You are currently viewing The Father’s Heart

The Father’s Heart

I grew up in the shadow of my brother Mike who was two years older than me. Our relationship was a mix of being both close brothers and sibling rivals. Growing up, he saw me as “the kid.” In my sophomore year of high school, a growth spurt gave me the bragging rights of being taller than he was. Mike responded with an inscription on the back of his senior picture: “Just remember: no matter how tall you get; you’ll always be shorter than me.”

Sibling rivalry surfaces a number of Bible stories. The rivalry of Cain and Able ends in murder. Jacob’s cunning use of deception cheats Esau out of his birthright and his blessing. Jealousy leads Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery and tell their father he is dead.

Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son also includes a sharp contrast between two brothers. (Luke 5:11-32) It has three key elements: the behavior of the younger brother and its consequences; the father’s response to the prodigal’s return; and the older brother’s reaction to his brother’s return and his father’s forgiveness.

The parable begins with the younger brother’s arrogance in demanding his inheritance, and it leads to the dissolute behavior that causes him to squander it. Early in the parable, he is a self-absorbed, irresponsible young man out for a good time. When the money runs out, starvation and suffering slowly bring him to his senses. He returns home humble and contrite – hoping to be accepted as a servant. 

The second part of the parable describes the father’s response to the prodigal’s return. He sees his son while he is still a long way off, runs to meet him, and wraps him in an embrace. The prodigal acknowledges his unworthiness and expresses his willingness to be treated as a servant. The father dresses him in fine robes, restores him to sonship, and celebrates his return. 

The third part of the parable focuses on the older brother’s reaction. He is the dutiful son – the responsible, obedient one who has never strayed. He is indignant that his father has welcomed the prodigal, forgiven him, and is celebrating his return. The older brother refuses to join the celebration – even after his father urges him to do so. As the parable ends, the older brother is the son who is alienated from both his father and his younger brother.

The purpose of Jesus’ parable is to describe what God is like. The meaning of the parable revolves around the contrast between the heart of the father and the heart of the older brother. The father’s behavior reveals what the heart of God is like: excessive with mercy, lavish with forgiveness, and unconditional with love. In sharp contrast, the older brother is hard-hearted, angry, and unforgiving.

The older brother resents his brother – first for demanding his inheritance and then for squandering it. He is self-righteous and unyielding in his judgment of his brother. He is also furious with his father for forgiving the prodigal, restoring him to sonship, and celebrating his return. In the older brother’s view, the prodigal doesn’t deserve to be treated as a son. His heart is closed to the prodigal, and he wants nothing to do with mercy and forgiveness.

As we reflect on the meaning of the parable, it confronts us with a twofold challenge. The first is to grasp the nature of God. The parable urges us to trust that God is merciful, forgiving, and loving. It calls us to abandon any notion that God is like the older brother – hard-hearted, judgmental, and unforgiving. The parable urges us to recognize that there is something of the prodigal in each of us. It invites us to come to our senses, acknowledge our faults and sinfulness, and return to the embrace of the God who is merciful, forgiving, and loving.

The second challenge the parable confronts us with is cultivating a heart like that of the forgiving father. It urges us to embrace a change of heart. The parable calls us to cultivate the patience to wait, the mercy to forgive, and the love to endure suffering.

The patience to wait: The father’s waiting is not a passive act of resignation. It is an active longing, a bittersweet mix of the pain of loss and hope for reconciliation. The father watches the road, but he knows better than to chase after his son. Only the son can initiate the return; the father is powerless to bring it about. Until the prodigal is ready, all his father can do is wait.

Cultivating a heart like the father’s requires learning the patience to wait. Waiting acknowledges we are powerless to control the outcome. It forces us to resist the desire to take charge, try to fix it, get it over with, and move on. The experience of parenting makes it painfully clear that some things can’t be controlled or rushed. Sometimes the harder we push, the more it triggers an opposite reaction. Patience requires a unique kind of strength. That strength is necessary in order to slow down when urgency will fail, hold back when pushing won’t help, and wait in readiness until the time is right.

The mercy to forgive: The parable depicts the father’s mercy in rich detail: running to meet his son, wrapping him in an embrace, dressing him in new clothes, and ordering a celebration. The prodigal hardly has the opportunity to utter the words he’s been rehearsing on his way home: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son . . .” (Luke 15:19) The prodigal’s return is a humble admission of guilt and a desire for forgiveness. A remarkable aspect of the parable is what it doesn’t include. The father shows no anger, and he doesn’t lecture his son. There’s no: “I hope you’ve learned your lesson.” The father doesn’t punish the prodigal or demand a penance. The son has endured the intrinsic consequences of his actions, and he has suffered enough. The father simply receives him with the gift of mercy, a forgiveness that can’t be earned, and a love that knows no bounds.

Cultivating a heart like the father’s urges us to gift others with mercy and forgiveness. When we have suffered a wrong, it’s easy to respond with anger, paybacks, and getting even. These are the tendencies of the older brother, and I know them well. Sadly, such responses perpetuate the cycle of wounding and alienation. Mercy and forgiveness break the cycle. When Jesus urges us to love our enemies, he is urging us to cultivate a heart like the forgiving father’s. He is asking us to break the cycle of wounding and violence by extending mercy, forgiveness, and love.

The love to endure suffering: The father’s heart comes with a cost: the willingness to endure the suffering that love requires. In the parable, he is confronted with the arrogant demand of his younger son: “give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” (Luke 15:12) The father suffers rejection and abandonment when his son takes his inheritance, turns his back on his father, and leaves home. The father experiences grief and loss of one who has lost his son. In the midst of so many things that could breed bitterness and anger, somehow the father finds the strength to endure the suffering that love requires.

Cultivating a heart like the father’s requires enduring suffering. Every commitment to love is an embrace of the unknown. It brings gifts and blessings, but it also includes unexpected suffering. Marriage vows remind us that the commitment to love involves better or worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health. Cultivating the father’s heart requires bearing the cost of love: embracing self-sacrifice, putting those we love first, and remaining faithful whatever our commitment to love asks of us.

Some scripture scholars suggest we use the wrong name for this parable. They suggest calling it the parable of the forgiving father rather than the prodigal son. The clear intent of the parable is to describe God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love. The father waits for his son’s return, runs to meet him, embraces him with forgiveness, and celebrates his return. The parable upends any notion that God is like the hard-hearted older brother – resentful, angry, unwilling to forgive, refusing to celebrate. As we reflect on this parable and live it in our own lives, it urges us to deepen our understanding of what God is like. It also calls us to cultivate a heart like the forgiving father’s: learning the patience to wait, the mercy to forgive, and the love to endure suffering.

Questions to Ponder

Here are some questions to help you ponder the meaning of the parable of the forgiving father in your own life.

  • As the parable unfolds, in what ways do you identify with:
    • The prodigal?
    • The father?
    • The older brother?
  • As you reflect on the parable, in what ways does it describe your understanding of what God is like?
    • Is your notion of God like Jesus’ description of the forgiving father?
    • Is your notion of God like Jesus’ description of the older brother?
    • Is your notion of God some mix of the two? Or is it something else entirely?
  • In what way does the parable invite you to cultivate a heart like the forgiving father’s by learning:
    • The patience to wait?
    • The mercy to forgive?
    • The love to endure suffering?