The Uncondemning Heart of the Father Contemplating the heart of the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son

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A friend of mine got out of prison recently. I had the privilege of meeting him at the gate along with his Free2Succeed mentors. We went back to his mentors’ house (whom we have both known a long time now as prison volunteers, too) and talked over a breakfast of bacon and eggs and coffee.

My friend told me about how the story of the Prodigal Son had become so meaningful to him after reading Henri Nouwen’s book, Return of the Prodigal Son. He was inspired by the idea that, while we can see ourselves in the roles of the two brothers, we are actually called to live out the role of the father in the story, a role usually reserved as a model of our Father in Heaven.

Jokingly, I said, “So in this light, the role Jesus plays in this story is merely that of the fatted calf?”

“I guess so,” my friend chuckled.

Later, alone in my office, I was thinking of my friend’s retelling of the Prodigal story from Luke 15:11-32, and I was compelled to read it against the backdrop of John 3:16-21.

I’d like to share some of my observations, and I invite you to share yours in return.

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~ John 3:16-21 ~

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

The story of the Prodigal Son is a familiar one, so I won’t rewrite it here, but you can follow this link to read the passage on BibleGateway.com. Here are some of my observations.

The Father doesn’t send anyone after his Prodigal Son. He doesn’t send a servant, he doesn’t send the eldest, he doesn’t go on his own. He lets his youngest son go and leaves him to his fate.

The father does not condemn his son but becomes his salvation. The father doesn’t seem to care about how his son has shamed him or sinned against heaven itself. He only cares that his son has returned.

I imagine that life was like hell for the Prodigal until he came to his senses. He was “condemned already” for he was outside of his relationship with his father. More so, he was living contrary to the ways of his father. He was living in the dark, but when he came to himself and chose to return home he was immediately walking in the light. He had hope and he was heading in the right direction. “Whoever does what is true comes to the light…”

The father never condemned the Prodigal. His judgment came because he preferred the darkness to the light because his deeds were evil, but the moment he chose to return home, his judgment was lifted off of him. The father held no condemnation in his heart.

The oldest son stood in the darkness with his anger, but the father did not condemn him either. Instead, he invited his eldest son into the light of the celebration. He creates his own hell who chooses to avoid the light.

“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” This is checed, lovingkindness. This is being the Beloved. You don’t need to celebrate in extravagance when you are living in abundance. To do so is almost arrogant. Rather, that abundant life is what I imagine an ongoing celebration would look like.

I often think of the father in the Prodigal story as God the Father, which is why I noticed that he sent no emissary to the Prodigal. But what if, as the express image of the Father, I imagine Jesus as the father in the story? Jesus portraying the heart of the Father…

So the father in the Prodigal story represents the Light that has come into the world. He is the Word. The servants are His angels, or perhaps fellow pilgrims, his home is the Kingdom, and to be in the light is to be in relationship with him.

The Light came into the world, to his own, but the world preferred the darkness, and his own did not recognize him.

Some of us declared he was as good as dead to us. So we nailed him to a cross, took our inheritance as fire insurance, and left. We squandered our inheritance on riotous living, naming and claiming our every desire and whoring ourselves out to principalities and powers. We wanted everything due us but had no desire for an actual relationship with the father or living in the light of his household.

Some of us thought we knew the Light better than he knew himself. We prided ourselves on staying home on the ranch, on being faithful and giving our lives to honorable Kingdom work. But the father wouldn’t play Santa Claus. He never celebrated our faithfulness with a fatted calf and accolades before all the servants. He never exalted us to our rightful place on the ranch, so we chose to stand out in the darkness gnashing our teeth while everyone else celebrated our hateful, prodigal brother’s return to the light. It was accolades we wanted, not relationship, and we simply did not understand this love. So we hanged the father on the cross so we could take our rightful place on the ranch and get back to work.

Inconceivably, condemnation never once entered the father’s heart. He gave us our inheritance without hesitation. He never rejected us for squandering it, and he ran to embrace us when we finally came to our senses and returned home. He admired all our faithful work, longing only to share the joy of abundance with us. He did not reject us for standing out in the dark. He merely invited us back into the light, to celebrate the return of our brother from death to life.

The wrath of God is revealed for what it is in the light of the Son, the Word, the Father’s love. For the Son did not come into the world to condemn the world, only to save the world, to call both of his children back into the light. Into fellowship. “And to as many as believed, he gave the right to become sons of God…”

The judgment that condemns us is not the Father’s anger or justice, but rather the anguish of our own choice to be alone in the darkness, because we prefer the darkness to the light. The wrath of God is the pigpen and starvation. It is the isolation and loneliness of pride. It is the destructive hell of addiction, the brutality of violence, the emptiness of greed.

When we reject the light, we are condemned already, but whoever does what is true comes to the light.

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Does this retelling of the Prodigal Story resonate with you? Does it offer hope to you? How do you respond to the idea that there is no condemnation in the heart of the Father towards you?

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