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The Prodigal in All of Us

Paul was somewhat hesitant to describe to me an experience he was having as a youth minister. He was working with teenagers from an affluent suburban high school, and some of them were into some serious stuff – including heavy drinking, drug use, stealing to support their habit, and promiscuous sex. When one of them decided to turn his life around, he was left to cope with guilt, remorse, and shame.

Paul came to realize that simply telling these young people that God forgave them failed to convey the deep emotional experience of forgiveness and reconciliation they needed. So, he reached outside of his protestant tradition to find a way to help them. He began doing what he described as the equivalent of hearing confessions. Paul would listen compassionately as the young person described her sins, transgressions, and destructive behaviors. Then, they would pray together and ritualize the experience of forgiveness. Paul was surprised to discover that an age-old process helped to convey the powerful emotional experience of forgiveness the young people needed.

The young people that Paul was working with have a lot in common with the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable. (Luke 15:11-32) The self-absorbed younger brother had the audacity to demand his inheritance while his father was still alive. Then, he left home, squandering it all “in dissolute living,” and was left destitute and starving.

There is something of the prodigal in all of us. Our circumstance may not be as desperate, but we know what it is to go our selfish ways, try to live by our own rules, turn our backs on God, wander away from home, and squander gifts we have been given. Like the prodigal, we know what it is to be humbled by our sinfulness, to find ourselves far from God, to come to our senses slowly and reluctantly, to admit the state in which we find ourselves. In short, we know what it is to be broken and in need of forgiveness.

Jesus doesn’t tell the parable of the prodigal son to make an example of the younger brother or to put us to shame. He tells it to dramatize the father’s compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love. He tells it to reveal who God is and to reassure us that no matter how far we have strayed God is watching the road, waiting for us, and longing for our return. Jesus tells the parable to describe a God who longs to fold us in a compassionate embrace, eager to clothe us in the robe of forgiveness, always ready to celebrate our return. God rushes to embrace the one who “was dead and has come to life,” of one who “was lost and has been found.”

Jesus’ parable doesn’t end with the celebration of the prodigal’s return. There’s more to the story. The older brother also returns home – not from a life of debauchery but from the field where he has been carrying out the responsibilities of a dutiful son. He is surprised by the sounds of a celebration and asks what is happening. When the servants tell him it’s a celebration of his brother’s return, he is furious. He thinks his brother should have been greeted with condemnation rather than celebration.

The older brother is so caught up in his own self-righteousness that he is unable to grasp the mercy and forgiveness that characterize his father’s heart. It is as though the older brother believes in a different “god” than the one Jesus reveals. The “god” he believes in punishes transgressions, demands retribution, and only rewards those who are righteous. The dutiful older brother can’t abide a loving, merciful, and forgiving father, so he can’t abide the father who forgives the prodigal or the God that Jesus reveals. He is simply unable to grasp the loving heart that is quick to extend mercy and forgiveness, welcoming the prodigal home.

Jesus’ parable dramatizes the true nature of God. His entire life and ministry are devoted to revealing a God who is rich in compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. When John’s disciples ask Jesus if he is “the one who is to come,” he answers:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the
lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news
brought to them. (Matt 11: 4-5)

Healing and reconciliation are at the core of Jesus’ mission because they are definitive ways God is present in a broken world. Jesus reveals a God who is relentless in seeking out the lost and reconciling those who have gone astray. Jesus’ ministry of table fellowship excludes no one. His intentional act of defying purity laws to eat with outcasts and sinners ritualizes healing and forgiveness in breaking bread and sharing a meal.

There is a way in which we are all like the young people Paul was working with as a youth minister. We are all turning our lives around, and we are all the prodigal returning home. Deep within us, we know that the process of forgiveness and reconciliation is more than a head game. It needs to penetrate the deep emotional level where our sins and failures are like open sores or dark inner places. The process needs to take us beyond the cognitive level of thinking to a deep emotional place where we need to feel forgiveness. We need to come to know it in our heart of hearts.

For us to trust that we are forgiven – for that message to penetrate our deepest hurts and fears – we need to trust the God that Jesus is so relentless in revealing. No matter how often or how far we have strayed, it is never too late to come to our senses and return to the God of mercy and forgiveness. There is a way in which we are all like the prodigal – humbled and frightened as we turn toward home, not knowing what we will find. What Jesus assures us is that we will be greeted by a God rich in mercy and forgiveness who has been watching the road and waiting for us. When we make the last turn toward home, God will run to meet us, fold us in a forgiving embrace, clothe us in the robe of reconciliation, throw a party to celebrate our return, and restore us to our special place in the divine heart.

Invitation to Prayer
God of mercy and forgiveness,

You know all the ways I have gone my own way leaving you behind.
You are aware of every dark and broken place within me,
And yet, you wait – watching for my return.

God of compassion and healing,

You know the fear that keeps me distant from you,
The guilt and shame that inhibit my ability to trust your mercy.
And yet, you wait – ready to embrace and forgive me.

God of all-embracing love,

Shower me with the forgiveness and healing I need.
Let your love permeate the depths of my being.
Restore me to my home in your heart-of-hearts.