Who among us isn’t familiar with the parable of the Prodigal Son? We’ve all heard it; we’ll all read it; some of us have preached sermons about it, but is this simply a story about a wayward young man who takes his inheritance, leaves home and wastes it on worldly pleasures only to later come to his senses and ask for his father’s forgiveness? Well, I guess on the surface we might answer “yes” that’s exactly what the parable is about. A young man who wants to live life on his own terms, a loving father who is always ready to forgive, and an angry brother who wants to know why no one ever gave him a party.
But could it be that through this parable Jesus wanted his followers to truly come to see and understand his father’s love and mercy in a new and powerful way. Could it be that Jesus wants you and me to see and recognize the connection between God’s grace and his mercy in that same powerful way?
In his book, God is with You Everyday, Max Lucado states that grace goes beyond mercy. And to illustrate that he suggests that mercy gave Ruth some food while God’s grace gave her a husband and a home. Mercy prompted the Good Samaritan to bandage up the wounds of a stranger, but grace prompted him to leave his credit card with the inn keeper. Mercy gave the prodigal son a second chance, but it was by God’s grace that a party was thrown.
There’s certainly a lesson to be learned through each of the three characters described in the parable. Who among us can’t at times associate with the young man who thought he knew best how to live his life? Who among us hasn’t turned their back on family and friends at one time or another because of our need and desire to be our own master.
And let’s not forget the older brother…the one who let anger and resentment prevent him from recognizing that he too was loved by a father who cared deeply for his children. Who among us hasn’t at some time failed to recognize God working in our lives to provide what is best for us because we lost focus of what is really important in our relationship both with our father and with our brother?
Paul may help us better understand this struggle when he describes his own life with these words in the 7th chapter of Romans. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not, but what I hate I do.” (v.15). Sound familiar? This may well describe the struggle that both brothers had to deal with in our parable. And it may also describe what we all deal with in our daily lives. Paul then goes on to ask the question, “who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24).
I believe that is where the loving father enters the story. The father in Jesus’ story is willing to allow the younger son to go his separate way and he allows his elder son to become rebellious at his brother’s return. But in both instances the father’s love for both of his sons never wavers. I suspect that both sons had broken their father’s heart, but a loving father never wavers in his love for his children. And while one son practices the words seeking his father’s forgiveness or the other turns his back on his father’s invitation to join in the celebration, the father, our father remains consistent in his grace and mercy.
It is through God’s grace that we are saved, but it is through God’s mercy that we are delivered from judgment. Although neither son deserved their father’s blessing, they received it just the same. While each might well have been condemned by their father, they weren’t.
A story of disobedience and rebellion and of penitence and forgiveness. Truly our story as we seek to find our place in this familiar parable.