, sensing that they were often mistaken for Fundamentalists in disguise.
In the last two decades there evolved another debate within evangelicalism. It has to do with the issue of the immutability of God. One of the classic views of God is that God does not change at all. Augustine and the Latin Church set the trend when they declared that “God has no body, parts or passions” and that “Patripassionism” was heresy. They were saying that the Father does not suffer. That God is not personally affected by what we do or do not do. He is the unmoved mover. He is the sovereign God who predetermines all things according to the counsel of his will. This developed quickly into a God who either appeared aloof at best, and at worst, the direct cause of all things, including floods, famine, and fatalities. The providence of God was often read as God’s micro-management of all events, which appeared to limit human freedom and responsibility.
So in response to these increasing tendencies, some recent evangelical theologians have suggested another alternative. They see God as the “most moved mover.”[i] He is a God who is deeply affected by the choices we make. They portray a God who grieves over the bad choices we make, and rejoices in the good steps we take. They note the frequency of passages where God “repents” or “relents” and changes his mind, when we change our ways, and answers prayers because we have prayed..
Where ever we slot ourselves on the continuum between the conservative and liberal poles, if the first hearers of this parable were given a vote, based on this story alone, they would have us believe that not only the neighbors, and the angels, and the household rejoice when the lost comes home, but that God Himself initiates the rejoicing and leads in the dance.
[i] Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, (Grand Rapids: Paternoster, 2001).