Thursday, June 3, 2010
The Prodigal Son: 1. The Father who Doesn't Control
I've been waiting eagerly to get to the parable of the prodigal son, as it is the richest and most profound teaching about the father heart of God in all of scripture. Everything up to this point has been leading to this teaching. Let's start by reading it:
Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. “And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. “And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. “But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. “Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. “And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! ‘I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, “and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’ “And he arose and came to his father.
But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. ‘And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; ‘for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.
“Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. “So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ “But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. “So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. ‘It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’” Luke 15:11-32, NKJV.
First let's set the stage. We have a man who is a father, with two sons. He seems to be fairly well off, a landowner with enough inheritance in the balance to make at least one of the sons obsess over it. When a father has some wealth, the children inherit that wealth when he dies. What this son is saying, is that he is tired of waiting around for the father to die, give me my portion now! It could not be a more stark example of raw greed and selfishness. What he is really saying is, I don't care one whit about YOU, I want your MONEY!
Now, here is the amazing thing - the father actually gives it to him! He doesn't take offense, he actually complies! What you would expect him to say is something like this: "You rude and impudent little rodent, do you realize how hard I've worked to get to this point? How dare you ask this!" Instead, he gives him his portion. What could have been going through his head? He could see that his son was eaten up by a lust to get out of there, to see the world, to make his way. He could see that he could not be content staying where he was. This father was not going to try to exercise a level of control that would make his son a slave, like a man in prison. He would let him go, and because he had a very great love for the son, he did not take offense.
God does not withdraw His giftings from us even though He knows we will misuse them! Talent, provision, etc. The richest and possibly most exciting time of this son's life was when he was walking off away from his father, loaded with his inheritance, full of confidence in his own abilities, ready to take on the world. It is a very important component in the way God works - he is not controlling, not manipulative, He does not withdraw blessing. This is a very peculiar and strange aspect of the story.
Now, the son was gone a long time. He did not leave for a minute or two, he left for a long enough time that he burned through his entire inheritance with loose living. Given provision with no wisdom, he squandered it all. He was gone long enough, and the father knew him well enough, that he figured he was all but dead; he had given up hope. We see this in his statement, "for this my son was dead and is alive again." He had truly, genuinely, definitively left the fold. I think this is a point we all know in our conscience - we have been blessed, and are gifted, and have been given much, and we have squandered it away on pleasures and comforts and our lives and times are empty and fruitless. We take what our Father in heaven has given us and use it for our pleasures and comforts and idleness, and eventually we regret the shape our life takes. He does not withdraw His blessing and we think this is the stamp of His approval, and even though we misinterpret it still He remains firm in not attempting to control us.
Here is a key to the father heart of God: He is determined to let us freely choose Him. He does not manipulate, he does not trick us into righteousness. He does not withhold blessings or close and open doors to force us down the right path. He is very determined to allow us our freedom. He lets us make our own mistakes, even profound mistakes, he does not hold us back against our own hot desires. Just as Satan tempts us, and is more interested in our inward desire, so also God, in a benevolent way, is interested in our desire. If we come to Him, if we remain with Him, if we return to Him, He wants it only to be with our true heart. He is determined that we come to Him such that all other options have been found wanting - we only want to be in His house. If we are not truly thus, He does not want to prevent us from making our own way. To Him, the crying prodigal returning broke and starved and naked is far more preferable to a rich son held hostage and shut up to an unwanted blessing. We are never held hostage, never tricked into the kingdom. He is the Father who doesn't control.