The Prodigal God
By Michelle Wallace, Texoma LIVING WELL Magazine
There’s a familiar story in the Bible known as “The Prodigal Son.” Sometimes, especially if you’ve grown up in church, stories can become too familiar. I love when God takes something I’ve understood one way and completely turns it on its head!
As the story goes, there was a father who had two sons. The younger son came to his father and asked for his inheritance. The father agreed and the son quickly left for the far country where he spent all his money on wild living! About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.
When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! He returned home penitently, 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.
The father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe 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.
However, the story isn’t finished. The reception infuriates the older brother. And the story ends with the father begging his firstborn to forgive his brother and join the party.
As author and pastor Timothy Keller stood to speak about the story behind his book, The Prodigal God, I felt something rise up inside me. “Prodigal God,” I thought!? Fortunately Keller quickly gave the definition according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
The word prodigal doesn’t mean wayward. Rather it describes one who is recklessly extravagant, having spent everything!
My reaction should have been the first clue that I had something to learn that day. Keller explained that the father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to “reckon” or count his sin against him or demand repayment. This response offended the elder son and most likely the local community.
Keller writes, “Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders. He wants to show them their blindness, narrowness, and self-righteousness, and how these things are destroying both their own souls and the lives of the people around them.”
My pastor tells the story of being invited to church by a girl he had the hots for in high school. He admits he didn’t care anything about becoming a Christian, he just wanted the girl, so he agreed. He’d never been to church, and didn’t know there was a dress code. While everyone was in their Sunday finest, the men in suits and ties and women in dresses, he arrived at The First Baptist Church wearing flip-flops, shorts and a tee shirt. He sat at the end of the pew, just waiting for someone to say something. He didn’t want to be there anyway. Instead, during the greeting an elderly woman, no more than four foot tall, looked up at him with kind, brown eyes. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. “I can’t wait to get to heaven and tell her how instrumental she was in my coming to Christ,” he said. As a side note, he married the girl who invited him to church that day.
My pastor’s point to his message is that it’s not about how much we accomplish or get done in this life, but how we loved. He said he took the time preparing for his sermon by not thinking in terms of have I sinned or not, but have I been loving or unloving this week.
If there’s good news in the story of the two sons, they’re both invited to the party. However, this particular story ends on a sad note with the elder brother refusing to come in. In Matthew 8, a Roman captain comes to ask Jesus to heal his servant. He demonstrates great faith by saying Jesus could just say the word and his servant would be healed. The Message translation powerfully conveys Jesus’ response. Taken aback, Jesus said, “I’ve yet to come across this kind of simple trust in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know all about God and how he works. This man is the vanguard of many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions—streaming in from the east, pouring in from the west, sitting down at God’s kingdom banquet alongside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then those who grew up ‘in the faith’ but had no faith will find themselves out in the cold, outsiders to grace and wondering what happened.”
It’s easy for me to forget where I came from. I confess there are times I’m disturbed, even repulsed by people who live in the pig pen. They’re messy. When they tell me they’re ready to come home, often times, I’m too cynical to believe. If I’m honest, the young girl who came to her senses in the pig pen so many years ago, in many ways resembles the elder brother today. Lord, help me remember, teach me to love!
I recently heard someone say, “We are not minimizing sin when we maximize Christ’s mercy. There is a difference between whitewashing sin and bloodwashing it.” Every one of us comes wearing filthy rags. But when we come like the prodigal, our Father covers us with the robe of His righteousness. He places the family ring on our finger and puts shoes of purpose on our feet. The fatted calf represents the best, an abundant life in Christ and a party that never ends!
Recommended reading, The Prodigal God, by Timothy Keller
Connect with Michelle at www.handoftheking.com