All of us have a tendency to wander. We question God. And we even experience moments or seasons when we turn our backs on him.
Jesus knows our wanderings, but he offers us all he has anyway, and he waits for us—watching, expectant, and eager for us to run into his arms. One day, when the scribes and Pharisees complained that he was receiving sinners and eating with them, he confronted them with three stories. A lost sheep. A lost coin. And a story about a father and his two sons.
The younger son asked his father for his inheritance. In first-century Hebrew culture, the son may as well have said, “I wish you were dead, so I can get what’s mine.” I imagine grumbles rippling through the crowd as Jesus spoke.
The tension grows when he tells of the father giving the hateful son his full share of the inheritance. I picture the crowd squirming, fists tightening, some of them spitting on the ground. “How could any son do such a thing to his father?” and “How could that man throw away his years of labor for that fool. He is no son.”
A reasonable man would surely have sent him away with nothing and would have disowned him. But the gracious father gave his son half of all he had. Then he watched him leave.
The young man left, but he not only left his family, he left his town and even his country. He spent his father’s wealth on pleasure, and when his money ran out, so did his friends.
I imagine a few sneers. “He got what he deserved.”
But life got worse for the young man and everyone around him.
In Western culture, famine is a foreign concept. We’ve had moments when there were a few empty shelves, no toilet paper, or our favorite restaurant closed because of COVID. But we’ve never experienced famine. At least, not yet.
No food. Empty stores. Dried-up fields and wells. Everyone scrapes to survive. Everyone. Even the Great Depression did not match the gravity of a famine in the ancient world. They had no infrastructure to safely or effectively ship food across long distances. Even those who had prepared and stored grains and dried meats would only survive for so long. Famine meant desperation and a fight to survive.
The young man had nothing, no one, and nowhere to go. He found work feeding pigs.
As Jesus told the crowd about the young man tossing Carob pods to pigs, I expect there were knowing smiles and head nods. Feeding swine gave them one more reason to despise this wayward fool and one more failing to make him unclean and unworthy to enter the temple courts.
You could say he was unworthy to approach his father and unworthy to approach his father’s house.
But Jesus wasn’t done and neither was the father. The father waited, not for a wayward fool, but for his lost son. And as his son stared at the dried-out pods, he realized the pigs were eating while he was starving. Starvation brings the kind of delirium that makes dirt-covered, tasteless pods seem like food. The young man broke down. “These pigs eat better than me. My father’s servants eat better than me.”
No money. No food. Nothing and no one to call his own. He left that far-off country wearing the stench of defeat, and he made the long journey home. Having wished his father dead, I can’t imagine he expected any sort of welcome. He may not have even expected eye contact or entrance into his father’s house, but he hoped for food and a place to sleep.
I picture the father waiting. I imagine him climbing to the rooftop each evening, watching the distant hill. Hoping. Praying. Finally, after who knows how many years, a silhouette crests the hill. The father’s pulse rises. “My son!” He knows in his gut, It’s him. He doesn’t wait another second. He hikes up his cloak and his robe and sprints toward him.
“Welcome home, my son.”
Those words. What those words must’ve done to the father—and to his son. The kind of words that open floodgates of emotion. Instant downpour of tears. Body-shaking, knee-buckling tears.
“My son is home!”
He called me his son.
Imagine. Two hearts broken and renewed in one swift moment. The father wailing with unrestrained joy. Servants sprinting to see what’s wrong. The father waves them off and shouts “My son is home. Bring him—bring me a robe.” He removes his robe and drapes it over his withered, dirt-covered son. The young man no longer looks so young. Hard living and famine have etched lines into his face and lined his hair with silver streaks.
The father wipes tears from his eyes, wraps his arms around his son, and holds him tight. His son’s once strong shoulders feel slack. Shoulder blades and ribs press against the father’s arms. With tear-dampened hands, he rubs layers of dust from his son’s face and tears from his son’s eyes. He cups his trembling hands around that tired face. He sees his own ringed finger cradling his son’s cheek.
He steps back, slips the ring off his finger, grabs his son by the hand, and slides the ring onto his son’s finger. The father kisses the ring and kisses his son’s forehead. “You are my son.”
His servants rush toward them and surround them. One sets a stool behind the son. Another eases him onto the stool. They wash his hands and his feet. They replace the father’s robe.
And the celebration begins. “Kill the fatted calf. Invite the neighbors. Invite everyone.”
Music. Dancing. Feasting.
But not everyone celebrated.
Don’t forget the scribes and Pharisees. As Jesus told the story, the teachers of the Law couldn’t imagine this son or this father. Reckless waste. Reckless love. No smiles in that crowd. Only disgust. They certainly couldn’t see themselves in that story.
But Jesus hadn’t finished yet. The older brother was nowhere to be found. He surely heard the music, saw the smoke and smelled the roasting calf. Surely at least one of the servants had told him the exciting news—probably more than one. But he refused to enter his father’s house. “He’s not my brother.” He stayed in the field.
But his father left the celebration and came to him. He pleaded with him to join them, but the older brother answered his father, “I’ve worked for you forever, and I never disobeyed, but you’ve never even given me a young goat to roast with my friends. But when this so-called son of yours comes home—this swine who devoured your wealth with prostitutes—you killed the fattened calf for him!”
The scribes and Pharisees nod in agreement. “Finally, someone with judgment.”
The father looks into his older son’s bitter eyes. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It’s more than fitting to throw a party.” He grabs his son by the shoulders and strains to see anything but hate in his shadowed eyes. “We celebrate because your brother was dead, but now he’s alive. He was lost, but now he’s found.”
Jesus lets the words sink in. He looks into the eyes of his listeners. Tight lips. Narrowed eyes. Stone hearts. He searches for any feelings beyond hate.
The lost son was found. The lost sheep was restored to the flock. And the lost coin was once again a part of a complete set.
The older brother represented these teachers of the Law. Just like the older brother, they lived in the presence of the Father but didn’t know him, didn’t love him, and they despised his love for his wayward son.
Even so, Jesus loved them and opened his heart to them if only their wandering hearts would come home as well.
Where do see yourself in this story?
Are you the lost son or daughter? The older brother? A follower, listening to Jesus and wanting more of him?
Are you like a Pharisee, clinging to the rules, working out your own salvation by your efforts alone?
Are you wandering or running toward home? Are you feasting with your Father or wasting away in an emotional or spiritual famine?
It doesn’t matter where you are in the story or who you are? Your Father is waiting for you. He is eager to pull you into his arms and hold you forever. And he’s got a party to beat all parties waiting for your ultimate homecoming.
Can you hear those beautiful words?