“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’
“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.
Luke 15: 20-24
This particular parable is no doubt very familiar to a lot of people and I’m certainly no exception. I can’t remember how old I was the first time I heard the story, but it must have been at a very young age because it seems like I’ve known the story my entire life. It is a great parable, full of rich content for many a sermon. At a pretty simplified level, its about how our Good Father, God, loves us, His sons and daughters. As many times as I’ve heard and read this story, recently for the first time I was overwhelmed with very vivid imagery while listening to a sermon on the passage. Perhaps it was because I was listening as a parent. Perhaps something the teacher said struck a chord. Perhaps I identified with the son more as a child this time instead of a bystander. Whatever the reason, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the picture I still have stuck in my head.
By this point in the story, the son realizes that it was a stupid choice to disrespect his dad (essentially telling his dad “I wish you were dead”) because even servants in his dad’s house were treated better than where he found himself. He was homeless, penniless, and starving – so much so that he was willing to defile his body just to have something to eat. He was doing worse than the equivalent of dumpster diving – which is pretty gross just in itself! So he decides to go home and try to convince his dad to give him a job – knowing that even to get a job cleaning toilets for his dad’s servants would be better than what he was doing right now. If it were me, I’d be convincing myself that after the way I’d treated him, there’s no way he’d take me back even as a servant to the servants that was “paid” in 3 meals a day and a place to sleep.
Walking weakly along the road, each step a difficult task but knowing he must go on and at least give his dad the chance to reject him, he continued his weary walk toward home. Coming over the last hill, with the house in sight but still a somewhat small structure in the distance, feelings of nervousness and dread start to flood his mind – but he continues on. After a few minutes he sees someone emerge from the house quickly, appearing to scan the horizon as if verifying what had been seen from inside the house. Looking down at his feet and the broken ground he is walking on, full of rocks and weeds, and critters, its an all too familiar path back to the house he once called home. When he returns his gaze to the house, he notices the person who had been standing staring at the horizon was not standing there any more. Instead they were running. They were running fast! In his direction! For a second, he paused thinking that this person running toward him might be coming to tell him to get lost and never dare return again. He hesitated, thinking it might be safer to turn back. But, deciding that whatever came of this, he probably deserved the beating, he continued on, one foot in front of the other.
The person running was closing the distance rapidly between them and now he could see – it was his father! Not sure what to expect he paused again, still watching his father close in – faster and faster, closer and closer. He wasn’t sure what to think or do. He started practicing his speech again. He wanted to at least try to get it out before his father banished him never to return again. He thought for sure his father would slow down the closer he got, but as he watched, he just kept running! He was getting so close – he’s going to run right into me!
The Father was overwhelmed with love and compassion as soon as he saw his son way off in the distance. Every day since his son left he would watch the horizon, waiting for his return. This day was different. Today, he was certain he saw his son on the horizon! He couldn’t wait to make sure. He couldn’t wait another minute without his precious son. He broke into an instant run. He kept his eyes fixed on his son’s location the entire time – straining to see if it truly was his son and not wanting the young man to leave. The closer he got, the more certain he became – this is his son! He has returned home to me! The insult long ago was nowhere close to the father’s mind – his heart had forgiven him long ago. As his son’s face became clearer, he began to weep. His son whom he loved more than his own life, was home! His prayers have been answered! Why can’t these legs move any faster?!
The father collided into the son with nearly the full force of the speed with which he had been running. He ran into his son so hard he almost knocked them both over. Flinging his arms around his son’s neck he hugged him tightly, determined never to let his child go. His sobs of joy and love came all at once. The son, taken back by this welcome and still feeling completely worthless tried to start his speech, even though his face was buried in his father’s chest. As he started in with a muffled voice “Father, I’m not worthy….. Father I’ve sinned….” he started to weep as well, but his weeping was a broken weeping. And as he wept at how he had hurt his father, he was able to hear his father was saying something too! He was repeating over and over through his own tears, “My son, whom I love, is home! My son, whom I love, is home!” The son flung his arms around his dad and tried again to get his speech out through his sobs. But the father pulled his face towards his own and looking him straight in his tear-filled eyes he said again “My son, whom I love, is home!”
The Father, carrying his son’s arm around his own neck to support his weary legs, walked with his son back toward their home. As they came closer, the Father was now shouting, announcing to everyone to prepare the biggest feast ever, as if his son had just been born and there was a party to be had! Because truly, there was.