2 Corinthians 5.16–21
Luke 15.1–3, 11b–32
We heard one of the best-known of Jesus’ parables today, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
At least that’s its usual name in the English-speaking world. In Germany, it has a different name; it’s the ‘Parable of the Lost Son’. (‘Prodigal’ means ‘spendthrift’, not ‘lost’.)
So is it about a spendthrift son, or a lost son? And what about the older brother, who is lost in his own way? Is it the Parable of the Two Lost Sons? Or the Parable of the Elder Brother?
Is it about the sons at all? Is it really about the father? Some have called it the Parable of the Forgiving Father; that’s a really good name, because where would we be if the father didn’t forgive his son?
There are other names, like the Parable of the Waiting Father (Helmut Thielicke) or the Parable of the Father’s Love (Joachim Jeremias). These names highlight different aspects of the parable, don’t they? The father waits daily for his son’s return; the father’s love is the thread that runs through the whole parable.
The name we give to the parable influences what we see when we look at the parable. Let me share my favourite name for this parable: the Parable of the Powerless Almighty Father (Eduard Schweizer).
We know about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. So let’s talk about the Parable of the Powerless Almighty Father—you may be less familiar with this version. Hearing the parable this way raises questions for us: Is the Father almighty? Is the Father powerless?
The Parable of the Powerless Almighty Father starts
There was a man who had two sons.
A tension has already been set up. Two sons means conflict. It’s been that way from the beginning. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau are only the merest tip of the iceberg.
The Father is approached by the younger son, who basically tells his dad he’d rather his dad was dead. He wants his inheritance. Now. What can the Father do?
How about say No? An almighty Father has the authority to refuse to give the son anything, while he’s still alive. And who would blame him? No one—the son’s behaviour is unforgivable.
But the Father says Yes, and gives the son his inheritance. He is powerless to stop his son.
Once the son has gone, the Father looks out for . He stands at the door, he walks down the road, he waits by the gate, he scans the horizon for any sign of his son’s return. Day after day, there is nothing, but still he persists. He is powerless to make the son come back.
Eventually, the son does return. He has been prodigal, he has squandered his inheritance. He has lost his fair-weather friends, and he has descended so far down the social scale that he has fed pigs, which of course made him unclean. The son returns home with a scheme to save his hide. He can’t occupy the place of a son any more, but perhaps his Father will let him become a servant.
Last week, we looked at Isaiah 55. Remember how it starts:
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
This is what it looks like when someone ‘comes’. It isn’t pretty. But there is Good News—because little does the son know, but the Father has been looking out for him to come home.
When the Father sees the son far off, he does something way beneath his dignity. He runs to his son and throws his arms around the lad. His heart goes out to his boy.
What do we see in the Father’s actions? We see this: the Father has already forgiven his son. The Father can’t wait for the son to get home, but runs to him. Respectable men didn’t run in public in that culture; it was beneath their dignity. They didn’t run when a son who’d wished them dead came back. At best, they stood their ground and negotiated stiff terms for the boy’s return. At worst, they told the son to go and never darken their door again.
This Father is different.
When the son begins his carefully rehearsed speech, the Father interrupts. He calls for the best robe, for sandals for the boy’s filthy feet, for a signet ring and for the fatted calf to be made ready for a feast.
Is this Father almighty or powerless? Which is it? We might expect an almighty Father to stop the son taking his inheritance early, and to at least put some conditions on the son’s return home. We might expect a powerless Father to dither and be rather indecisive when the son returns, rather than taking charge as this Father does.
What is this Father? This Father is both almighty and powerless; his ‘almightiness’ is the power of love.
When think of God as ‘almighty’, we tend to think of raw power, don’t we? We think an almighty God should stop bad things from occurring, and make good things happen. We think an almighty God should work miracles.
But here Jesus shows us God has a very different kind of almightiness. God is almighty Love, not almighty power. God’s love is what is almighty. And God’s love will prevail in the end. The problem is, almighty God may seem to be powerless to us.
Who wants a God who waits for the lost son to return in his own time, when he decides, years later—still lost, with all sorts of schemes in his head to save his skin? We’d prefer a god who’ll stop the sinner leaving—or make the sinner return—or at least punish him when he does return. We’d understand a god like that.
But what does Jesus say?
But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
The Father is “filled with compassion” for his son. The eternal, infinite God is filled with compassion for you and for me. This is the face of God’s almightiness to us.
So why does Jesus tell this parable? Is it a nice story about how nice God is? No, far from it. It is a warning. It’s a warning to us—not to stand in the place of the older son in this Parable of the Powerless Almighty Father.
Remember the older son? He is right out of sight until the younger son comes home. He’s the good boy, the worker. He was angry when the Father welcomed the prodigal, the wastrel, home. He never got a fatted calf, not even a scrawny goat. He could have had all that, he could’ve had anything. All he had to do was ask, but he was too busy working to earn what was already his. He wasted his energy being jealous of the way the Father had treated the prodigal. He didn’t share the Father’s compassionate heart. He didn’t rejoice when the lost was found.
The older son is in danger of making himself unable to receive the Father’s love. The Father will still love him with that almighty power of compassion; but the older son may end up rejecting the Father’s love.
The Parable of the Powerless Almighty Father is also about this older son. We can see that from the verses at the beginning of Luke 15:
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable…
He told them three, actually: the Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son. Lost things, the finding of which causes great rejoicing.
Jesus was defending his choice of friends. Jesus was saying that lost things weren’t lost forever. He was showing the compassionate heart of the Powerless Almighty Father for the lost—and for those who judge others to be ‘lost’.
Jesus wants us to share that heart. Let’s search our hearts, and ask that we may share God’s compassionate heart.