“Then He said: ‘A certain man had two sons.’”- Luke 15:11 I have been exploring some theological ideas embedded in the story of the prodigal son. If you’re unfamiliar with story take a moment to check out Luke 15:11-32. There is a depth of love so beautifully expressed in this story that I would like to unpack with you.
First, we may recognize that the father’s love never wavered. The prodigal was loved even as he lost himself to debauchery. Think about it, the father loved the son unconditionally. The son in turn, while loved, was unable to recognize his own identity as a beloved son apart from the father. It is clear in the way the Prodigal considered returning to his father’s house, not because he expected the father’s embrace, but because he considered returning as a servant. In their time apart the prodigal forgot who he was in relation to his father. However, to the father, the prodigal was always his beloved son. All that the prodigal chose to do and experienced could not alter the fundamental nature of that relationship. Paul suggests in Romans 2 that it is the loving kindness of God that leads us to repentance; the prodigal demonstrates this idea as he considers the benevolent nature of his father, not as a father, but as a compassionate leader who actively cares for others. The prodigal wasn’t ready to accept that his father could still love him, only that his father’s compassion would make room for him as he was, broken and destitute. Had he feared his father, he would have likely died with the pigs, with no reason to return to search out his father. Of course we often focus on the prodigal, the one who ran far from the father to live selfishly. The story itself lends to this view because so much of it tracks the story of this son’s life apart from the father. But there is so much more to the story. Let’s start with a location in the story that we often overlook, the father’s house. The house of God carries prolific significance with symbolic imagery throughout the Bible, from the Arc of the Covenant in the Temple of Solomon, to the house with many rooms Jesus promised the Father was preparing. Why then should it not carry significance here? The father in the story is intended to represent God Himself after all. Consider this, it is in the father’s house that the prodigal’s return is celebrated, and it is the father’s house that the elder son refuses to enter. Of course, the father ran to greet the prodigal while he was still a long way off. He greeted the son outside the home, while the prodigal was still on the road home. The prodigal must have been dirty, broken and humiliated by his inability to survive apart from his father. It was on the dirt road, in the dirt, that the father embraced the son. The prodigal was then robed and brought inside his father’s house where the father celebrated him as a beloved son. It is by returning to the dwelling of the father that the prodigal enjoyed the benefits of his father’s unconditional love. Now, the story also doesn’t end when the prodigal son returns to the open arms of the loving father. Instead the story continues exploring the relationship between the father and elder son.
“Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing… But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.” – Luke 15:25-27 By refusing to go into the house the elder son was denying his father’s love. We meet this second son not in the father’s house, but out in the fields. So concerned with doing his father’s work, the elder son appears to have forgotten who he was; The beloved son of his Father. Remember the idea that it is only while dwelling in the father’s house that the father’s love can be fully appreciated and enjoyed, as the prodigal himself demonstrated. In Revelation, the letter to the seven churches, I would argue that the Ephesians are called out for the same error made by the elder son here: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”- Revelation 2:4-5
The elder son, comfortable with his role in the fields, managing his father’s affairs, failed to recognize his father’s heart. He forgot the love of a child for his father, and the love between siblings. He forsook his father and brother for the pride he had in the works of his own hands.
I would further suggest that Matthew 18 explores this relationship in the story of the unforgiving servant. Just as the unforgiving servant failed to offer the forgiveness he received; the elder son failed to reflect his father’s heart for his own brother. And the father’s reaction? He sought first to reassure the eldest of his identity as beloved, then encouraged him to celebrate his brothers return. Where does this leave us? First, the father’s love is unconditional. Nothing can revoke God’s love for you. Then we see that the love of the father cannot be enjoyed while living apart from him. One must pursue an active relationship with the living God. We also might infer then that living as a child of God requires an active relationship with time spent in the father’s house. Works alone will simply leave us in the field, outside of the father’s house. We must not concern ourselves so excessively with passing judgment, drawing comparisons, and attempting to manage the father’s business when all He asks is that we dwell under His authority.
Those who dwell in the house with the Father should celebrate His love and will welcome the lost home with open arms. There is no valid reason presented to withhold compassion from those who are living outside the authority of the father’s house. In fact it is the demonstration of compassion in the father’s house that draws the lost home.
In the end we can see how the love of the father teaches us how to offer love, unconditionally, but with healthy boundaries.