For a quarter of a century I’ve heard pastors, conference speakers, and authors work to unpack the implications of Jesus’s famous “Prodigal Son” parable. Some have suggested that the story would be more accurately referred to as a parable about prodigal “sons” because, in a manner of speaking, both children of the father’s children were “prodigals”.
One left home with his feet, the other with his heart.
One of the keys in understanding parables is recognizing that these aren’t necessarily stories that happened but rather stories that happen. Additionally, parables are more like a piece of art from which many valid interpretations can be derived than a math problem for which there is generally only one “right answer.” Parables often defy historical or cultural context because they highlight realities that lie at the heart of what it means to be human.
While there were many Jewish rabbis who utilized parables as a method for teaching universal truths about God, humanity, and the created order, Jesus is unique in that the depth and breadth of his parables far exceeded any other parabolic teachers. This shouldn’t be a surprise; after all, Jesus understands reality in an infinitely deeper way than anyone else. Jesus created the Universe. Who else is more qualified to explain how it works?
The Parable of the Prodigal Son(s), Jesus’s magnum opus, first captured my imagination while reading Henri Nouwen’s classic medication The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen uses Rembrandt’s famous painting (by the same name – see image above) as the backdrop for unpacking the parable. And throughout the first half of the book, Nouwen does what many Christian writers had done before him by outlining the ways in which both sons had “left home”. Nouwen suggests that all of us can relate to each brother during certain seasons of our lives.
Before reading Nouwen’s book, I had assumed that Jesus’s parable was simply about the appalling bitterness and disrespect of the younger son, before he eventually “came to his senses” (v. 17) and found the humility and courage to return home. I had spent years trying to find points of intersection between the behavior of the younger son and my own journey. And while there certainly were (and are) things he and I have in common, I slowly began to realize that perhaps my hardness of heart, judgemental nature, pride, and bitterness was more indicative of the elder son’s disposition. I specifically recall, as a new Christian, feeling a particular disdain toward individuals who, after years of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, surrendered their lives to Christ. As I began to explore my disdain, I realized that I wasn’t so much angry at them for their past sins. Nor was I angry at God for expending the lavish and scandalous grace He freely gives everyone who asks for it.
I was angry at myself.
Throughout my teenage and young adult years I’d white-knuckled my way through so many temptations, while watching those around me indulge in ways that (if I’m honest), I was curious about. And yet, after running themselves and their souls ragged chasing various highs and pursuing dead-end roads, they came to realize it was all (as the writer of Ecclesiastes says) “vanity”. In conversations with these folks, they would say things to me like, “Man, you should be grateful you didn’t chase after the things I did.”
But I wasn’t grateful. I was jealous. I was the elder son wondering why I hadn’t had the courage to pursue the pleasures (however empty) of the world. I quickly learned that my moral restraint was a product of fear, not love. In other words, my abstinence was due to my conviction that if I were to step out of line, God would certainly send a bolt of lightning (or an unplanned pregnancy) to end my world as I knew it.
Like the elder son, I had completely misunderstood the heart of the father. I had assumed he was vindictive, angry, stingy.
Nouwen’s contention is that we all have capacity for duality–we are the younger son and the elder son.
But Nouwen doesn’t end there. He goes on to describe the contours of the father. To the casual reader, perhaps, the father in the story is a simple personification of God, the Father. And while that correspondence is clear, the language that Jesus and the apostles use to talk about the nature and calling of believers highlights what has been referred to as divinization. Early Church fathers such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, Cyril, and Clement of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nyssa all held that, as Cyril puts it,
“Yea, I say, the Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god.”
Clement put it this way,
“[i]f one knows himself, he will know God, and knowing God will become like God. . . . His is beauty, true beauty, for it is God, and that man becomes a god, since God wills it.”
While none of these early Christian leaders believe we actually (ontologically) become God, they do argue that, as far as our love, compassion, joy, and grace go, we have the capacity to blur the lines so that, when people see the way we engage God’s world, they perceive a reflection of God in us.
Which brings us back to the Father in Jesus’s Prodigal Son(s) parable and Nouwen’s book. Because after outlining the ways in which all of us might relate to both sons and their prodigal hearts, Nouwen challenges us, suggesting that we are all the elder son, we are all the younger son, and we are all called to become the Father.
Nouwen says it this way,
“God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive me my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing to me.”
I’ve had the honor of walking alongside hundreds of people who are struggling to discern the depths of God’s love toward them. I always remind them that the depths of God’s love toward them is so vast that they’ll never fully perceive it (Ephesians 3:16-19). And then I challenge with the conviction that, perhaps, the road to a deeper understanding of God’s love is paved by our willingness to embody that love to others–to become the Father.
Jesus, of course, hints at this having always been the case,
“Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:17-23).
I’d like to leave you with three important truths that have helped me along the way:
- God’s love for you can never be exhausted.
- You are no better or worse than anyone else who has sought the grace of God through Christ–the older and younger brothers are equally loved by the Father.
- God has so much more for you than spending your life wringing your hands over whether God is O.K. with you. He has called you to become the Father.
This world, and Haiti in particular, is in desperate need of Christ-followers who are not driven by ego. In other words, who are secure enough in God’s affections toward them that they’ve escaped the temptation to navel-gaze and have joyfully accepted the call to be salt and light to a world yearning for both.
Post written by Bryan McInnis, former Director of Partner Development for Healing Haiti