Even when I was young, and mostly disinterested in God, I was often touched by someone telling Jesus’ story of “the prodigal son.” It could well have been because I easily, sometimes even proudly, identified with that son. For many years, I thought that was the main point of Jesus’ great story.
Then, Kenneth Bailey helped me see that the story crescendos with a missing final statement – did the older brother decide to go into the Father’s house, or did he choose to stay outside and nurse his frustrations with his brother (and his Father)? Not that I haven’t done my share of being self-righteous—I have—but, I never identified quite as much with the self-righteous brother in the story.
Then, Helmut Thielicke helped me see that even though the story is certainly about “the prodigal son” and about “the self-righteous son;” it is really about the God that Jesus knew better than any of us. It is about the vulnerable “Waiting Father.” It is Jesus telling us that God is the Father who values both sons, and wants both sons to know how valuable they are. This Waiting Father also wants each son to know how valuable his sibling is. It is about the God who is the Father who watches and waits every day for the “wasted son” to choose to come home. It is about the Father who can’t wait to give the son a big hug and welcome him “into the Father’s house.” It is about the God who is the Father who waits out in the yard while all the invited guests are inside wondering what in the world is going on out there! What is going on? The Father is begging the arrogant and self-righteous older son to come on in, renew his role as oldest son and brother, and participate in the gloriously gracious “family life.”
Of course, once I saw this, then I saw that Jesus’ other two short stories in Luke 15 were about this same audaciously wonderful and vulnerable God. The God who would leave the 99 sheep to go find the 1 lost sheep. This seems to be a strange act for those who consider themselves part of the 99, but an amazingly gracious act for those who know they are the 1 lost sheep who needs to be found. And, God is the Woman who loses 1 of her 10 coins, and sweeps and searches every inch of the entire house for the 1 lost coin. She wants it to be back safely in her keeping where it belongs.
And, in all three stories, Jesus knows that God is the God who is—the shepherd who can’t afford to lose even one sheep, the peasant woman who can’t afford to lose even one day’s wages, the well-off father who can’t imagine losing even one son. Jesus knows this vulnerable God is waiting, but can hardly wait, for the moment of joy when one of us who has wandered away, and lost ourselves, is “found” by realizing that God is searching for us, is waiting for us, and loves us more than we dare imagine. Then God can say, “Let’s get the party started! It is time to rejoice!”
May God help us, help me, experience more fully, what Jesus knew, and knows, to be true about God.