This past year I’ve been heavily impacted by two books on the parable of the prodigal son. The first is The Prodigal God by Thomas Keller, and the second is The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. Both books look at the heart of God as expressed through this parable, and both analyze each of the three main characters. As I’ve read their books, I’ve been struck by their skilled writing, and how their insights apply to ministry. That’s why I’m looking at what they draw from each character and applying it to the work of ministry. Part one of this series can be found here, and part two can be found here.
Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, but forgiveness always comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness (Tim0thy Keller, The Prodigal God)
In the parable of the prodigal son, the Father points to the love and forgiveness of God. Not only does he forgive the son who demanded his inheritance and blew it, he also leaves his home to plead for his older son to put aside his anger and welcome the younger son home. He illustrates God’s unending love, in contrast to the many ways that we as people rebel against him.
It’s easier to find similarities with the older and younger son than it is to find similarities with the Father. After all, the Father is the God figure in this parable! However, for me what we all can take away from the Father in this Parable is the nature of forgiveness.
If you work in children’s or youth ministry, you know that forgiveness is a common topic – as well it should be. In the list of skills we want to pass on to our kids, the ability to (a) accept God’s great forgiveness and (b) be willing to extend radical forgiveness to others is pretty far toward the top. That’s why I love this parable.
First off, it’s a reminder that so often we keep ourselves from experiencing God’s total forgiveness. On his way back, the younger son practiced and practiced his speech because he couldn’t imagine being seen as a son ever again. We all do the same things, we hold our past against ourselves even though God has promised to do away with it. If there’s one thing I want to teach my students, it to accept the fullness of God’s forgiveness.
Second, this story is a reminder of the cost of forgiveness given. As I teach kids to forgive, I want them to grasp the sacrifice that God’s forgiveness necessitated, so that they are better prepared to pay the price required to forgive others. For kids (and adults) forgiveness is an idea they agree with, but what gets in the way is the emotional cost of actually letting go of their grievances. What I love about this parable is it demonstrates how much God is willing to let go in order to forgive us, and it’s an inspiration for all of us to do the same.