The Parable of the Running Father

26 05 2008

Sometimes I am amazed at the ease with which I accept having a hard heart towards someone or something. In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15), I have always related more to the older brother than to the one who runs away, the son who faithfully serves his father but who, in an instant, grows stuborn and angry when it appears that “doing the right thing” doesn’t always pay off.

In many aspects of my life right now I feel as though I’ve spent an abundance of energy in “doing the right thing,” trying to walk the way that would please my Father, trying so sincerely to make good decisions, and yet it seems as though none of those decisions have born any fruit to be enjoyed, at least not for now. And somehow, in the midst of recent weeks, i have taken up my older brother alter ego and silently complained his complaint: “All these years I’ve worked hard for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never even gave me one young goat for a feast with my friends.” Sure, my complaint’s a little different, because I know God has given me so many good things, and it’s not even a goat I’m after, but the hard heart is the same. “Doing the right thing” doesn’t always pay off.

Oddly enough, however, as I worshipped at church this evening, it was the prodigal son who came to mind and not the older brother. For the first time in my life really, I felt more like the one who squandered what his father gave him than the one who used it well. Just like the father in the story, our God has given us an inheritance of forgiveness and grace that we did not deserve in the first place. He has called us his children and has given us the way of life. It’s a difficult way, different from the ways of the world, but it is the way of true life. And like the foolish son, I have stupidly turned my prideful nose to the difficult and sometimes tiring way of the Father and have said in my heart, “I don’t care.”

And just like the younger son, I am usually slow to return, slow to disagree with my stubborn heart. Why I would rather run out of sustenance and starve than quickly return to the abundance of my Father’s house, I’m not sure. But one thing was clear to me tonight…I needed to soften my heart and return to the way of my Father.

What I love about this parable though, is that the focus is not on the return of the son, but moreso on the way the father lavishes forgiveness on him and celebrates his return. N.T. Wright points out in his wonderful little book The Lord and His Prayer the beautiful way in which the old man throws dignity to the wind and runs to welcome his worn out child. That is the kind of forgiveness our God extends to us – undignified, sprinting, celebratory love: “While he was still a long distance away his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.”

This story follows the pattern of the two parables prior: a shepherd who searches and searches for the one lost sheep, a woman who sweeps every nook and cranny until she finds her lost coin, and even the Running Father who doesn’t just greet his foolish son, but comes out of the house and begs his hard-hearted older son to come back in as well.

I’m so glad i have a Father who comes to get me when I am like the younger brother and the old, when I’m foolishly rejecting the way of life or when I’m hard of heart and weary of doing good. His undignified compassion for me softens my stubborness, moves me to repentance, and restores me to the way of life.