The Prodigal Son 6. Unapplauded Love

The story of the prodigal son:

As usual, I was thinking the other day about the prodigal son story, and I remembered a particular insight that I really wanted to share. As Henri Nouwen observes, we may identify with the younger prodigal son, or we may identify with the disapproving elder son, but God is calling us to a place where we identify with the father; the further along we get living in the kingdom of God, the more we walk in the father’s shoes.

The father in this story bears a particular burden, in that he loves his sons in a way that they do not comprehend nor do they respond in kind. He makes extreme sacrifices, even to giving away half of his life’s wealth, only to see it thrown to the wind to the one he entrusted it to. Still he loves. No one applauds him for still loving, no one notices that he has the world’s biggest heart. He has entered a phase in life where he loves his sons for different reasons than that.

Notice that it does not seem that this icon of a father, this father who so selflessly loves, the icon of fatherhood, is able to turn out perfect and moral and well-behaved children. This is actually profound; The father, who really represents God Himself, cannot and does not control his children, and as you would imagine, they tend to get into trouble.

This is not his greatest burden, however. Let’s reread this portion of the story:

“So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” Luke 15:20-24, NIV.

Notice this: no one else was watching to see if his son had returned that day. He was alone in his concern, in his hope. No one else ran to kiss him. No one else did anything except marvel that he still cared for him that much. We can imagine the servants looking on, puzzled, and thinking, “the fattened calf, NOW, for him?!”

Here is another great example of a man with this father’s heart, who stood alone in loving his son, the story of David and his son Absalom. Here, after Absalom had betrayed him badly, and had almost stolen the kingdom right out from under him, and forced him into exile, was his response upon learning that in the ensuing melee, Absalom had been killed:

“And the king covered his face and cried out with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Then Joab came into the house to the king and said, “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who today have saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters, the lives of your wives, and the lives of your concubines, by loving those who hate you, and by hating those who love you. For you have shown today that princes and servants are nothing to you; for I know this day that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased.” 2 Samuel 19:4-6, NASB.

Joab his advisor, and the whole nation, were irritated at David for so mourning the death of his enemy; but David did not view him so. David stood alone in loving his son, in mourning his passing.

So the heart of a father is helplessly compelled against all reason and against all counsel to always love. Others stand ready to condemn, to judge, to be done with the boy, but the father never thinks so. Even the father’s child who is the very object of his love does not understand at all; the prodigal in the story imagines only judgement, and David’s son actually tried to exile him and kill him! Indeed, David had a heart after God’s own heart, which is not always easy or full of rainbows and cotton candy! The father always hopes, always forgives, and is always moved by a powerful longing and hope and will to bless. It is a lonely and often sad position, but a powerful one. So is God always towards us, towards you, towards me, and so do we become more and more as we mature in Him. Condemning voices may arise against us, true voices, persuading counsel that is compelling and right, but God is more powerfully compelled by His compassion and concern. As we learn His heart toward us we begin to have this same heart towards others. This is the true heart of the pastor, the true heart of the husband and father, this powerful and sometimes irrational love that never never grows cold or runs dry. We cannot expect others to understand, it doesn’t work that way, the heart of the parent towards a child is different than every other relationship.

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