There’s a song by Sidewalk Prophets, a 2015 release, that’s been popular on Christian radio the past 6 months or so. It’s called “Come Running Like a Prodigal,” and the major message it has is pretty great:
Wherever you are, whatever you did,
it’s a page in your book, but it isn’t the end.
Your Father will meet you with arms open wide;
this is where your heart belongs.
But their connection of this important concept- that our mistakes don’t define our worth– with the story of the Prodigal Son has got me thinking. Well, first: so they distort the parable a bit to make it support this message that they started with (which isn’t cool, guys). But we’re going to leave all that aside for today. What’s got me thinking is that if you read the story closely, it wasn’t the son who ran, it was the father. Check it out:
To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.
“A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.
“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’
“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’
“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began. (Luke 15:11-24, NLT)
Once I noticed that, I started looking closer into how the son behaved. How excited does he seem to be going home anyway? He lost all his inheritance, he’s starving, and frankly he’s got nowhere else to go. But he doesn’t say, “Gosh, I really screwed up. I should go apologize to my dad and brother and make things right.” Instead, he says, “So I’m starving over here, and my dad’s servants have all they want to eat. I’m his son– I should have it at least as good as my dad’s servants, right? But I can’t just stroll in there. I’ve got to practice what I need to say to get my dad to take me back.”
That’s a pretty cynical way of looking at the son’s actions. But that cynicism is kindof supported by the story. When he sees his dad, he says exactly what he had rehearsed, what he figured would get him back in his dad’s good graces. It seems, perhaps, a bit manipulative?
So now check out his dad’s response. When he sees his son from far away, he is so excited to see him that he runs to his son and embraces him.
The dad doesn’t ask his son what he’s doing there. He doesn’t ask for any kind of apology or justification. He doesn’t even pay attention to the well-rehearsed speech his son prepared. He is so happy to see his son that it doesn’t matter to him why he came back.
So I’m wondering: what if the son’s why doesn’t matter?
We know this parables were included in the Bible to teach us things, and we can learn a lot from reading them. We can also learn a lot if we read the parables and pay attention to the things that we can’t know based on what’s included in the story.
The moral of the story of the Prodigal Son is not “son screwed up, regrets what he did, so he comes home and asks his dad for forgiveness, dad says yes, everyone lives happily ever after.” That scenario presumes a whole bunch of information that we simply are not given in the text. There’s no evidence that he regretted his actions to any further extent than that it landed him in an unpleasant situation, and he needed some help. He certainly didn’t ask for forgiveness in his rehearsed lines; he doesn’t even say he’s sorry. And his dad’s reaction to seeing his son was not based on anything the son said– his dad was overjoyed as soon as he saw his son approach in the distance, before they had a chance to say anything to each other.
The most we can say about this story based on the information we are given is, “son takes inheritance and loses it, goes home, dad is super excited to see him and welcomes him home.” Anything we try to say beyond that, we’re projecting our own preconceptions on the parable, and that can distort the whole meaning of the story.
There is no way for us to know for sure one way or another why the son returned home, whether he was being manipulative or genuine, we just don’t have the information. But I don’t know that it matters. If the son’s why was important to our understanding of the story, it would have been mentioned. What we do know is that his why didn’t matter to his dad, and since it wasn’t included in the story, it must not be integral to the point of the parable.
Now, there are a lot of times when it’s very important to know why we’re doing what we’re doing. I’d even say most of the time it’s the most important thing, because your why directs your what. If you don’t know your why, your what will be unfocused and less effective.
But here we’ve got a story where the why doesn’t matter.
Not only doesn’t it matter, but there’s no way for us to possibly know the son’s why anyway. So if the why isn’t the point of the story, what is?
I’m far from a seminarian here, but let’s go back to what we do know:
- Son takes inheritance and loses it.
- Son goes home.
- Dad is super excited to see him and welcomes him home.
What if the whole point is that the dad is super excited regardless of the son’s reasoning for coming home? So what if he was being manipulative? So what if he didn’t regret screwing up and losing his whole inheritance? His actions had no affect on his dad’s response to seeing him. His dad ran to him in spite of anything the son might have said or done.
So if this is the point (or if it’s one point that can be drawn from the parable), two things are sitting with me about it:
- From the actions of the dad: What if we saw his unconditional acceptance and love, and modeled our own family relationships on it? What if we greet the ones we love without a worry about their why?
- From the actions of the son: What if we just came to God whenever we needed to, when we were spiritually hungry or poor, when we didn’t have anyplace else to go? What if we didn’t have to attend church “for the right reasons”– what if we just went and didn’t worry if our why was “good enough”? God wants us to come to him; I don’t think God would want us to stay away if our why wasn’t straight yet.* And hey, what if we didn’t push God away while we went out and screwed up? What if we didn’t have to wait to come back to God until we feel like we’re “good enough,” or until we “feel like it,” or until we’re in some kind of “worshipful” mood, or any of the other excuses that we let get in the way of us and God. What if our why doesn’t matter? What if all God cares about is that we come home? We can sort out the why later.
*This speaks right to the Methodist concept of prevenient grace: God has taken the first step toward us, and we respond. So we might feel led to go someplace and we don’t know our why yet, when that why very well could be the movement of the Spirit in our hearts, and that’s not always necessarily clear right away. Or perhaps our why is selfish, but it gets us to church/bible study/worship, despite for the wrong reasons. Even if our why isn’t quite there yet, by going to God, by going to worship, by being present at the Table, we are giving the Spirit opportunities to work and to change our lives. If we wait until we think we have things all “sorted out” before we approach God, we’re limiting God. We’re limiting God’s place in our life, we’re limiting the potential that God has in store for our lives. God wants to help us sort everything out- we don’t have to do it alone.
Whenever this song comes on the radio, I mentally change the title to “Come Running Like the Prodigal’s Father.” It doesn’t quite fit with the music- it doesn’t rhyme, for sure- but it reminds me that though my why might not always be where it needs to be: I’m a flawed person, trying to be better, and sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I fail…. but all of that shouldn’t keep me from coming “home.”