I cherish the love of the father as depicted in the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32). The sermons I’ve heard about it leave a permanent impression of a welcoming love that never gave up—either for the son who had gone or the one who stayed home. Over the years this parable has impressed me as I keep discovering aspects relating to the father, the prodigal, and the elder son.
A skillful preacher put the story of the prodigal son in context with the parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep. He mentioned that the coin was lost and it didn’t know it was lost, nor could it find its way home. The sheep was lost, felt it was lost, but couldn’t get home until the shepherd found it. The son was lost, he knew it, and he knew the way home.
A couple encounters enriched my understanding of the parable from a human perspective. These encounters reminded me how valuable and elemental we are to one another. It helped me grasp what I’ve learned about the characters in the parable through the lens of relationships.
The Pull of Relationships
I met a true prodigal. He was 17 years old. When I was introduced to his foster mother, she told me, “He’s burned all his bridges except one: the one he has with us, his foster parents.”
She explained that no school would take him, except a charter school; and he had skipped so many classes that even the charter school was no longer an option. In her words: “He doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do.” She said it with tears in her eyes, in a tone of frustration rather than condemnation.
His parents had asked if I would be willing to meet him. They hoped he would be more willing to open up to a stranger than with his family.
When I met him, he smiled and shook my hand. His girlfriend sat at his side, holding his hand. He wasn’t shy, he expressed no embarrassment. His smile communicated a desire for freedom to spend time with his girlfriend and his friends.
I saw no sadness or remorse, no desire to return home with a prepared speech to confess his sins. No yearning for his foster father’s welcome or a party to celebrate his return. For a long time, the words of his foster mother resonated in my mind: “He’s truly a prodigal.”
The Pain of Relationships
Let me tell you about a father I know. Through divorce, the father had lost, as he said, “all that makes a man” (his wife, children, and grandchildren). When I asked how he was coping with the loss of his family, he pulled out his cellphone and showed me their pictures.
Tears flowed down his face. He kept saying, “I miss them; I love them so much.” Then he shared with me sad details of his difficult and bitter divorce. He explained how painful it was for him to think he would likely not see his family again. His emotions had a strange mix of pain, regret, and perhaps repentance. “Wrong choices took the best out of me. Now I’ve lost everything,” he said.
The Restoration of Relationships
Those two interactions left a basic yet profound reminder. Our deepest meaning comes from our relationships: with God, family, coworkers, classmates, neighbors. The clear contrast between the father and the prodigal goes back to the saying of John Donne: “No man is an island.”
For the 17-year-old, his friends and girlfriend gave his life meaning. Nothing gave me the slightest indication that he even considered a change in himself, in his conduct, or in anything that would cause him to lose what he gained through those friendships, as negative as their influence was.
For the grieving father, the family that meant everything to him was gone. When he realized how much he loved them it was too late. His pain was raw, his grief was tangible, his sadness unbelievable.
We’ve heard great, insightful sermons and reflections about the parable and its characters: the faithful love of God as Father, the wandering heart of the prodigal, and the uneasy response of the older son.
At different times our reality could reflect the experience of each of those characters. We may walk away and get lost in our own far land. Like the 17-year-old, we may feel that we can go without God and live without regrets. We may have been wounded by events and their consequences, like the father, and feel nothing but grief. We may even say with the elder son: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you” (Luke 15:29),* harboring an unwillingness tocelebrate the return of those who were lost.
To all these characters and situations the Father’s promise is the same: “Everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31).
* Bible texts are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ã 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.