My Son Came Back
1. It's been said for a long time that the authority of the father in the home has been lost. Come to think about it, my home is no exception. Our daughter has probably never even thought, "if my father wasn't so bossy over me, then I could..." The relationship I had with my father was similar to the one I have with my daughter. Dad was born in the second part of the Showa period of Japan [around 1936]. I never thought, "I'm so scared of my father and I had better obey his every word." But, if anyone was born during the Taisho period of Japan [1912-1926], I'd say things were just a little bit different. My uncle, who has already passed away, was what they called "a stern old man of the old school," very strict. My cousins were very much afraid of their father. Whatever my uncle said had the force of law behind it in his household.
2. With that in mind, what was it like in the average Jewish home at the time of Jesus? I don't know what an actual Jewish home was like. But, from the things I hear, it doesn't seem like the authority of a father in a Jewish home was a minor thing. Even when we read the Bible we can understand it to a certain degree. For example, if you go by the law in the Bible (Deuteronomy 21:18ff), you were supposed to deal with a son rebellious against his parents by the sentence of stoning. But, we're not really sure if this was actually carried out or to what degree it may have been applied, if at all.
3. Any way, this parable, which we read today, was spoken in the world of the Jews as described above. For those who heard it, this narrative must have been a very strange sounding story. Any way you say it, the strangeness of this story is in the powerlessness of this fatherly figure.
God Is Likened To A Powerless Father
4. Let's closely follow the plot of this tale. A certain man had two sons. The younger brother said to his father, "Father, please give me the portion of the property that I am to receive one day right now." What he was looking for was, in short, his inheritance. The method of distributing one's assets was set by law. The eldest son was to receive twice that of the others. Thus, in this case the portion that belonged to the younger brother was one third of the assets. Of course, there was a portion that the younger brother had due him. But still, what kind of talk was that to a father who was still in good health! He completely disrespected his parent. And then, the scriptures say that afterwards "the younger son exchanged it all for cash..." At the least, one would have thought that the right to dispose of the property should have been retained by the father to the end. But, this son unabashedly lets go of the property, converts it to cash and takes off. It's the same as saying that this younger brother acted as if his father were already dead. What bad manners he had towards his parent!
5. Maybe this fellow shouldn't have given him the penalty by stoning, but shouldn't he have given him a harsh talking to? But, unbelievable as it is, this parent goes ahead and divides his property just the way the insolent son had said to. He doesn't say one single negative thing to him. You'd expect him to preach, "When I was young, I never would have done a thing like this," but he doesn't at all. This father is unable to stop his son from taking off. How powerless a father he is! You'd never expect there to be many parents like this in the Jewish world. At the least, a parent like that would have never been respected in the world of the Jews back then.
6. Furthermore, Jesus wasn't only just telling a story about a powerless father. What Jesus was telling us was not just gossipy, but a parabolic tale about the relationship between God and man. Jesus gave a parable about God with this image of the strange father. Was that the right thing to do? It might seem strange, but when you give it some thought, there are points in the story Jesus told that bring different things to mind. The strange thing is not just the parable. For example, the two stories he gave previously are also the same [way]. There we find in the text, a context quite unthinkable to be honest, a dumb shepherd, who leaves ninety-nine sheep out in a field alone to go looking for one. There also we find in the text a woman going way out of her way tenaciously to find one single coin, sweeping all over the house and searching everywhere, and to top it all off, as she tells that she found the coin she broadcasts it throughout the neighborhood, very much without any regard for the nerves of the honest owner. So then, Jesus is telling parables about God with the imagery of these types of persons. Was that the right thing to do?
7. It doesn't look like we should think of Jesus' stories as his "giving us explanations using familiar examples so that they would be easy for anyone to understand." It is obvious that the words of Jesus were a stumbling block for Jews with commonsense even back then. And the way we are [today], I'd say it's no different for us either. The people who are impressed to say, "Jesus' stories are so easy to understand," have probably never read the whole Bible. Jesus' speeches are not easy to understand at all. If you look at them from the surface you won't make heads or tails of them.
8. However, there is meaning in difficult things to understand - because we put some thought into it and start to see. Instead of looking from the outside, we put ourselves into it, into the connection it has with us, and we start hearing. Often times the Lord said, "Those with ears to hear, please listen." No doubt, when we throw ourselves into the story and listen, there are words for us to hear in it. There is something for us to see, something becomes visible. A likeness of God, the Father of Jesus becomes visible in it, a likeness which is quite different from the image of God that our commonsense might put together.
God The Almighty Father
9. So, let's put ourselves in the place of the younger son. When we do that, several things we are reminded of by the actions made against the son's father come to mind. The son requests from the father. Likewise, we request from God. He was asking for his personal wishes to be fulfilled. But, his requests were not made out of honor and respect for his dad. The son acted like his dad was already dead. Likewise, people often act as if God is dead. Also, the son goes back to the father's place. The father can't make the son stay by force. He is powerless. Likewise, people go back to God. God cannot pull them back to stay by force.
10. We are really being given a picture of the way we and our world are. The world goes on and on towards what it wants for itself as if God were already dead for a long time. Whenever we look at the world doesn't it look like God is a powerless father unable to do anything for it? Doesn't God when it comes to this world look like the father who divided his property but was still despised by his own son?
11. He gave into his sons wishes. But, to have one's wishes fulfilled and stay in scorn of one's father do not bring anyone happiness. The way this son is shows that. He left his father, went on the path of his choosing, and then the place where he ultimately arrived was a pigsty. The Bible says, "He satisfied his belly by eating the beans that the hogs hadn't eaten," (verse sixteen). It says there was nobody there to give him even feed from the hogs. He became lower than the pigs. How miserable he was! But, this is truly how a person of the world really is. We need to be reminded of this from time to time, that a person of the world is more wretched than the pigs in the world.
12. But, while in his misery the son thought. The son talked to himself like this, "Even though at my dad's his so many hired servants have so much bread, here I am about to starve to death. I will leave here, go to my father's and say, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against my father as well. I am not qualified to be called your son again. Please make me one of your hired servants,'" (verses eighteen and nineteen). Then he left from there and went back to his father's house.
13. Well, the son who came home then meets his father again. What kind of father did he meet? What he saw there was none other than the powerless father. It was the father who could do nothing with his son until he became this broken down wretch of a person. It was the father who could only loyally wait for his return home. Because dad got tired of waiting so steadfastly, upon noticing his son coming back home, he came running up to him. He ran passionately with his grayed hair in the wind. In this imagery we don't see even a fragment of the authority that a father should have by virtue of who he is.
14. But, when the returned son threw himself before his father as a completely powerless individual, as a person in confession of his own sin, then we come to see that this powerless father is also at the same time an all powerful father. The story goes on like this, "The son said, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against my father as well. I am not qualified to be called your son again.' But, the father said to his servants, 'Hurry, bring me the best clothes, put them on my son, put a ring on his finger, and put shoes on his feet. Then, bring out a fattened calf and butcher it. Let's celebrate and eat. Because though my son was dead he came back to life, though he was gone, he has been found.' So then, they started a banquet," (verses twenty-one through twenty-four).
15. As he should have, the son was asking to be made one of the hired servants. But, the father wouldn't accept his son saying "Please make me one of your hired servants." Nothing stopping him, the father authoritatively restores this one, who had been a vagrant on this earth and had come back so broken down and ragged, back as his son and as a person of his home. The son knew for sure of his all powerful father. He didn't come to know this because he was made to obey by force. That's not how it came to be, rather, it was when the one who had rebelled against his father had obtained forgiveness and the pitiful runaway was restored as a son into the love of his father again.
16. In the very image of the powerless but all powerful father was truly the image of God, which Christ would soon reveal while on the cross. God's impotence reaches the extreme with the cross. By the hands of humanity the son of God was crucified on a cross. Christ died showing God's powerlessness. But, along with this powerlessness comes God's almighty power. This very God who became completely and utterly powerless is the same Almighty God who is able to restore sinners as sons and daughters of God and into fellowship with him.
17. The story doesn't end here. His older brother swelled with anger. For the older son looking coldly from the outside at his father's deeds, his father's actions were a stumbling block all the way to the end. In a similar vein, no matter how much time passes the actions of God the Father and the cross which brings salvation are both stumbling blocks for a righteous person with a condemnatory attitude towards others. The only one who knows God's all powerfulness is the person who throws himself or herself before God as a wretched sinner come home, as a person powerless himself or herself, completely and utterly without strength on his or her own.