Often, when we read the Bible and the stories and parables therein which are designed to teach us truths of the Christian faith, we don’t go any further than to read the story itself. For instance, the Prodigal Son asks his father for his portion of the inheritance, he travels to a far country where he wastes the sum given him, he winds up feeding pigs and, realizing that he has fallen far from the glory of the life he had, decides to go home. The father sees him, greets him, and restores him. End of story. That’s how most of us read the stories and incidents in the Bible.
Have you ever stopped to meditate on what that journey home must have been like for the Prodigal? Let’s consider what transpired on his journey home and as we do, make an application to our lives.
To begin with, this was no one day journey for the young man. Luke 15:13 says that he went to a far country. The Greek word for far, μακρός (makros), denotes a great distance. This is more than a short journey. The son wanted to be as far from his father as he could get, and we know this from the manner in which he treated his father. To ask of his father his inheritance was a grave insult, inferring, “I wish you were dead.” This is a selfish young man whose only interest in life is himself.
His behavior is a picture of all of us when we choose sin over the love of our heavenly Father. We are given so many good gifts from our generous and loving Father – life, health, the beauty of the world around us, friendship – yet we look at sin as desirable, and by choosing it say, “I really wish you were dead and out of my life. I prefer (name your sin here) over You.” And like the Prodigal, we attempt to put as much distance between ourselves and our Father as we can. Some of us couldn’t run fast enough to get away from Him.
Here’s the part I was thinking about recently and wanted to write about – the trek home. The Prodigal begins his journey, hoping that he can at least get fed by his rich father for being one of his servants. Think of that journey home. This is ancient Israel. There aren’t Holiday Inns and Red Roof Motels every few miles. There are no stretches of US 1 in which houses, businesses, and restaurants are packed shoulder to shoulder, from which he could perhaps beg a meal for his hunger from a sympathetic heart. No, there is simply desert, stretching as far as the eye can see, filled with dangerous creatures and unrelenting heat. Add to this the fact that he is already starving and you have a recipe for disaster. This young man, by his choice of actions, has put himself in a dangerous position. Behind him lies famine and sure starvation in a city that cares nothing about him now that his money has run out. Ahead of him lies the unknown. And he is days away – remember, a “far country,” not the next local village.
Worse than that, part of this unknown is the moment he will present himself at his father’s doorstep. With every weary step taken under the broiling sun, the thoughts of how he treated his father sow doubt in his mind. You see, it wasn’t just the one incident where he demanded his inheritance. For the Prodigal to do that shows a heart that many times before had been rude and insulting to his father. “Son, the lower forty needs to be gleaned today” “I’m busy. Get the servants to do it.” That sort of thing. I would bet good money this young man had memories of a lifetime of rudeness and insolence towards his father. Now with every step he imagines the worst. Having been such a disgraceful son, will his father even make him a servant? Will he instead chase the son back into the desert, striking him with his staff for his insolence and bad behavior over the years? Will his father curse him and swear at him as he drives the boy from his home? Every sin is multiplied so that even the smallest gesture of thanklessness is magnified into an unpardonable sin against the one who has been so loving to him all his life. He is in despair, now knowing fully just how wicked he has been to the one who loved him so well.
This world is not our home. Despite how lovely it can be at times, it is not the home for which we were made and for which the deepest cry of our hearts long. Like the Prodigal, when we “come to ourselves,” we begin to see this world for what it truly is, and to long for that home with our Father. Our journey through this life as Christians is like the long journey from afar off by the Prodigal.
Like the Prodigal, I am journeying through a spiritual desert called life. At 70, my journey is nearing completion, yet I find myself with those same thoughts – will the Father accept me? Here is the problem – I am not at all comforted by the many Christian religions which paint a picture of our heavenly Father as keenly offended by every little moral failure in our lives. In a sense, I understand Martin Luther, who was so tormented by small sins that he was known to confess for hours, trying to come to peace with God. For many of us, Western theology has turned life into a long trek under the hot sun of God’s constant wrath against sin, making every misstep one more reason that He should send us to hell forever. I remember being a Bob Jones Fundamentalist and attending a week long “Revival Meeting.” One thing you could count on was hearing a litany of sins denounced with fiery threats of God’s wrath. Do you go to movies? Oh, bad! God is gonna get you! Have a little wine with your dinner? You are surely on the way to eternal fire! Do you wear long hair as a man, don’t give your tithe to the church, or, GASP! belong to some church other than a group of Bible-believing Fundamentalist KJV 1611AV believers? You are surely the devil’s son!
So the Prodigal Son trudges on, hungry, tired, his clothes torn and worn out. He is the picture of fear and dejection, hoping that his father will make of him nothing more than a slave and feed him. He does not know that his father has every day gone to the highest point at the edge of his property and scanned the horizon, hoping that this day is the day he will see his wayward son returning. The truth is an entirely different reality from what the son imagines.
Does this apply to you? I know that it is a struggle I have. It has not been helped by the constant barrage of theological misfits who, like Thomas Aquinas, picture our Father as getting revenge on sinners and taking delight in their eternal punishment for the sake of delight in His justice (“God does not delight in punishments for their own sake; but He does delight in the order of His justice, which requires them.” – Thomas Aquinas). The constant barrage of threats of God’s eternal damnation and anger from Fundamentalists of all kinds – Catholic, Protestant, and even Orthodox – adds heat and torment to my trek through this spiritual desert. I know what I am in my heart and the evil thoughts and desires that still lurk there. I know how easy, given the right circumstances, it would be for me to fall back into the pig sty of sin from which I have escaped by God’s grace. This knowledge causes doubt.
This is why I have a hope in Patristic Universalism – it meets the requirements of what Jesus taught in the Parable of the Prodigal. Where is the judgment of the father on his wayward and rude son? Where is the “offense” that Roman Catholic theologians are so fond of speaking, stating as Anselm of Canterbury did that ,”an offense against an infinite God requires an infinite punishment.” Where do we see anything but the desire of the Father to restore his son to the familial relationship which was lost?
If you, like I, suffer from the multitude of doubts that are constantly thrown at us, it would be good for us to take time in this spiritual desert to remember and take to heart the end of the story. What does it say about our heavenly Father when in this parable the father of the Prodigal was looking for him every day? What does that tell us about the true heart of God? Do you see your arrival in heaven to be like the picture on the left, or do you expect to see a scowling Judge who is ready to bring out ever sin, every failure, every misstep and then condemn you for it? I know that right now, I expect the second and not the first. For various reasons, I struggle to imagine the Father extending His love to such a failure and sinner as I have been.
Yet this is the desert – the reality must be more beautiful than I can even begin to imagine.