As every parent knows, force cannot compel love and obedience. Many teenagers kick against the traces in their struggle to reach maturity and in the process become difficult and rebellious. In extreme cases, the parents have no choice but to let a determined youngster go out into the world to experience the inevitable hardships and failures it has to offer. Hopefully, the ‘cords of love’ tied since infancy will prove to be strong enough to turn the attention of the young person back to the home environment where God is esteemed.
Our heavenly Father felt the same sadness and heartache: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me…I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them. (Nevertheless) My people are determined to turn from me” (Hos. 11:1-4, 7 all quotes NIV).
The child of God may wander far and still be drawn back by the cords of His loving kindness and protection. Love may not compel obedience; it is like a plant with deep roots and, even when all seems lost, there may yet be a glimmer of life beneath the surface that will spring forth and bloom again.
The prodigal son
Our thoughts lead us to the parable in Luke 15 telling of the son who demanded a share of the family estate. His request being granted: “He ‘got together’ (the Greek means to convert to ready cash) all he had and set off for a distant country; there he squandered his wealth in wild living” (v. 17). The story is timeless, the world of today can appear exciting and inviting to young people who have led sheltered lives. In rebelling against the apparent restraints of the loving home regulated by the laws of God, they may insist upon leaving to follow the dictates of their own hearts.
After traveling far away and carelessly wasting his inheritance, the young man of the parable was subjected to a country-wide severe famine. Reduced to extreme poverty and hunger, he took a job feeding pigs. But unclean animals owned by those with unclean practices could not solve his problems. Had the opportunity arisen, he would have eaten the food he was required to feed to the pigs but no one gave him anything. The things of the world cannot satisfy.
Gradually he came to realize that whatever he begged or borrowed, nothing could fill the aching void within him. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘how many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!’” Here is the place where the cords of memory take hold of the young man’s heart, and the father’s love begins to pull him mysteriously, but forcefully, back home! Sanity takes over in the insane world and the angels prepare to rejoice. He had suffered in strange lands and with strange people; suffering is not punishment if it brings us back home.
Confession and forgiveness
“I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men’” (vs. 18-19). We must not miss the profound lesson — no excuses, just the abject confession: “I have sinned” together with the realization of total unworthiness in his father’s sight.
A complete change of attitude had occurred. No longer is there a selfish demand: “Give me things to satisfy my greed” but rather an earnest plea, “make me a useful servant of yours.”
Yearning for home
And so the son headed for home. It may be said that the whole of human history can be summarized in this: Mankind, driven from the glorious garden of Eden, has been struggling and yearning ever since to return ‘home’. All of us, in one way or another, have wandered away from the place where we could walk with angels and talk with God. We take comfort from the beautiful pictures of the coming kingdom of God when the lion and the lamb will lie down together in Eden restored.
When a sinner sets his or her foot on the road to repentance, the journey is eased by the unparalleled love and forgiveness of God. “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” (v. 20). Constantly on the lookout, the father ran to the bedraggled once proud son and, with the urgency of parental love, embraced him.
The welcome was followed by a special meal of fellowship and rejoicing. Nothing was held back; a special garment was brought to cover his nakedness and a ring, the sign of a son and heir, was put on his finger. Our Father has provided a covering for the nakedness of sin: the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, whereby repentant sinners become sons and heirs of the promises.
“For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 24). What power and joy is found in the two little words: “of mine”. Those whose sins are forgiven belong to the Father: “They will be mine, says the Lord Almighty, in the day when I make up my jewels, my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him” (Mal. 3:17).
Enter the older brother
The spotlight moves onto the older brother. Having returned from a hard day’s work in the fields, he discovered that his wayward sibling had returned to a tumultuous welcome. Overcome by resentment, he refused to join in the celebration.
So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never have given me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (vs. 28-30).
Somewhere in the back of this exchange is the echo of a prayer uttered in the temple: “I thank you, Lord, that I am not as other men!” (Lk. 18:11). In this there is great danger, for as the apostle Paul says:
We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise (II Cor. 10:12).
Notice how the older son called the prodigal “this son of yours” (v. 30), as though disclaiming all kinship. The father, however, gently and patiently reinforced the relationship: “This brother of yours…” Like the sheep that wandered away from the shepherd and the flock, he was lost and now was found.
We can all be that older son, comparing ourselves with others and feeling superior, envious, and proud. The world is becoming such a frightful place that we can expect ‘lost sheep’ seeking to return to the fold. Our business ought to be to look down the road, watching for them to return and help them find their way back. Forgiving our brother is not an optional matter. It is the only basis upon which we can expect forgiveness:
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:14-15).
Not surprisingly, we can also identify with the younger son. We may not travel to a distant land to enjoy ourselves in riotous and decadent living but we do take little ‘day trips’ from our duty as children of God and then scurry back hoping that we have been unobserved. Of course our Lord and master is aware of our every move. There is nowhere that we can travel, not the “farthest country” from which we cannot return to the Father’s love. There is no pit so deep or degraded, from which the cords of love cannot draw us out.
What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Rom. 8:31-32).
Now as we prepare to remember the Lord’s sacrifice in the way he appointed, visualize his outstretched arms nailed to the cross. Does not this sad picture have a wonderfully positive aspect? It is through this moving and willing sacrifice that the Lord God stretches out his arms beckoning sinners to return home to him.