And He said, ‘A man had two sons.’
It is all too easy to miss the fact that there are three main characters in the story about the prodigal son: a man had two sons. If we don’t get stuck on the younger son and all his shenanigans, we might notice the older son. But these sons also had a father. Three people. Three questions.
What did the younger son want?
Material wealth. He had no interest in the father, but thought that he could really live if he had the things that his father had. He wanted to really live, but didn’t know how, so he did the only thing he knew: he got hold of as much wealth as possible and literally ran with it. He found out, as we all do, sooner or later, that things are absolutely devoid of real life.
What did the older son want?
The older son had spent years serving his father. Why? to position himself so that when the time came, he would receive his father’s blessing and inherit all that he had. His strategy was quite different from that of his younger brother, who made a simple demand of his father. The older son behaved in a much more socially acceptable way. He was the “good” son, the one who obeyed his father in all things. But, ultimately he wanted exactly the same thing that his younger sibling wanted: his father’s goods. “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me [fill in the blank].” It is easy to identify the error of the younger son. Many parents would die for a son like the older one in this story: compliant and obedient, rather than troublesome and rebellious. No doubt, many of us read about the older son and assume that he hasn’t really done anything wrong. Neither the younger son nor the older one realized that what the father wanted was what they really wanted, deep down inside their souls. Both sons needed to repent, and rethink their lives in light of what the father wanted.
What did the Father want?
The father wanted his sons to love him, not his wealth or position or what he could do for them. He wanted their respect. He wanted his sons to be faithful to him, to share life with him. He wanted their relationship to be special, intimate even. He wanted a relationship where they would each make sacrifices, gladly, one for the other. He wanted a relationship where each could be his true self, knowing that when he screwed up, forgiveness would be readily available. The father wanted a relationship that was “for better or worse,” one that was “for life.” Most of all, he wanted his sons to be with him.
The father could force a relationship with each of his sons but not the kind of relationship that he wanted. Within the older son’s heart lived a belief that obedience was key: “Just tell me what you want me to do!” If pressed, the father could give a clear answer in the form of a list of commandments. Ten of them, actually. The younger son asked for the father’s wealth and the father gave it to him. But what the father really wanted was an intimate relationship, one that is based on more than “mooching” or obedience.
The two sons describe a broad segment of Christianity. There are those who are legalists. They know what is expected and they do their very best to perform. To them, Christian “law” is what makes us distinctive and adherence is the singular obligation of every Christian. Then, there are those who see God as poised and ready to meet all their needs and even many of their wants. This attempt at relationship is evident in prayers used almost exclusively to seek solutions for our problems, provision for our needs, and relief from our suffering.
We cannot make an argument that God is not interested in our obedience or our prayers. The problem is that we have made obedience and prayer into ends, not means. The Pharisees saw obedience as an end in itself. We see this in their intense interest in seeing that everyone in society understood the Law and kept it. Likewise, prayer can be an end in itself: prayer for prayer’s sake or even prayer for my sake. But obedience and prayer cannot be ends, for God wants me. Disobedience and lack of prayer will keep me from God, but obedience and prayer will not take me to Him, unless I use them as means to get there.
If I do everything my wife wants: take out the trash, mow the grass, maintain the car, pay the bills, take her on dates, but do not show her respect or do not share my life with her, then we are roommates, not husband and wife. I suspect that women “get” this quicker than men. In fact, in writing this post, I cheated. The first paragraph under “What did the Father want?” came directly out of my wife’s heart, not mine. My understanding of relationships is so bad that I had to ask my wife for insight into “What did the Father want?” And, incredulously, I claim to have a relationship with God?!
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My first post on the prodigal son focused, predictably, on the two sons. After continuing to pray over this story, though, I came to understand that the story is really about the Father. Jesus put the sons in the story to make sure that I understood that the Father’s love was targeted at me. Even if I have difficulty figuring out what a relationship with God looks like, there is no question that He seeks to have a relationship with me. We are not looking for each other like two people who do not realize they are destined to be married. He has already chosen me and nothing will stop Him from moving in my direction. God loves me deeply and has done so ever since before the foundations of the world. It is because of God’s love that I know Christ and believe in Him and in His salvation. Throughout my life, God has been drawing me inexorably to Himself. For 58 years, He has been creating and molding and shaping and redeeming me into one of His sons, a beloved child with whom He will be united for all eternity. Until recently, I have not been aware of His activity in my life, the countless big and small, easy and hard, pleasurable and painful God-originated events that have made me who I am today. He is working and waiting, ever so patiently. I am the one who must move toward Him; but when I do so, I can be assured that He will be there, just as the prodigal’s father was waiting for his own sons.