The amazing race of a father and his son, and how it demonstrates God’s undying love for you.
by Pete Wilson
There’s a dangerous temptation many of us face when we think we’ve got God all figured out. I’ve noticed that I tend to get myself into all kinds of trouble when I make assumptions about how He moves and leave no room for mystery.
We walk a fine line when we assume that God must think and feel and respond as we do. God is “other,” unlike us in so many ways. In fact, so much of Jesus’ ministry here on earth was spent telling stories about God, which shocked the religious groups of His day. The parables Jesus tells often show us a God who will constantly surprise us, turning over any preconceived notions we have about who He is or what He’ll do.
Consider the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, a story Jesus shared in response to the religious leaders’ beliefs on whom God accepts and whom He rejects. The story is about a lost soul being welcomed home with open arms and is a revealing picture of what God is like — a picture that contradicted so many images that had been painted of Him by the Jews of His time. It also paints a picture of God that contradicts many of today’s images of God that churches and theologies have created.
One of the reasons this story is so rich is that it paints a beautiful portrait of what God is truly like, erasing so many of the distortions we’ve picked up over time. There are times when I read this story and weep at the pure goodness of God.
Jesus began the story with a younger son asking his father for his inheritance. In Jesus’ time, when a father was on his deathbed, he typically would call his sons to his bedside and discuss giving each son his share of the wealth. This was a time-honored tradition, a practice rooted in culture.
But Jesus’ story included a son who basically said, “Hey, Dad, I know you’ve worked your tail off for most of your life to make a living and provide for our family, and I know that you know that I’ll probably blow all of this money on some really stupid stuff, and I know this may seem like I really can’t wait for you to die to get my hands on your money, but I was wondering if I could have my piece of the pie a little early?”
Now Jesus’ audience was listening to this and was probably laughing. They were likely thinking, Yeah, right. I know what I’d tell my son if he asked me that. A request like that would have caused most traditional Middle Eastern fathers of Jesus’ time to strike their sons across their faces and drive them out of the house.
But the father in Jesus’ story does something no Middle Eastern father would ever do: He actually gives his son his inheritance early. I can just imagine Jesus’ audience gasping, “What? No ordinary dad would do that!” Which was exactly Jesus’ point. The Middle Eastern father in Jesus’ story is no ordinary dad, and more importantly, the God (or heavenly Father) he represents, is no ordinary God.
The religious people in Jesus’ day desperately needed to be reminded of that truth, and I believe many of us also need to be reminded of this. Jesus was painting a picture of God that scraped against the grain of that culture’s belief and tradition. He introduces us to a God who will let us make our own mistakes.
Many people wonder why God didn’t simply create humans as spirit beings without human nature. Why did He first make us physical — from the dust of the earth in Genesis — then offer us eternal life only if we trust in Jesus? If God can do all things, why didn’t He create us with perfect character?
Of course, God could have done that — if He’d been willing to create us without the personal character we need for making personal choices. God had a choice about how humans would be created. He could have made us to function like programmed robots whose only course of action is to carry out the instructions of their Maker. But instead, He chose to create us like Him, capable of making choices that are limited only by our knowledge and character.
So we have this God who is constantly forming our character, and part of the way that happens is by us making our own choices.
A God Who Runs
Jesus continued His story by describing how the younger son, the prodigal son, takes his inheritance, leaves home, and makes a series of horrible choices in his life — choices that leave him empty and struggling: “After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing. Then he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one would give him any” (Luke 15:14-16).
The prodigal son is afraid to go home to his father because he’s afraid his poor decisions and running from his father has cost him his relationship. He’s afraid he has no leverage to negotiate his acceptance. His past is too costly for his father to forgive. Instead, he devises a plan: “How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, and here I am dying of hunger! I’ll get up, go to my father, and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired hands” (Luke 15:17-19).
Does his plan sound at all vaguely familiar to you? It should. It seems we’re all in negotiation with God to try to get His help in exchange for our good behavior. We promise to do what we’re told, and we expect God to forgive us. This is a straightforward business arrangement, and we fully expect it to work. Meanwhile, we talk about being God’s as if we’re family. But in our “performance-for-forgiveness” arrangement, things don’t operate on grace. Jesus completed the story, “But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
What an amazing picture of our God! The father runs to the son. In the ancient Middle Eastern culture, men didn’t run. Respected men, landowners, people of wealth and dignity would never be caught running in public. It was beneath them. If something were needed, if something was urgent, they would send a servant running.
But I believe this father realizes how the village will welcome his son when he returns in failure. He knows what the village has planned for the boy, and it’s not pretty. The father thinks that if he’s able to achieve reconciliation with his son in public, no one in the village will treat him badly.
So the father takes the bottom edge of his long robes in his hand and runs to welcome his pig-herding son, grabs him, and kisses him. Out of his own outlandish compassion, he empties himself, assumes the form of a servant, and runs to reconcile his estranged son.
It’s not amazing that we love God. Why wouldn’t we? What is amazing is that God loves us. He chose us. He ran to us.
This scene reminds me of a passage about Jesus Himself in Philippians: “Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross” (2:5-8).
It’s easy in our religious culture to think that this life is all about us “running to the Father,” that we’re the ones who are working and obeying to get to the father. But Jesus reminds us that there is a heavenly Father who is running us down. He reaches out to us through the person of Jesus Christ.
This story wouldn’t have been nearly as amazing if the son had taken off running for the father. It’s not amazing that we love God. Why wouldn’t we? What is amazing is that God loves us. He chose us. He ran to us.
And He continues to run you down today.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from W Publishing Group, a division of Thomas Nelson.
Pete Wilson is the founding and senior pastor of Cross Point Church in Nashville, Tenn., a committed church community that he and his wife, Brandi, planted in 2003. The author of three books, including his latest, Let Hope In (Thomas Nelson), Pete enjoys fly fishing, Titans football, and playing with his three sons. Find out more at Pete’s blog withoutwax.tv or follow him on Twitter @pwilson.
This article originally appeared in the January, 2014 issue of Home Life. Subscribe