The Waiting Father audio
Today we’re thinking about fathers: we all have them; and they’re all different. For some, their father is someone to look up to, to be proud of. Some will feel greatly loved by their father. Others though, may not have known their father or may not have had much to do with him. Others again may be afraid of their father; or angry at him; for some of us our father is no longer alive and we miss him. Some of us may be fathers and, again, that may be a matter of great joy and pride or one of disappointment or even sadness – or a mix of both.
Whatever our situation, having a father, being a father, even knowing a father, means that we come to a service like this on Father’s day with a mix of thoughts and emotions.
But what I want to talk about today is a story about a son and a father: you may well have heard it before under the title, the Prodigal Son, but I’m calling it the Waiting Father.
The story is set in a rural area in the Middle East, where a man and his two sons are working a farming property.
One day the younger son comes to his father and says: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” T
he share that will belong to him? When will that be? When he grows up? No, he’s already grown up. When he gets married perhaps? No, it’s when the father finally dies. So what’s he saying? It sounds like he wishes his father were dead.
A man named Kenneth Bailey spent many years asking people in countries around the Mediterranean whether anyone had ever asked such a thing in their village. “No, never” was the universal answer. “If anyone did, what would happen?”, he then asked. “His father would beat him, of course!”, came the answer. Of course they would, because the request is scandalous, not to mention stupid. I mean, the son had everything he needed. His Father kept him safe and well provided for. He would have received the respect due to him as his father’s son. But he wants control over his life. He can’t wait. Perhaps he also wants to get away from the discipline of his father; from the constraints of a community that has strong expectations of good behaviour. That certainly fits with the fact that when he goes, it’s to a distant country, where there are no boundaries, nothing to hold him back from the excesses of a wild lifestyle.
But what about the father? How does he react? Does he beat his son for this great insult? Does he give him a lecture about honouring his father, about thinking ahead? No, out of his great love for his son he gives him what he asks for.
And off the son goes and wastes it all, on the proverbial wine, women and song, presumably.
Now we’re thinking about fathers today, so let me ask you, is what the father does at this stage in the story a loving action? Some people might suggest that giving the young man a lecture on respecting his father might have been more loving. Beating his son may not be politically correct but might it have been better than giving him what he wanted?
It’s an interesting question when you think about the fact that Jesus told us this story to tell us something about God.
Have you ever asked God for something that maybe wasn’t the best thing you could have asked for? Have you ever decided to do something that you knew God wouldn’t be happy with but you were going to do it anyway?
If we’re honest we’ll probably all answer yes to both those questions. And what happened? Did God step in and stop you from making a stupid mistake? He might have. But maybe he didn’t. Sometimes God in his wisdom and love lets us do what we choose to do, and lets us live with the consequences.
Consequences are great learning tools aren’t they? Not always comfortable learning tools; often painful ones. But they can help us learn faster than we would if we were protected from them.
So the young man goes off and wastes his money until it all runs out and he’s forced to face the reality of his situation - and the foolishness of his original decision.
But what about the father? What do we know about him? Well, only what we read here. He doesn’t appear again until the young man is on his way back and his father sees him while he’s still far off. But how does that happen? Does he just happen to look up and see someone on the horizon? Or is he standing, day after day, regularly looking to the horizon in the hope that his son might return.
And how does he know it’s him? My guess is he’s watched him so many times as a young man working in the fields, as an admiring and loving father might do, and now he recognises the way he walks or the fall of his hair off the side of his head or the broad shoulders on those skinny legs.
I remember walking home from school in my teens. My mother was coming out of a side street in her car some 80 or 100 metres away and she stopped to wait for me. When I asked her how she knew it was me she said it was the way I walked.
Well that’s all interesting but what happens next is astounding.
The father is filled with compassion and runs to meet him. He doesn’t just walk out to the front of the property like we might, to be there to greet him when he arrives. No, he runs: something a respected elder would never do in that culture. You see, the father stands in contrast to everything we’d expect from men in our world. He’s been spurned by his son. His son has virtually told him he wishes he were dead. All that he’s worked for has been discounted by this ungrateful wretch of a son. But what does he do? He runs because his love for this wastrel son overflows and all he can think of is holding him in his arms again. When the older brother complains about the injustice of the father’s forgiveness he responds by saying this son who was dead has come back to life; this son who was lost is found. The son may have rejected his father in the most callous of ways, but the father has never stopped loving him. Can you feel that love coming through this story?
There’s a famous painting of this scene by Rembrandt. In it you find an ageing father, with a red shawl and perhaps with limited vision, gripping his son by the shoulders. The son’s clothes are filthy and worn, one sandal off so you can see his roughened feet. The older son is standing by the side looking with a critical stare at this scene of reconciliation. The father’s hands caress the young man’s back, as though he’s feeling to see if it truly is his son. You can imagine the many times he’s thought that he’d never see his son again and now here he is.
You know, Jesus told this story so we’d get an idea of the sort of love with which God loves us. You see, God is this father. He watches the way we ignore him from time to time; the way we not just ignore him but do the exact opposite of what he’s told us to do; the way we act as though we wished he wasn’t there; and he keeps on loving us, waiting for us to turn around and come back to him.
Of course if that’s the case then the bad news is that we’re the son. We are the ones who have turned away from the love and protection of the father. We’re the ones who prefer to make our own decisions rather than doing what the father tells us to. We’re the ones who make foolish choices and live to regret them, so often. When we hear this story of the young man squandering his wealth on his personal gratification we hear bits of our own story.
Or perhaps we might be the older brother? Responsible, obedient, sensible, trustworthy; - that sounds more like me! But am I also just a little bit critical of less responsible types, just like the older brother; less forgiving of weakness; less willing to offer grace and mercy in the place of judgement?
Notice that the father doesn’t rebuke the older son any more than he rebukes the younger son. He simply explains that the younger brother’s return is a cause for celebration for both of them. The family is united once again. The older brother’s resentment at having to do all the work can be put away because they’re a family unit again. From now on they can work together to forward their family fortunes. Jesus said that when one sinner repents all the angels in heaven throw a party. Why? Because God’s family is that little bit more complete.
But let’s not leave it there. On this of all days let’s think some more about the father. Yes we can all identify to some degree with the younger or older son, or perhaps both; but what about God the Father? You may have grown up with an image of God that’s remote and frightening, of the heavenly judge waiting to pass sentence on the last day. But what about this image of a waiting and compassionate father?
Let me ask you, would you like to become like this father?
Is it asking too much for us to aspire to be as loving as the father in this story appears to be; to forgive those who have done us great harm; to treat those who’ve hurt us, with compassion; to give them a second, or third, or seventeenth chance?
On the night before his crucifixion Jesus said this to his disciples: “12This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) Jesus asks us to be just like the father. To love the way Jesus loved, even to the point of laying down our lives for one another. And he promises to give us his Holy Spirit, if we’re his disciples, to help us to love like he does.
Fathers sometimes have to put up with a lot from their children. But that’s just our human condition isn’t it? We all have to put up with a lot from all sorts of people including those we love the most and who love us the most. But what a difference it makes if we’re working on emulating the loving, waiting Father, our God who sent his own Son to make it possible for us to be brought back to him, to be remade in his image.
May you be that person to all those around you.