The Prodigal Father

Published on March 27th, 2019

You who are using the one-year lectionary must have rejoiced last week as I inadvertently based the Cross Words essay on that Gospel reading (Luke 11).  I wish I could say I did it on purpose, and maybe in the future I will purposely write on the one-year lectionary Gospel so you one-year people don’t feel left out. This week I return to the three-year lectionary Gospel, the account frequently called, The Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Prodigal.  This word can mean wasteful, which is no doubt the way it is intended when we use it to describe the son in the parable; he wasted his prematurely received inheritance.  But the word also means recklessly generous or extremely abundant.  With this sense we see that the word fits well the father in the parable.  The father is clearly prodigal.  When we consider the prematurely distributed inheritance in the parable we behold the reckless generosity of the father; he distributes some of His testamental wealth even before his death.  In this we are reminded of the one who through Isaiah was named the Everlasting Father, who, even before His death distributed His testamental forgiveness to the wayward sons of the Old Testament.  He was, as attested by Old Testament prophets, recklessly merciful…prodigal.

The parable, indeed the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke, is about repentance.  Note well that repentance neither creates nor earns forgiveness.  Only God can create and earn forgiveness—which He did at the cross—for all of time.  In addition to creating forgiveness God, through His law, must prepare the heart for this freely flowing forgiveness earned at the cross.  David thus acknowledged this work of God in Psalm 32:  “Day and night your hand was heavy upon me.” (v. 4).  Our Father’s law-hand must first be heavy upon us before His soft hand of forgiveness descends to heal.  So David in this Psalm purrs like a kitten under the tender, forgiving hand of its master as he declares, “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (v. 5b)

Yes, our Father is prodigal.  In the parable He is recklessly gracious first as he scans the horizon and then as He runs out in an undignified manner to meet and embrace His wayward son; indeed the reckless son did not deserve this prodigal father, nor do we.  The prodigal then generously clothes his son, and then this dead son is reestablished as the father’s living son, receiving undeserved sandals and the family ring upon his finger.  These things our prodigal Father does for us lost and dead sinners in our Baptism (Gal. 3:26,27):  “…in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  Given new birth, we are declared to be sons; we are clothed with Christ.

In order for our prodigal heavenly Father to save us dead children, He had to do an unbelievable prodigal thing…send His prodigal Son to spend His inheritance (His time on earth) with prostitutes and the like.   Then in the most prodigal act ever, the Son would spend His heritage of eternal Sonship by wretchedly dying.  The prodigal result? We who were wretchedly lost might be found and we who were dead in sin might be made alive—made alive in Him who was literally made alive for us.