The Bible uses the word “prodigal” in one story, to my knowledge.? This is the story of the “Prodigal son”.? This parable of Jesus follows closely on the heels of him telling analogies about the shepherd who left the 99 sheep to search for the 1 and the woman who searched for the lost coin.? Both found what they were looking for.? See Luke 15:11-32 for the parable, and verses 3-10 for the preceding analogies.
While these analogies and this parable are clearly meant to discuss the same phenomenon, there is one rarely discussed, but somewhat glaring difference.? In the cases of the shepherd and the woman, God (aka the shepherd and woman) searches very actively (Luke 15:4b “Doesn?t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” and Luke 15:8b “Doesn?t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?”).
However, in the case of the Father of two sons, we see what I’ll call an “active waiting”.? In verse 12, the Father divides the estate, and then we don’t hear about the Father again until verse 20.? I think we can safely assume the Father was praying for His son.? Perhaps he asked travelers if they had seen or heard about his son.? However, there’s no reference to him going to the “distant country” that his son had gone to, attempting to somehow find his son, or even before his son left, attempting to dissuade him from his poor choice.? However, as soon as his son is within sight, “while he was a long way off” (v 20b), his Father ran to him, threw his arms around him, kissed him, ordered the?best robe, sandals, a ring, and the fattened calf (v 20, 22, 23).? All this happened while the son still likely wreaked of pig slop, pig poop, and who knows what else.? Note that there isn’t even a reference to a bath before the party begins in verse 24.? Here we have a disgusting, smelly, dirty prodigal who has only just returned minutes earlier wearing the robe, the sandals, and the ring, and being the guest of honor at a celebratory banquet.
As I compare this to how I’ve interacted with prodigals, and watched others interact with prodigals, I see a rather distinct difference.
If I were to tell this story, as it actually plays out within modern Christianity, it might go something like this (deviations emphasized):
11?Jesus continued:??There was a man who had two sons.?12?The younger one said to his father, ?Father, give me my share of the estate.? After the Father provided the son with a lecture on the son’s naivety, inexperience, and the foolishness of taking his share of the estate early, the Father grudgingly gave the younger son part of his property.
13??Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth?in wild living.14 Throughout this time, the Father would call him, email him, and visit him, frequently reminding him of the heartache that he was causing himself, the awful consequences of his actions, and worst of all the impact it was having on his mother. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.?15?So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.?16?He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17?Again his Father visited him and since the son could clearly see he had no better options, he agreed to return home with his Father. As they were on their way home, the Father told the son how he really should take a bath as soon as he got home BEFORE putting on any fine clothes, how he would need to earn back the right to wear the family signet ring, how there would be chores to do and relationships to mend, and how he needed to come up with a plan for his future.
Clearly this distinction is so extreme as to be almost humorous.? However, I fear that it is not far from the truth.? How often do we talk to the person who appears to be going wayward and try to pressure them out of going down a foolish path?? How often do we go out to the person who is wayward and cajole, attempt to manipulate, threaten, and otherwise do anything we can think of to convince them to come home?? Need I ask how often these actions actually work in the long term?? Then, when the person does come back to the faith/family, what is our response?? Is it like that of the Father who immediately restores the son’s honor and dignity and doesn’t even suggest a bath to remove the filth of the world before his celebration?? Or is it more like the Father in my version who says, “I’d be glad to welcome you just as soon as you clean up the mess you made.”?
As a general rule, we’ve had limited success in helping prodigals return and stay back with the Father.? Perhaps if we follow the example Christ gave us in this parable we would have better results.