There are two things the father does in the Gospel story of the Prodigal Son which can give all of us sinners hope and comfort. (Saints need read no further; but please forward this article to any sinners you know).
Two Different Sons
Everyone can repeat this story. It has been told again and again. And it is not easily forgotten because everyone can identify with the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32). At the end of the story, the son is comforted, and it is the father, who is an image of our Heavenly Father, who does the comforting but there are two sons in the story – and any of us could be both of them. Often passed over, or ignored, are two things the father does.
For The Prodigal Son
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” (Lk:15:20).
For The Older Son
“But he [the older son] was angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and entreated him . . .” (Lk 15:28).
From Afar Off: The Prodigal Son
The father does not wait for a servant to bring him word that his prodigal son has been seen returning. The father is there; it is the father who looks for him and “who saw him.” This means he went and looked and waited for his son if not daily, at least often.
The father did love his son with some tough love. He could have sent servants to bring the son home, even bringing him by force; but he waited for the son until the son recognized what he had done and had made the decision himself to repent and to return home.
It is the same with God’s mercy and love for us. He will not use His almighty power to force us to return to Him after we sin. His mercy, along with His love and His power, although infinite, is not some irresistible force that once unleashed, annihilates a person’s free will and turns a sinner into a mercy or love robot. God’s mercy is exercised in His tough love for us. He will look for us, He will wait for us, and there will be rejoicing when we return home.
He Came Out & Entreated: The Older Son
The older son is upset that there is a celebration, the father’s idea when the prodigal brother returns. Despite the fact that the older son had also received his half of the father’s inheritance, he is so upset that he refuses to go into the celebration.
The details are sparse, but we do know that, somehow, the father notices that his older son is not there. The father does not dismiss the older son’s feelings, nor does he ignore him. The father wants his older son to be happy as well; the father so loves the older son, that he himself goes out and finds him and listens to him pour his heart out.
The father replies, not correcting, not chastising, but loving; “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.” (Lk 15: 31,32)
The father seeks not only the individual happiness of each son but the familial happiness of himself and both his sons, happy together.
The Father As Hound Of Heaven
No matter what his sons have done, the father of the two sons loves each of them; and he expresses this love in the way that they each need. The father’s understanding, his hope, and his faithfulness bring to mind the heavenly hound’s “unperturbed pace” and these lines from Francis Thompson’s poem, The Hound Of Heaven:
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught’ (He said),
‘And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited –
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
Our Father, is there always, looking for us and waiting for us; and, when we need it, entreating us to “come in.” He will not push us through the door, but He will, with “unperturbed pace” seek us as only a father can, even if no one else finds anything good in us. He will see His image in us. Having made us so, He knows we are worthy of love.