I write this blog anonymously. It is time to reveal my identity. I am actually quite famous. Perhaps you have heard of me. Many have written about me. Rembrandt painted me. Jesus Himself described my journey. I am the Prodigal Son.
If you know the story, then you know that when I was old enough, I grabbed all that was due me and left, leaving both my real home and my real Father. I went to a far-off land seeking fun and adventure.
I spent many years in that far-away place living what felt like the good life, reaching for and mostly finding the “American dream.” By all common metrics, I was at least moderately successful; certainly I was above average in my accomplishments. I left all that I was behind. I never called my Father. I never even texted Him.
As the years went by, something in my life began to seem amiss. I was beginning to experience a deep sense that there was something more to life than my American, upper middle-class existence. The foreign land in which I was living was beginning to feel very foreign indeed. I was mostly empty inside. The stuff of life, accomplishments and material things began to lose their interest for me. The banquet that the world was throwing began to taste like “food given to swine.” Looking back, I was “coming to myself.” That is the way Jesus tells it.
As the sparkle of the foreign land was diminishing, the thought of returning home began to increase. I had begun to realize what I was missing by being away all these years. Increasingly, I felt drawn back to my home and my Father. One day, I simply knew I had to go back. With the decision made, I didn’t hesitate; I started out for home. I was both eager and afraid. How would my Father respond? Along the way I planned what I would say when I got there. I would stand up straight and look Him in the eye as he had taught me to do. “Father,” I would say, “I have sinned against heaven, and in Your sight;I am no longer worthy to be called Your son; treat me as one of Your hired laborers.” Certainly that would soften Him toward me. All I knew is that I would do anything to be home again.
As I drew close to home so much looked familiar; it felt comfortable…and not. I had spent my youth here, but I had been gone for a long time. And, you know what they say about never being able to go home again.
I could see my house in the distance. And then I saw something else: I saw a figure running toward me. I couldn’t make out who it was. Was it someone sent to warn me to stay away? After all, I was an ungrateful son. Was it someone sent by my Father to test my motives for returning, to make sure I was properly humiliated by my actions? The figure drew closer. No! It couldn’t be! It was my Father! I had never seen Him run before! I stood frozen; He was on me in an instant. And then…He embraced me and kissed me! I stammered out my practiced lines, “Father, I…I…I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight;I am no longer worthy…” He wasn’t listening; rather, He was calling to have me fitted with His finest clothes; He put His ring on my finger; then, He started planning a welcome-home banquet. I could only stand there, dumbfounded. There was no hint of anger in Him; He did not say, “I knew you would be a failure. I tried to tell you this would happen.” He did not tell me I had to earn my place back into His good graces. There was none of that. Only His tears of joy.
It was as though He had been waiting for me all these many years, each day standing at the window hoping that this would be the day I returned. What kind of love is that? It is unworldly love, the kind I had never known. Had He always loved me like that? I couldn’t recall…
Slowly, my life began to settle down again. I had time to reflect on this most remarkable turn of events. Rather than suffering through the humiliation and toil to earn my right to be called the son of my Father, I had been joyously welcomed back into the family with full privileges, no questions asked. It was as though I had never left. And I realized that before leaving home I had never thought much about my Father; I had certainly taken Him for granted.
Coming back, I wanted to get to know Him, to really know Him. The accepted way for a son to know His Father was through sermons, reading, study, podcasts, and conversation (prayer). What I learned was not so much about my Father. I learned instead that Jesus loves me and that I needed to work on my personal relationship with Him. After all, I was told, it is only because of Jesus that my Father welcomed me home. I was told that through the love of Jesus and His blood shed upon the cross, I was now shielded from the wrath of God, my Father. God-my-Father had welcomed me as a worthy son only because Jesus paid the price I cannot pay for my sins of leaving home. When I walked out, I was told, I had offended the honor of my Father and only Jesus’ punishing death on the cross could restore the honor of my Father. Another image was given to me: I’m in a courtroom. My Father sits in judgment of me. He sentences me to eternal torment for my offense to Him. Jesus steps up to take my punishment. Then, my Father-the-judge steps down from the Bench and hugs me. Welcome home, son.
So I worked at my relationship with Jesus. Hard. After all, I was so thankful to be back home. I didn’t want to ever again disappoint my Father.
I have to admit, though, that as the days, months, and years passed, I began to experience stress and worry at being home again. You see, in Church I was told to love God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It had become easy for me to be attracted to Jesus. He died for me. The Holy Spirit was also attractive, who doesn’t appreciate and grow to love a “helper.” But, my Father…
Ever so slowly I began to realize that I didn’t know how to feel about my Father. Almost everything in Church was centered on Jesus and His love for me, and on the Holy Spirit, Who was sent to help me. Mostly, mention of my Father was limited to a prayer to “Our Father” as Jesus had taught.
Our Father, Who art in Heaven…
Anything else that was said about my Father was usually about His anger and wrath directed toward people like I had been: one of those other Prodigal people who had left their homes. I began to notice that whenever I thought of my Father my only real concern was with keeping Jesus between Him and me.
It has dawned on me that during that time I loved my Father but I didn’t really like Him. Truthfully, I had learned to be afraid of my Father’s wrath. To me, He had become very much like the “Angry God” of preacher Jonathan Edwards; a Father Who, according to Edwards, views the other Prodigal children as “objects”of His wrath; objects, not persons. Edwards says:
[Prodigal children] are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell.
I was always afraid of again failing my Father. I was afraid that my Father, in His anger and wrath toward me in a moment of my weakness, would say to me, “Enough!” and kick me out of the house. And I was afraid for others. Many of those “lost” people—other Prodigals—about which I was hearing had been my friends when I lived in the foreign land; many remain my friends even after I returned home. Had my Father felt that anger toward me when I was away? I had always thought He had been daily watching at the window for my return.
So, I began to wonder, who really welcomed me home? Who was it that every day watched for me and then, when finally seeing me, ran out to greet me? Who was it who clothed me in His finest garments, put His ring on my finger, and threw me a barbecue of His fatted calf, inviting all of the neighbors to welcome me home? That just didn’t sound like the wrathful Father of whom I was now afraid.
Just before Jesus died on the cross He said, “The one who has seen Me has seen the Father.” He went on to say, as He had said earlier, that He and His Father were one. How could it be, then, that there is a wrathful God (Father) and a loving Son (Jesus)? After all, it is foundational Christian theology that here is only one God. It sounded more and more that I was being taught that God was bifurcated God, not One, that there was one wrathful God (Father) of the Old Testament and then a second, loving God (Jesus) of the New Testament. The Father demands obedience; the Son freely gives love.
I began to dig deeper as the question burned within. Which God was it Who welcomed me home?
I found that the early Church had a viewpoint of God that differed from that which was formulated by Augustine, refined by Anselm, and through the influential preaching of men like Edwards, had become accepted in much of Western Christianity. It is a viewpoint that was common in the Church in the early years following Jesus’ death and is still widely accepted in Eastern Christianity. Rather than a wrathful Father appeased by the sacrifice of His Son on our behalf, God the Father is a loving God who longs for our salvation. Jesus died to defeat death, humankind’s great enemy, not to appease an angry God or to ransom us from Satan.
One of the greatest preachers the Church has known, Saint John Chrysostom (c. AD 347-407) said this:
Enter into the Church and wash away your sins. For there is a hospital for sinners and not a court of law.
This was a very different Father than I had been taught about upon my return. But, it was the Father whom I had experienced, the Father I was coming to know. This is my Father, the one who watched and waited for me, who ran out to greet me and rejoiced upon my return. This Father of the early Church is not a wrathful Father; rather, God the Father, like His Son, is the great physician who desires to “bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:14-21) This is not a Father who demands my punishment and the punishment of the other Prodigals so that His honor might be restored. Rather, this is the Father to all, whether His sons and daughters or whether the Prodigals. This Father, and His Son, Jesus, want nothing more than for all of us to return and remain home and share in their lives, just as you would expect of a Father. (Ez 18:23, 2Peter 3:9)
Father Michael Pomazansky captures well our Father’s love for us:
God is concerned more for our salvation than even for His own glory. A testimony to this is the fact that He sent His only-begotten Son into the world for suffering and death, solely to reveal to us the path of salvation and eternal life.
Setting aside His own glory…Interested more in my salvation than in His own honor. That is indeed perfect, sacrificial, other-worldly love. It is the only love worthy of a God Who “so loved the world…” This is my Father who ran to welcome me home. It is our Father who daily waits and watches for the return of all Prodigals. Father and Son both give love, freely, fully, and unconditionally.
I’ve been back at home for many years now. In many ways, I’m still that young kid looking over the fence at the grass that looks greener; there’s still a lot of Prodigal Son in me. I remain much too inattentive to my Father Who loves me unconditionally. All too often I put myself above Him and my neighbor. I remain much too full of pride and self love. I still feel the pull back to the foreign land and the taste of the food of pigs. I tell myself that I wish I could stop longing for that place, so full of grays and blacks, but the pull is strong and I too often justify a quick trip back. Sometimes it is a very quick trip manifested in something like a burst of anger. Other times, it is a longer trip if, for example, I get caught in the despair of the news of the world. However long my excursion, when once again I “come to myself” I once again tell myself this is my last trip to this place. Then, once again I turn to home. Once again my Father runs to greet me. Once again, with a contrite heart, I say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” And, once again, the barbecue is laid out. Each “welcome home” is like the first.
“Forgive me, Father” is, after all, the only thing I have to offer back to my Father; after all, He owns everything else. So, it is here in the fire of my struggle against the pull of the foreign land where my Father is forging in me a new heart, a humble and contrite heart with the help of His spirit, His angels, and a “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before me. A contrite heart, it is all He has ever wanted from me. And it is everything I have to give. I long to love God and neighbor much because I have been forgiven much. (Luke 7:36-7:50)
So, finally, all these many years later, I finally have the answer to my question, “Who ran out to meet me?” God did. All of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All of God loves me and has welcomed me home, and all of Heaven rejoices over my return. I love my Father, in His perfect love there is no room for fear…and I really like Him.
But, to know Him, to really know Him, will take me all of eternity.
If you don’t know this Father, come and meet Him. You might find you like Him, too.
1) “Saint Athanasius and the ‘Penal Substitutionary’ Atonement Doctrine.”
2) Bailey, Father Spyridon. The Ancient Path.