Father! What do we associate with this term, with this title, with the state of fatherhood? Trust, protection, strength, longing for security, acceptance, belonging; but also pain, disappointment, anger and bitterness.
Fatherhood is a mystery we must discover over and over again because it pertains to all of us existentially. It is so existential that Jesus made God’s fatherhood the starting point for all true prayer when we come before God. “This is how you should pray: ‘Our father in heaven’…” (Mt. 6:9). Unless someone grasps and experiences God’s fatherhood, he will ultimately never find himself and inner peace. Therefore we can never strive enough for God’s spirit to reveal to us what it means that God is our father.
Repentance through God’s goodness
Then repentance comes. The son’s repentance is the fruit of the waiting father’s suffering. It was God’s goodness and mercy which not only kept the son alive but finally also led him to repent, as God’s word says (Rom. 2:4). Then the son is received in his father’s house.
If we are sons and daughters of this father and live close to his heart, our goodness will also make it possible for others to repent of broken relationships. Then we too will bring the message after a broken relationship – whether a friendship, a marriage, or parent-child and other family relationships – that there is a way back home. Identifying with this message of goodness and forgiveness will involve suffering. But it will make restoration and healing possible and create lasting fruit which honours the father.
If you reach a point where you cannot go on, when no one wants you and you don’t know where to turn, then you should know that you can return to the heavenly father at any time! No matter what happens to you, you can return! God permitted himself to be a laughing-stock in just this way. He let all the honour due him be trampled underfoot in order to keep the door open for this son. That is grace. That is what Paul meant when he wrote, “Do you not realize that God’s goodness leads you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4) This is the goodness which throughout everything reminds us that we have a home!
Leaving ourselves to God
When this goodness reached its goal, and the son who had outwardly and inwardly landed in the gutter finally remembered his home, he said, “I’ll go back to my father!” His first thoughts were of remorse and repentance. “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son!” That is correct, for we are all unworthy to be called his sons and daughters. But this repentance and contrition did not last long. Soon the son began giving his father advice. “Make me one of your servants!” Hardly have we taken the first step back to the father’s house than we begin imagining how God should treat us. “I want you to make me one of your servants because I’m no longer worthy to be called your son!” That sounds so good and humble, but deep down it is pride. “I will judge myself a bit in order to demonstrate that I’m not so bad and still know my place.”
We know this attitude. It often comes in the form of self-accusation and self-judgment. It immediately begins “helping God out” and telling him what he should think of us – instead of wholly entrusting ourselves to this father and simply saying, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
God knows how to treat us without our advice. We need not come to the father with any of our own resolutions and projects. It is enough simply to listen to him and say, “I turn myself over to you. Do whatever you want with me. No matter what you do with me, I will thank you. I am willing to accept everything. I will accept anything, if only your will is fulfilled in me. Then I will seek nothing further, my God. I place my soul in your hands. I give it to you, my God, with all the love of my heart because I love you and because this love drives me to dedicate myself to you, to put myself in your hands, without limits, with boundless trust. For you are my father!” (Charles de Foucauld). That is unconditional repentance.
Because Paul had grasped that, he wrote, “I care very little if I am judged by… any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself” (1 Cor. 4:3). For he knew that this would be meaningless and would actually be pride. God is the only one who judges us. He is the one who carries out the judgment – not we ourselves. Thank God for that!
The story of the prodigal son demonstrates the way the heavenly father deals with this. “His father saw him… ran to his son, and threw his arms around him.” This is the wonderful thing. Before the son could say a word he experienced the father’s mercy and saw that this love was genuine through and through; he experienced that the father was not too proud to express his joy, or even to abandon himself to it, to throw his arms around his son. Here at last one might expect the father to show a bit of dignity so that everyone could see that he had some self-respect and was waiting for a minimal gesture of apology from the son. Nothing like it! He even ran toward his son as soon as he saw him.
In the culture where this story was set, it was inappropriate for a father to show emotions in such a way. Running toward someone is really not worthy of a person of authority. But out of love this father put aside all reservation and dignity in order to express unmistakably, “You are expected! I have waited for you!”
Perhaps you have heard the impressive story from China about a certain son who similarly wanted to return home. It illustrates this parable well. A father was waiting for his son. The son had left home for the city in order to earn money. He had left his father, who needed him, alone and sad. The son had known that he was leaving a bruised relationship behind him. He spent a few unsuccessful years in the city and instead of coming back home proudly, he ended up in the gutter. Then he decided to return to his father on the farm. But he remembered how he had left and didn’t have the necessary courage. So he wrote to his father that he would travel by train and if he wanted him back, his father should hang a white cloth in a certain tree in the garden.
Then he set out. As the train neared his village, he asked the man sitting next to him to look out of the window to see whether there was a white cloth hanging from a certain tree. He closed his eyes in apprehension. Finally his fellow traveller answered that he couldn’t see a tree with one white cloth on it, but there was a tree covered with white cloths. The father had obviously been waiting impatiently for his son!
Matt. 7:11 tells us, “If you, then, who are evil, know how to wait for (give good gifts to) your children, how much more will your Father in heaven wait for his children (give good gifts to those who ask him)!”
Then the celebration began. This celebration is for each one of us who returns home. What joy! The father said, “Let’s celebrate!” After the father had put his arms around him, the son had a chance to repent. And while he was still repenting, the father had already proceeded to the celebration. This, too, is mercy. The father can make clear to us, “Look, that’s enough! You don’t have to tell me all the rest; you needn’t tell me what I should do.” Repentance always restores relationships, leading to joy and finally the celebration.
This is a celebration of the father, who wants to rejoice over his son. It is not the son who is the centre of this celebration. The father gives the party because he is so happy that his love, which reached out to the uttermost, ultimately brought this son back to life. The father even stated that the son was dead and now lived again! The love which continues to the end will raise people from the dead. It will create abundant life such as Jesus had. Jesus himself loved his disciples until the end, so much so that the denier Peter later became one of the chief Apostles.
This is ultimately the resurrection from the dead, the creation of new life. All of this takes place through the love which perseveres to the end! Above all, let us ponder what tremendous good news it is that we have such a father!