The story of the prodigal son, recorded in Luke 15, is often called the parable of the Father’s heart. Jesus tells it, along with two other stories, not only in response to the seemingly “heart-less” religionists of His day, but also for you and me to know what is the Father’s heart toward us.
Jesus tells of a man with two sons, one of whom asked for his inheritance in advance. The father gave it to him, and the son went out and squandered it, ending up in a pig sty. Finally, Scripture says, the young man “came to himself.” He recognized the insensibility of the pathway he’d walked and how foolish he’d been to leave home. He returned, humbled, thinking he would ask to be just a servant at his father’s place.
“But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.” (Luke 15:20-24)
In this story of a father’s heart toward his son, Jesus also tells us how Father God feels about you and me-notwithstanding our failures or wastefulness of what He’s given to us. Ironically, the story is born from the fact that among the religious people of Jesus’ day, whom you would most think would understand the love of God, there was the least evidence of that love.
Jesus is assailed by the religious leaders because coming to Him were “tax collectors” (seen as corrupt traitors in society) and “sinners,” a broad term for those who had no interest in “religion.” But they liked Jesus. That’s one of the great things we discover about Jesus. He doesn’t demonstrate “religion.” He shows people the heart and love of Father God, and their response is overwhelmingly positive: “I didn’t know this is what it’s about!”
Jesus came for two reasons: to die for our sins and to display the love of God. Oftentimes people think about Jesus’ ministry displaying the love of God as a syrupy kind of niceness. But there’s nothing syrupy about God’s love. It’s dynamic and powerful. It’s deep and demanding. So demanding He cannot simply let sin go by unattended. That’s why He sent His Son to absorb in Himself the price of our sin.
What we see in Jesus is the love of the Father, in the lifestyle Jesus lived and in the graciousness with which He embraces people who have fallen…people who have failed. People who, like the prodigal son, have wasted something and are willing to honestly admit that.
With that wastefulness, however, there comes a sense of unworthiness that distances people from God. Many people in Jesus’ day were characterized by feelings of unworthiness that kept them at a distance from the religious system. Yet when Jesus Himself speaks, they flock to Him by the masses, because He relates to them with the heart of God. And so, in this parable, Jesus reveals four things about Father God that speak to their (and our) sense of unworthiness, failure, and distance from Him.
1. The Father never loses hope.
Did you have parents who were warm, supportive, and encouraging, parents who had hope for you? Some didn’t. Some even had parents who wished their children had never been born, and kids pick up that sense of rejection. Others had parents whose expectations could never be lived up to.
What’s impressive about this text is the son went against everything of the father’s hopes, and yet the father still didn’t lose hope for him! There’s the first message of Father God’s hope for us.
Notwithstanding anything you or I have done, God doesn’t give up caring about us, nor does He ever lose His vision for what our life can become.
2. The Father is always looking our way.
Many people think of God watching us as though He were looking for a chance to spear us through with a lightening bolt. If you or I feel that, it’s because of our own sense of shame and guilt for what we’ve done. Guilt deserves to be felt, but it isn’t God’s attitude toward us. It’s our own sense of alienation because of our sin. It doesn’t represent God’s heart.
God is not passive about the fact that we’ve sinned. That’s why Jesus was sent to die. Sin has to be dealt with. We need to repent of it. But Jesus shows us Father God’s heart toward us in the story of how the father saw his son “a great way off” and ran to meet him. He didn’t just stand and wait for the boy to come crawling. Jesus tells us the father, who’d obviously been watching for him, saw his son at a distance and ran to him. God’s heart is always looking our way and reaching out to us.
3. The Father’s heart responds to our repentance.
The son comes with repentance, and the father’s heart responds. This cannot be bypassed. Not because he’s demanding the son to grovel for acceptance, but because he’s glad the son has come to recognize the problems he’s had aren’t his father’s fault.
How often have you heard people say, “If there is a God, why did this happen to me?” God gets blamed for everything for which we don’t want to accept responsibility. When the prodigal son comes back, he says, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight.”
Repentance is turning from our own way to God’s. It’s recognizing the Lord’s ways are good, safe, and secure for us. As we align with the Lord, it opens the way for Him to release possibilities for our lives. He loves us with an everlasting love, unconditionally. For there to come the release of what He wants to do in us, we have to be willing to say, “Father God, I turn from my own way to Yours.”
4. The Father wants to reinstate us.
When the son did that, look what happened. The father put a ring on his finger, a robe over his shoulders and shoes on his feet.
The ring represents reinstatement to partnership with the father. It was his return to being “in business with Dad.” God is saying, through the lips of His own Son, “If you’ll come back to Me, I will reinstate the possibilities I had in mind for you,” just as the father was going to re-enfranchise his son in the family business.
The robe over his shoulders went all the way down to the son’s ankles. It was a robe of dignity. It was the father covering whatever would be the shame or nakedness of the past. Father God desires to restore us to full stature, to robe us with the beauty of what we were made to be. Shoes in that ancient culture represented an end to the time of weeping and mourning the past.
A personal story
I was teaching from this passage of Scripture in Seattle some 30 years ago, and as I did, there was a sweet move of the Holy Spirit, as God was making hearts sensitive to the greatness of His love. The Lord so forcibly brought a picture to my mind, I had to share it. I described what I saw, not knowing anyone in the audience. At the end of the meeting, a woman approached me and said, “That was me, Pastor Hayford.” She began to unbutton the cuff of her blouse sleeve and pushed it up, revealing horribly ugly gashes on her wrist.
What the Lord had given me was this: “There is someone in this room who, in the past, attempted to take your own life, and the scars on your wrist have become so shameful to you, you hide them. But like the father robed the prodigal son, the Lord wants to robe you with a new sense of esteem in His presence, that you would never be ashamed again. And rather than scars of shame, those scars would become your testimony-marks of God’s great triumph in your life.”
“Several years ago,” the woman said to me, “I nearly succeeded in taking my life. It was a time of desperation,” and she explained the dilemma she had faced. “I would have died except that someone found me. Later, I came to Christ, and I knew I was forgiven not only for my past sins, but also for that attempt at suicide. But until this moment, I’ve always felt so ashamed of these scars that mark that episode of my life.”
Now her face was aglow. “I’m the person you were speaking about, Pastor Hayford. And I know the Lord has clothed me with something today that I’ve never before seen so clearly. I’ll never be ashamed of the past again.”
Loved one, can you see what Jesus is saying to you in this parable? He’s saying, “This is what God’s like. He wants to reinstate you to the place of partnership with His purpose for you. He wants to clothe you from whatever has been the embarrassment or shame of your past, to restore the dignity of what you were made to be. He wants you to see the winter of your discontent and its tears are behind you, and the springtime of His joy has come upon you.”
Indeed, dear one, today, this is how Father God feels about you.