One of things that always leaps out at me in this parable is the older son, as Laura points out. This situation is incredibly unfair for him. He has been faithful, hard-working, helping his father. His brother has taken away a large part of their father’s fortune, and has squandered it in a short amount of time. And now he comes crawling back, ready for his humiliation. If I were the older brother, I’d be thinking, “Teach him a lesson! Let him see what an ingrate he was! Let him live here as a laborer for a while before allowing him back into the family home!” And these are not inappropriate thoughts for the situation. They are very human, very earthly. They are driven by our need for fairness, for bringing “justice” by punishment.
But this is not what the father does, is it? The father decides to be “the bigger man.” He doesn’t just stand by the gate and wait for his son; no, the father runs to greet him, to embrace him, to kiss the cheeks that he kissed when his son was an infant. The father hugs him and holds him and welcomes him back home. And then he throws a huge party to celebrate. “My son is back! My boy, whom I love and adore, has come back home! Yes, he messed up, but now he’s here with me again.”
And the point of all this is that God has chosen that God doesn’t want to be the Great Cosmic Judge, who metes out “justice” by punishment. Instead, God wants to be the Lover, the Beloved. God wants to run to us, to hold us, to embrace us, to tearfully kiss our cheeks, to whisper that God never lost faith in us, to tell us that God has always loved us and always will, to stroke our hair, to hold our cheeks in God’s hands and just look into our eyes. God loves us tremendously, profligately, extravagantly, even wastefully. We just can’t appreciate how much God loves us – loves me, loves you. The only comparison we have is to a parent. And you know what? I’ll bet that while those of us who are parents can see how much we love our children, we still have trouble imagining our own parents loving us that much. And comparing God’s love to a parent’s love is like comparing a drop of water to the ocean. If we have trouble conceiving how much our parents love us, then how much harder is it to imagine God’s love?
We often treat God like crap, pretty much the way the prodigal son treated his father. We doubt God, we lose faith in God, we say pretty words to God in prayer that we don’t mean, we lie to God, we hide from God, we blame our shortcomings on everybody else. I remember once telling my confessor that I wanted God to f*** off and leave me the hell alone. I thought he would be shocked and dismayed, but he wasn’t. He smiled gently and said, “That’s a very authentic prayer. I think God likes authentic prayers.” I was incredulous. I mean – isn’t telling God to f*** off, like, the most terrible awful sin ever? But I realized, he was right. Jesus rails against hypocrisy in the gospels, and it’s a terrible hypocrisy to pray “God, I thank you for this lovely day, and I praise you for your glory, and…” when what we’re thinking is, “Oh my GOD, this day sucked! I wish you’d never stuck me on this awful planet, Lord, and while we’re at it, just go the hell away and leave me the f*** alone!” As a parent, I’d have a hard time hearing that. But God? If there’s any being in the universe who can handle being told to go away, that would be God.
And the wonderful part – the Good News – is that even when we treat God like crap, even when we tell God to leave us alone… God still loves us. Flawed, unlovely, miserable, unworthy us. You. Me. God loves us, even when we’re the complaining older son who wants to see his brother punished. We are loved. Tremendously. Profligately. Extravagantly.
“You are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased.”
The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.