By Joel A Hess –
Across all religions and spiritualties, and sadly even within Christianity, people think of God in perhaps four different ways. These four images of God correlate with four basic types of fathers that populate our world.
- Alcoholic dad: He shows up unannounced. You never know what he will do. Sometimes he makes you feel happy for no reason, and other times quite sad. Good things happen for no reason, and bad things happen for no reason.
- Workaholic dad: He is aloof. He is strong, successful, and his will cannot be thwarted. He shows up once a week because he works out of town more often than not. He is admired and feared. He expects a lot out of his kids, and they work hard to hear him say, “With you I am well pleased.”
- Hip cool dad: He wants to be your buddy. He agrees with his kids in everything. He doesn’t like the people his kids don’t like. He loves the people they love. Sometimes he disappears for no reason because he’s “cool like that.” And when bad things happen, he’s just as confused as his kids.
Then there is the prodigal Father whom Jesus describes in his too-famous parable about the two dumbass sons. The meaning and import of this parable have been sadly reduced by the popular title, ‘the prodigal son.’ The focus of the parable does not shine upon the sons, but upon the wonderful Father, who gave freely from beginning to end in the parable.
Most preachers preach on the son who wished his dad was dead, took his inheritance, quickly wasted it on reckless living, embarrassed his family name, and returned home only to be embraced by His forgiving Father. When the son returned, he assumed his dad would never just give him anything, let alone accept him back as a son. Jesus shows a Father who isn’t the workaholic demanding dad. The father in the parable doesn’t even give his foolish son a probationary period to see if he would screw up again. No, this Father goes back to his liberal, reckless forgiving and forgetting, as he even throws a party for his no-good son! He loves his son, not because of what his son does, but simply because He loves him! Repentance is not an earning of forgiveness and love but a receiving of it.
The whole point of the parable lies in the conflict between the older son and his father. Jesus taught these parables in response to the Pharisees who were shocked to see Him ‘receiving, and even eating’ with, sinners. Oh, don’t you look down on those Pharisees! You might be good at shaking hands with ‘those’ people, but how many of you enjoy meals with a fella known to have gone in and out of the nightclub for gays.
Jesus clearly paints the Pharisees as the oldest son. Jesus’ description of this oldest son reveals Jesus deep compassion for those poor fools. Even though the oldest son never left, he didn’t love his father anymore. He saw his father as a workaholic, who only loved him because he earned it. Therefore, the oldest son could not believe his dad would not only hangout with, but also throw a party for, his jerk of a brother, who dragged the family name through the mud and lost half of the family fortune! The oldest son did not see His dad as loving, forgiving, and full of grace. “All I have is yours!” the father cried. For his whole life, the oldest son never enjoyed the total grace of his father and instead thought that he had to earn it. For his whole life, the poor son thought his dad loved him because of how well he performed. That’s not love! The oldest son didn’t look at his dad as a loving relationship but as a business contract.
This parable is so important for Christians who have lived their whole life in the Father’s care, under his loving arm, and in his overwhelming grace, yet all the while perceived of God as a workaholic dad. Like the Pharisees, these poor Christians across denominations live under the pressure of pleasing him. Subsequently, they either grow a large head thinking that that was why God loved them, or they crack and secretly despise their Savior and are even more upset when they see God through the church loving disobedient sons and daughters.
There is a third son in this parable. He is the one speaking it. Jesus. He obeyed our Father. He became the Fattened Calf. We are these lost sons and daughters. And every once in a while we need to be shocked by this parable and let go of our wrong perceptions of our prodigal father. He doesn’t love you because you impress him. He doesn’t forgive you because you proved your worth. He doesn’t take care of you because you obey him. He won’t raise you because you’re worth it.
Remember: He is the Prodigal Father. He loves you more recklessly than you have recklessly lived. So repent, and come home, even if you never thought you left, and enjoy the fatted calf!