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Scripture: Luke 15:11-24
Let me begin by stringing together three short stories. The thread that links them together will be obvious.
First, one father said that he had noticed something fascinating about children, namely, that as they develop and grow they pass through some predictable stages, and these stages are characterized by the way they address their fathers. He said that they begin by calling you "Da Da," then they call you "Daddy," next they call you "Dad," and then they call you collect!
The second story is about a little five-year-old boy who got on his mother's nerves one afternoon. He upset his mother so much that in frustration she grabbed the broom and chased after him. The boy ran into the yard and scrambled under the house. Unable to reach him and unwilling to go under the house, the mother decided to let Dad deal with the five-year-old when he got home.
A short time later, the father arrived home, heard the story, and went under the house in search of the little boy. Crawling on his hands and knees, searching with a flashlight, he quickly found him.
When the little boy saw his father, he said it as only a five-year-old little boy could, "Hi, Dad. Is she after you, too?"
Now, the third story is found in the Bible. In Luke's Gospel we discover a magnificent story about a father, which has been called, fittingly, the greatest short story ever written. Even though we usually call it the parable of the prodigal son, this story is really about the father. The key message here is not found in the revelry of the prodigal son; nor is it found in the resentful self-righteousness of the elder brother. No, the real truth Jesus wanted to communicate here is dramatically wrapped up in this loving, gracious, forgiving father; and the greatness of the parable is that here in this story, in this father, we have the picture of God as Jesus saw God and understood him and imaged him.
Don't miss this now: in this parable, Jesus is painting his portrait of God. And notice how Jesus depicts God not as a stern, unbending taskmaster; not as an angry judge demanding his pound of flesh; but as a loving parent, as a father who is kind and compassionate and merciful, as a father who genuinely cares for all of his children with all of his heart.
Look at the story. The prodigal does everything wrong at first, demands his inheritance early, runs away from home, and squanders his money in the far country, living it up. But then, he comes to his senses and returns home, ashamed, penitent, sorry for the pain he has caused, feeling unworthy and humble, rehearsing the confession he has carefully prepared.
Now, as he walks down the road toward home, his father sees him. The father has been looking down that road a hundred times every day, hoping and praying for this moment, hoping and praying that his son would come home. And, at long last, there he is. The father explodes with joy at the sight of him. And the father runs to meet his son. The father runs toward him to greet him, to welcome him, to reassure him with thanksgiving on his lips, with love in his heart, and with the tears of happy relief in his eyes. The father hugs his son tightly, calls for a great celebration, and with bigness of spirit he brings the prodigal back into the family circle. Isn't that a great story? With good reason, it has been called the greatest short story of all time.
Some years ago when I was in college, I had a classmate named Jack. Jack was a real character: if I made a list of the most unusual characters I have ever met, Jack would easily be in the top ten. He always wore a black suit, a white shirt, and a solid black tie, and rain or shine, Jack always carried a large black umbrella. He was of German descent and proud of it. Sometimes he would speak to me in German, sometimes in English, and sometimes he would try to speak in a southern drawl, which he butchered terribly. He was not making fun when he tried the southern drawl; he thought it made me more comfortable. Jack was a rare and wonderful character.
And he was the talk of the campus not for his eccentric ways, however, but because in our first year of college Jack had not worked out his theology yet; and he had, like the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther (whom Jack so much admired), a troubled soul. Jack, like Luther in his early years, had a bad image of God. Like Luther, Jack was scared to death of God. He was terrified of God, and this fear of God reflected itself most graphically in Jack's attitude toward the altar. The altar table in the college chapel was quite simple, actually—just a white table with a cross and two candles on it—but it struck fear in Jack's heart because it represented for him the presence of God, and he was scared of God. We had chapel every day, and every day the students would rush to chapel to see how Jack would "handle the altar today."
Some days, Jack would stand in the back of the chapel with his head bowed, and he would pray silently. Some days, he would walk all the way up to the altar and kneel before it, or he might fall down on all fours before it. Some days, he would stand and look at the altar in deep meditation. And other days, he would drop on one knee and make the sign of the cross.
And when we had Communion, Jack would always slip up to the altar after the service and eat all of the leftovers, because they had been consecrated, and he felt that to consecrate the elements and then not use all of them would somehow make God angry.
Once in preaching class Jack accidentally walked between the altar and the congregation. Horrified, he grabbed his head, turned, and did a deep Shakespearean bow. Then he rushed to the pulpit and stammered out an apology. Unable to preach, he ran out of the chapel with tears in his eyes. Jack was frustrated and ill at ease and confused, and he later admitted that his confusion came from his awful fear of God.
Everything Jack did, he did to try to win God's love, to appease God, to get God to forgive him and accept him, until a wise professor did a very wise thing. The professor asked Jack to write a paper on Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. As he studied those words of Jesus, Jack discovered something that set him free and changed his life. Jack discovered through the mind of Jesus and the words of Jesus that he didn't have to win God's love; he already had it. God had loved him all along. In that parable, Jesus paints God's picture, and he paints God boldly and tenderly as a loving father; not as an austere, impersonal, hostile God who is out to get us, but as a loving father who runs down the road to meet us, and who celebrates our homecoming because he cares for us and has goodwill for us. Jack discovered through studying the Scriptures that God loves us, that God is on our side, that God is a caring Father.
That is the good news of our faith: God is like a forgiving, loving parent, like the father in the story. There is so much to learn from him. Let me show you what I mean.
First, the Father in the Parable Is the Example of Patience
The father lets his son test his wings and patiently waits, even though it is painful. Harold Wilke was an incredible person, a spellbinding speaker, and a noted author. His achievements were all the more remarkable because Mr. Wilke was born without arms and hands. He had learned to do everything with his feet and toes. Using this method, he could drive a car, take his glasses on and off, write books, and sign autographs. "How did you learn to do that?" a TV host once asked. In answer, Harold Wilke told of a childhood experience that stuck in his mind because it tells the story so well.
It was a hot summer day. Harold Wilke was a small child at the time and he was sitting on the floor trying to take off a T-shirt. He was having a difficult time. Can you imagine trying to take off a T-shirt, on a hot, muggy day, using your feet and your toes? It was frustrating and agonizing. A neighbor was visiting in the family's home, and she saw little Harold's difficulty and said to Harold's mother, "Why don't you help that child?" His mother replied: "I am helping him." The patience of Harold Wilke's mother paid off, because he became an inspiration to millions (Wilke, Using Everything You've Got [National Easter Seal Society, 1984], 25).
That's the kind of patience the father in the parable had. It's God's kind of patience. It's the kind of patience we all need.
Second, the Father in the Parable Is the Example of Forgiveness
The father in Jesus' parable doesn't demand an apology. He doesn't say, "I told you so." He doesn't write a list of conditions. He just runs down the road to meet his child with the spirit of forgiveness in his heart.
Just this week I ran across an old legend about Satan calling a staff meeting in hell. He calls together his leading evil executives to map out a strategy against the church. Satan tells them to urge people to be jealous and resentful, to encourage them to be harsh and unbending, to teach them to be hateful and judgmental. "And whatever you do," says Satan, "try to stamp out the spirit of forgiveness, because if Christians ever realize the power of forgiveness and compassion, then hell help us, because all heaven's gonna break loose."
This parable is about a forgiving father, but sadly, as we read further we see it is also about an unforgiving son (Luke 15:25-32). The elder brother is bitter and envious and angry, and he will not forgive, and that attitude makes him miss the party. The point is that God is forgiving and God wants us to be forgiving, too.
Finally, the Father in the Parable Is the Example of Love— Agape, Unconditional Love
Have you heard about the young man who was drafted into the army? Immediately he seemed to have psychological problems. He began to do a bizarre thing. Every time he saw a piece of paper, he would run and pick it up, look at it, and say, "That's not it. That's not it," and then the young man would put the paper down.
He did this over and over, every day. He was obsessed with it. Finally, the young man was sent to the base psychiatrist. The psychiatrist worked with the young man, but he continued to look at every piece of paper he saw and say, "That's not it. That's not it." When the psychiatrist asked him why he was doing this, he answered, "I'm looking for something." When asked what he was looking for, he replied, "I'll know it when I see it."
Excerpted from Jesus' Parables About Discipleship by James W. Moore Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 12, 2012