Today’s reading for morning prayer was Luke 15:11-end. As I reflected on it I was struck, not by the action of the Father, or the forgiveness of the son or the grudging spirit of the eldest son, all of which are my usual focus, but by the prodigality of God. By any standards of any time the actions of the Father go above and beyond any expectations. The younger son has dishonoured the family name, he has wasted a portion of the family inheritance and has brought shame upon his father. It is to his credit that he realises this and wants nothing more than a place among the hired servants; he knows he has forfeited any rights his birth might have conferred upon him; he has thrown them all away, and on nothing of value and for nothing of value, unless, of course, the wisdom of hindsight is thought to be worth it.
The Father’s love is prodigal. Running was something done by servants and children, elders did not run; yet the Father runs. He runs not to an honoured guest who by the standards of the time would have brought honour on him and his household, but to someone who has done the opposite.
The Father has already gone beyond anything reasonable in dividing the inheritance, he is under no social obligation even to receive his dishonoured son; had he reacted as his eldest son did no one could have complained. Sin has consequences, moral hazard demanded that the sinner suffer. But again, the Father goes above the beyond. He forgives, welcomes and restores the penitent.
The God we see revealed here is indeed “Love.” He is lavish, his bounty is inexhaustible, even, to our way of thinking, wasteful. The elder son reacts as we might well, and as we might take our faith to require us to act – were it not for what Jesus says here. He who was lost has been found, and we see what He means when He says there is more joy over one sinner saved than in many righteous people.
How unfair that sounds to our ears. How can those who come at the last hour get the same as those who were there from the start? Those who faithfully observe the commandments (and often, as faithfully observe those who do not), who tithe, who love their neightbour as themselves and give of their substance to the poor, have they not deserved the Kingdom of Heaven? Jesus’ answer is “no.”
We cannot and do not “win” our way to Heaven. Grace is free to all who will receive it, as is forgiveness. That is a prodigality as beyond our comprehension as the love of God is. These are words we can understand only in relation to what we know and feel. Which of us would die for someone who was indifferent to us? God is indifferent to none of us; if He seems far off, it is we, not Him, who is far off.
He is there. He waits. He will run to us. He loved us first. Let us do the same.