My wife and I are expecting a baby girl come June.  And like many first time mothers and fathers, we’re trying to do our due diligence: deciding on paint colors for the nursery, registering for the shower and reading lots of parenting books.  Turning pages through an entire publishing industry dedicated to bestsellers about talking so kids will listen, no-cry sleep solutions, potties and princesses and, most of all, correcting bad behavior.

After growing up in the loving embrace of Mary and learning the wise ways of Joseph, Jesus left Nazareth to call greedy tax collectors brother and loose women sister, to include sinners as kinfolk.  That is until the Pharisees and scribes interrupted his welcome, demanding an explanation.

In response, as he so often did, Jesus didn’t offer a cross examination or a defensive retort.  Instead, he told a story, this time the longest and most famous parable ever uttered.  For the religious authorities then and followers now, what does the parable of the Prodigal teach us about God’s family?

Luke 15: 11-32 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.  A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Congregational Responses:
Even Christian families have sibling rivalries.
A parent will endure public shame and humiliation to find a lost child.
Despite our terrible behavior, God gives back the very best.
Jesus always shows up for a party.

With the endless chapters on ridged boundaries and strict rule keeping, the corner time-outs and the punishing reprimands, fear tactics and shaming strategies, the role of parent can so easily be reduced to the authority figure occupying the bully pulpit.  And if we make God over in the image of culture, then no wonder we so often worship a tough love disciplinarian who’s always unbuckling his leather belt.

What does the parable of the Prodigal teach us about God’s family?

That while all of us are younger sons, who have made pigsties out of the family name and who have pawned our inheritance for the pleasures of naked gratification, and while all of us are older sons, who have clung to the fairness of justice over the scandal of grace and who have disowned a brother in the fields rather than gather around his redemption, we still won’t ever get what we deserve.

Instead we get a father who keeps an eternal vigil, prayerfully waiting and watching with the porch light on.  And when we come stumbling and stammering over the horizon, he doesn’t demand an apology or an airing of grievances, only the tearful embrace of finding a lost child.  He doesn’t command indentured servitude or the shackles of slavery, only that we slip on the golden ring.  He doesn’t force us to make amends or promise to never do it again, only that we raise a glass and shake a leg at the dance party.

Church, the Bible is our bestselling book on parenting, the holy writ to be highlighted, dogged eared and marked up in the margins.  And the Good News says that the extravagant welcome is far greater than the dissolute wandering; that God is relentlessly about saving us not counting our sins; that we, no matter what we have done or left undone, can always come home.