We look again at the story Jesus tells of the wayward son, who demanded his inheritance from his loving father and squandered it in loose living (Luke 15).
He ended up among the swine, desiring to eat the husks the pigs lived on, as he was on the brink of starvation. The situation around him had gone from bad to worse. He became subject to unethical people. He knew he was at the end of his so-called freedom, autonomy and rights. The freedom he sought was not true freedom at all.
Now his heart begins to yearn for the security of his father’s house. He recalls how he was cared for as a true child, and all he had been blessed with because of his father’s goodness. How could he have turned from that goodness to seek amusement and those urges that would satisfy him?
At this point of crisis, the wayward child is filled with homesickness. But he knows he has no right to sonship. He is disgusted with himself and has no claim to the father he left. In the midst of his depression, a vision comes to his mind: his father’s saddened face when he left.
Truly, a waiting father would know his boy would not mature in the “far country.” He would fear for him and hope for his return. Most probably, deep affliction would shadow his face, and his days and nights would be painful.
The son, full of shame and remorse, reflects: “How many of my father’s servants have abundant bread, but I am perishing in famine? I will go to my father and say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your servants.’”
The repentant son returns home. But before he arrives, his father sees him coming from a distance. He does not wait for him to arrive, but filled with compassion, runs to meet him, puts his arms around him and kisses him with joy. The son utters his remorseful confession. The father joyously calls to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. We will make merry, for this my son was dead and is alive. He was lost and now is found!” And so they celebrated.
Here we find the beauty of this parable. Whenever the New Testament speaks of repentance, there is great joy in the background. We hear words of repentance from John the Baptist and Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
Before feeling sorrow for one’s sins, a sinner would be at his or her end. But from the standpoint of God, it is the beginning. The Father’s house still looms before our souls. The Father still influences us when we are indeed in the “far country,” and God lets us know where we really belong.
It was “godly grief” that overcame that lost child, who at last comes home begging for forgiveness. The beauty in this parable is that the Father runs to meet and receive him with open arms. This mirrors the compassion of God, our heavenly Father.
Some say Jesus told this parable before His crucifixion, so it is only a story, and does not speak of Jesus dying for our sins. Truly, this parable is a prelude to the crucifixion. But remember, Jesus is telling this story about His own Father, who is “in Him” as He is led to the cross.
Jesus portrays heaven as open to sinners. This kingdom is among us and those to whom He spoke.
Doesn’t this Jesus eat with sinners? Doesn’t this Jesus seek out the lost and offer forgiveness? Doesn’t this Jesus teach us that in His kingdom, we eat with sinners, seek out the lost, offer forgiveness in His name?
As He walked this earth, Jesus was the voice of the Father’s heart calling us from the far country, telling each of us: “You can come home to the faithful God, who welcomes you with open arms. Here you are safe in your Father’s house.”
This realm holds a future for us forever, but it is present among us now.
Pastor Carole Shelby is a retired Lutheran (LCMC) pastor and a member of the Park Rapids Ministerial Association.