One of my most favourite lines in the Bible is Luke 15:20: ‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.’
Jesus’ Parable of The Prodigal Son is designed to illustrate the generosity of God towards us. Most theological explanations focus on the forgiveness God offers to those who truly repent. Yet what resonates with me most in the parable is how the son ‘was still a long way off’ and yet the father does not hesitate to run (run! so unseemly in those days) and sweep him up.
All before the son utters a word of apology over how foolishly, awfully, terribly he has behaved towards his father.
There is the brilliance of grace. Yet I’ve often wondered what happened the next day, after the party with the fatted calf and barrels of wine.
Given in the parable that the father Jesus refers to is God, I’d say He was still in a fine mood at the post-party breakfast table. His joyous delight would be on display. All back-slapping ‘my son is home’ bonhomie. No tit-for-tat point scoring going on. Simple unadorned joy. The father doesn’t care what the son had been up to in the years that passed. He wants to get on with their relationship afresh.
Son number one is probably still pissed off. Grumbling into his bacon and eggs about his wastrel younger brother. “So typical of him,” he fumes. “I stay at home, hold the fort, comfort dad when he left without a backward glance. I saw what he got up to and with whom (he needs to be more careful with his Facebook security settings). I can’t believe dad just let him waltz back in here. I didn’t get that sort of party when I turned 21 – and he gets it all laid on just because he bothered to come home!”
But son number two is the one that interests me the most in that family. Prodigal. How did he wake up the next day? With a hangover, I’m fairly certain. In the parable he is everyman – or woman – who has received God’s grace and forgiveness, no questions asked. It’s a brand new day. I dare say he awoke feeling thankful. Relieved. Perhaps overwhelmed by the depth of unconditional love displayed by his father the day before:
“I can’t believe how he just ran up and hugged me. He pulled me close and cried. Me too. Then he threw a party. Unbelievable. After all I’d said and done, he just let it go. I thought he might turn me away – and I could understand it if he had. I begged for a job to try and pay off the debt, but he didn’t want to hear a word of it. He said to me: “What’s done is done. I love you. I’m so glad you’re home.””
A week later would Prodigal have felt the same? Perhaps some doubts and worries have crept in: “It’s been a week. We’re getting on so well. But what about next time? I’m such a mess. It’s taking all my strength to not go into town and get a couple of hours with a hooker. Or burn some cash through the pokies. I’m jonesing to snort a line. Or download some hardcore porn. Big bro is just waiting for me to f*&k it up, I know it.”
You don’t need to have experienced Prodigal’s loose-living to recognise what he battled with. Shame. Of stuffing it up again. Not living up to the gift of grace. Falling off the wagon. Fearful of not being enough.
Yet it’s not about works. We don’t have to do enough to earn God’s love and grace. But I wonder, just quietly, how many – like Prodigal – doubt we can be enough.
That’s because we measure in human terms. Our very means of self-judgement is flawed by it having come from flawed humanity. We know shame because we have been taught it as an emotional response to something. Most likely by another flawed human being, who cannot – by the very nature of being human – love unconditionally and forgive like God can.
I hope in the weeks and months that followed, Prodigal realised he could never be enough. Never. For every hooker he lusted after, God wouldn’t have been surprised by him lusting after 100 more. For every time he put $50 through the pokies, God could easily expect $5000. For every line of coke on the mirror, God was poised to observe him chop another 50.
Not because God is there, cheering us on and urging us to sin more. No. If sin is our distance from God, there’s no-way He wants us to move further away. Yet God knows how flawed we are. We gloss over our faults, whilst He sees them all in the harsh brightness of a hungover morning… and still loves us. The worst we expect from ourselves can never compare to the worst God knows we are capable of.
The SAP kindly shared a new theological term with me in regards to this: prevenient grace. The more we surrender, acknowledge all our faults and step out in our willingness to grow in relationship with God, prevenient grace makes our struggles easier. Prevenient grace means that while Prodigal would have lusted, gambled and snorted at an Olympic-level standard, he is prevented from doing his worst. Blessed with prevenient grace (sort of like divine willpower, a handbrake on the worst of his excesses), the struggles and shame fall away. He may have aimed for Olympic-level debauchery, may even have craved to lose himself in its numbing haze, but by prevenient grace he can’t even stumble to the starting blocks.
Following his return, each time Prodigal hit overwhelm and sobbed out his shame, I hope he realised God was nodding in agreement. “You don’t know the half of it, Prodigal. But you know what, I love you anyway. On a scale that your human heart can barely imagine. But keep drawing closer. My grace will hold you. You’ve a new race to run.”