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I wish the Parable of the Prodigal Son went just a little longer.
Also known as the Parable of the Lost Son, Jesus illustrates in Luke 15:11-32 the story of a son who convinces his father to give him his inheritance early, an incredible insult in those days.
As the well-known tale continues, the son runs off to a distant land, squanders the money through wild living, encounters a severe famine, begins to starve, gets a job feeding pigs, realizes the pigs are eating better than he is, and returns to his father to apologize and beg to be hired as his servant.
In Jesus’ touching words, when the father saw him, he “was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
The father then gives the son his best robe, a ring, and sandals. He throws a huge party, even cooking his fattened calf.
The story concludes with the bitter jealousy of the father’s other son, who’d never run away but instead worked hard for his father for many years. He’d never had even a small party thrown for him!
The father explains, “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The parable teaches of God’s loving father-heart to each of us who repent from our sins and return to him. It’s a beautiful love story of devotion, generosity, and forgiveness.
But I want to know: what happens next?
I know the story is a parable of God and humanity—but if it instead had been a human father of which Jesus spoke, what would have happened after the party?
Did the other son throw on his own best robe and fanciest sandals, smile brightly, and joyously exclaim, “Oh Pops, how right you are! My brother we thought was dead has returned! Crank the music, I’m coming to the party!”
Or did he begrudgingly attend the party but always hold bitterness, pain, and unforgiveness in his heart? Did he bide his time until his father was no longer living, then murder his brother with either word or deed?
Did he demand his own inheritance and set off for a distant land to live the high life?
And what of the father? Family relationships are usually complicated at the best of times. Do we really think that all the years of pain and trauma from the runaway sons’ actions would have been wiped clean by the joy of his return?
There is nothing so painful as love rejected. Once the dust had settled off his sons’ sandals and the musicians had stopped their party music, would the father still be so overjoyed because the son he believed dead had returned?
Maybe yes, and he lived his days in joyous gratitude.
But maybe no, as he began to grapple with the huge healing process and broken trust needing to be rebuilt.
And what of the returned son? What if his repentant words were merely an act, brought on by near starvation and a realization that pigs were eating better than he?
What if he had only returned to further plunder more money from his father or even take from his brothers’ inheritance?
What if the ne’er-do-wells from his squandering days accompanied him home? Would they be welcomed by the father too?
Or what if he quickly got bored by a life of tame, hard work with his father, yearning to run once again, but always somehow managing to miserably keep himself in check?
To me, these are not idle questions.
My questions arise from the heart of a parent who knows well the pain of a lost adult child. I well understand the grief-filled anger path the father in the parable must have walked, yearning for his child to be safe, keening over the road he chose to run off down.
The specifics in my family are not mine to share; the story belongs to my child. Nonetheless, I recognize the father’s deep emotion, an excruciating longing and hope for a son long thought to be dead to return to life, to be found, to come home.
After pouring out my heart to a trusted friend the other week, she reminded me of a Bible story found in Matthew 17:14-21.
In this story, a father comes to Jesus and kneels before him, begging for help and mercy. His beloved son has seizures that cause him to fall time and again into fire and water. Both son and father are suffering greatly. The man had first brought the child to Jesus’ disciples, but they couldn’t heal him.
How terrifying it is to see your child in continuous peril!
Jesus’ response, my friend reminded me, was, “Bring the boy here to me.”
Those are especially powerful words for any parent whose child is in danger.
The cause of that danger can vary; sometimes we have done all we can. Perhaps our child has a serious illness and we have taken them to every doctor we can find, to little avail, just as the father took his son to the disciples. Perhaps our child has extreme challenges with behavior, and we have taken them to therapist upon therapist and tried treatment upon treatment.
Perhaps we invested the best of ourselves into raising and teaching our children to be moral, loving, responsible, and God-following, yet in adulthood they’ve run from all we tried to teach them, squandering the wealth of their upbringing.
We might know to our core that we have thrown ourselves into doing every last thing we can to save our child—and still that child has not returned home.
Or perhaps they did return home time and again, enjoyed the huge feast we threw and the love we lavished on them—before they plundered more inheritance, breaking our trust and our hearts before disappearing once again.
While parental pain in situations such as these cannot be minimized, there comes a point, my friend gently told me, with tears in both of our eyes, that all we can do—the best we can do—is bring our child to Jesus.
It doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t continue to help our child—to seek solutions for medical care, addiction recovery, life supports, or anything else they need for their specific situation.
God doesn’t call us to turn our backs on supports such as doctors, specialized teachers, hospitals, mental health care, social workers, counselors, or substance abuse resources, among others.
But we can also take the pain that only a broken-hearted parent knows—a great emotion fueled by a longing to transform into ecstatic joy for a lost child returned—and run straight to Jesus, kneel before him, and prayerfully bring him our child.