Henri Nouwen spent some time looking at the Dutch painter Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ and wrote a book on his thoughts. In it he says, 'the tender embrace of father and son expressed everything I desired at that moment ... I wanted to be embraced, I was looking for a home where I could feel safe.'
There is a father-longing in all of us. Yet in our fallen world none of us have perfect fathers, and none of us are perfect fathers. There is an inevitable sense in which that father-longing goes unmet. But even if our world was not spoiled by sin and our earthly fathers were perfect people that father-longing would still not be fully realised. For the good we see in earthly fathers serves as a pointer to a greater good we our designed to experience with our Heavenly Father.
am going to speak of three sons and invite you to come home to the most loving father.
1. Son 1: The rebel
There is a Spanish tale about father who wanted to be reconciled with his son, who had run away to Madrid. The father missed the son and placed an advert in the paper which read, 'Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday, all is forgiven, love papa.' When the father went to the Hotel Montana the next day there were eight hundred young men named Paco waiting there for their fathers.
Jesus spoke to rebels about the father-heart of God. He spoke of a heavenly father who wanted to forgive and embrace us. That message was attractive to those whose sin was obvious.
The younger son is callous rebel. By all accounts this father was a wonderful parent. But sometimes even a great parent ends up with children who don't love them.
The son sees his father getting in the way of his freedom. There was actually no law that said the son could not ask for his inheritance but such a request revealed a very cold heart. He did not love his father; he only loved his father's wealth.
Ken Bailey is an expert on middle-eastern culture. For fifteen years he asked people all over the region, from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan, about the implications of the younger son’s request. The conversations always followed the same path:
'Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?'
'Could anyone ever make such a request?'
'If anyone ever did, what would happen?'
'His father would beat him of course!'
'The request means - he wants his father to die.'
Jewish wisdom advised against giving your inheritance to your sons before you died saying, 'it is better that your children ask of you, than you should look to the hands of your sons.' But this gracious father will not force his son to live at home and gives him a third of the estate. The son quickly packs his bags and sets off to a distant land. He believes that every step away from home is a step towards freedom, but little does he realise that such freedom is an illusion.
That son sought to fulfil his longings in all the wrong places. Henri Nouwen writes: 'I am a prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere?’
Where are all his new-found friends when the famine comes? The rabbis cursed those who breed swine. But this Jew is desperate. It is there that he comes to his senses and begins his journey home. Yet I do not believe that he truly repents until he sees the father's amazing kindness. The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome saying, 'the kindness of God is intended to lead us to repentance' (Romans 2:4).
The father's reception of the son is truly amazing. He has been waiting, looking to the horizon, longing for the boy to come home. When merchants visited the village he would have asked them if they had seen him. He lay awake at night wondering about that son, praying for him and weeping about him.
When he sees the lad's frame on the horizon he sprinted to see him. Even to this day it is considered undignified for men of his age to run. No man over thirty ran. There was a Proverb from around that time that said, 'a man's manner of walking tells you what he is.' The father sprints!
The law said that the father could have such a son beaten or even put to death. This is what this young man deserves. But with grace the father kisses the dirty face of the swine-herd. It literally says that he fell on the boy’s neck and kissed him again and again. Parents, be lavish in your affection.
One writer declares:
'In a sense, the son had lost everything. He had lost his home. He has lost his money. He had lost his dignity. He had lost his reputation. He has lost his security. He had lost his honour. But one thing he had never lost was his father's love.'
2. Son 2: The religious
In the 1700s John Wesley was a religious young man. As a student he was part of a group nicknamed ‘The Holy Club’. He went on to be ordained an Anglican minister. He served as a missionary. But he did not really know God until he had his heart strangely warmed and realised that his sins really were forgiven. He later wrote about the days before his conversion saying, 'I had the religion of a servant, not of a son.'
Jesus now holds the mirror up Pharisees and teachers of the law as he speaks of the older brother.
The older son was coming home from his days work when he heard the music and dancing. He should have known what was going on. There had not been a party like that since the younger brother left home. But rather than rejoicing he throws his staff to the ground, folds his arms and settles into a cold anger.
Again the father demonstrates amazing grace. Ken Bailey says that it would be hard to overstate the insult that the older son’s refusal to come to the party was to his father. The boy deserves to be left out in the cold. The father goes and pleads with him. Remember that Jesus is picturing the Pharisees and teachers of the law in that older son. They may have murderous intentions towards Jesus, but in Jesus is pleading with them to come to the party!
'All these years I have been slaving for you.' The Pharisees and teachers of the law had the religion of a slave not a son—religion which focuses on our achievements rather than God’s grace; religion that is duty rather than joy; religion of outward actions devoid of a heart of love; proud religion of self-righteousness.
The son has failed to see his need of the father’s forgiveness. He has lived at home but his heart has been in a distant land. He has not loved his father and refuses to love those his father forgives. Now he has publically insulted the father. But the father still wants him to join the party.
Can anyone be so foolish as to choose hell in preference to heaven? Yes! Many are too proud to want God’s grace. One writer points out that Jesus portrays ‘a God who overflows with grace and generosity, opening his arms to all: elder brother, younger brother; saint or sinner. He makes no distinctions. If we stay out of heaven it is because we refuse to go in. It is because we are too proud to accept his grace. The elder brother felt that he deserved a reward' (Clements).
3. Son 3: The redeemer
During the Vietnam War Daniel Dawson's plan went down and he was listed as lost. His brother Donald liquidated all his assets and went to Vietnam to find him. He wondered through enemy-controlled jungles and became known simply as 'the brother.' He even spent four months in prison during his search.
There is a human longing for such a brother. In our world of sin we are sinful brothers who have sinful brothers. Perhaps we carry a brother-wound. But we have a heavenly-brother. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters.
While the younger brother received one-third of the estate the older brother received two thirds (a double portion). That was because the elder brother inherited certain responsibilities. He would be the new patriarch who would look after family members in distress.
The older brother should have pleaded with the younger not to leave and when he left he should have lead the search party. Yet he is not looking to the horizon waiting for his brother to return. He does not care. Similarly the Pharisees and teachers of the law failed in their responsibility to take the message of a holy and merciful God to the rebels in their midst and call them to repentance.
When the younger brother returns it costs the elder brother. The younger son had received his inheritance. Everything else was due to the elder. If the younger son was to be cared for it would be at the elder's expense. But the elder brother is not willing to pay that price for a rebel.
How different is our heavenly-brother! Jesus was willing to pay the price of our return. At this stage in Luke’s Gospel he is on his way to the Jerusalem, to the cross. He is the one who had come to seek and save that which is lost. While salvation comes freely to us, it costs our older brother everything.
Augustine lived in the fourth century and as a young man he sought to fulfil his unmet longings without God. He was a prodigal. His mother was a Christian but he rejected her faith. He knew that God had created sex only for marriage and famously prayed, 'Lord make me chaste, but not yet.' Yet God brought him to repentance and in his book, Confessions, he declared, 'Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.'
There is within us a father-shaped hole and a yearning for a perfect brother. No earthly father, friend or brother can fill that vacuum. Our God is described as father to the fatherless (Psalm 68:5). Jesus will not be ashamed to have us as a brother or sister. His arms of grace are open to you.
So whether you are a rebel (maybe your rebellion is seeking love seeking unconditional love in a far off land), or a religious-slave priding yourself on being a good person (and even those of us claiming to be born-again fall back into these traps), the father we have sinned against invites us home. It’s time to come home and know his embrace!