The Kingdom of God: A Homecoming
February 16, 2020
Walking. Well, more like trudging. The pace my dirty feet set on the road can barely be considered walking. Reluctance orders my steps. Fear and anxiety direct my pace. Most people would be excited to return home after a long excursion away, but not me; I’m afraid to go home. In fact I never imagined I would ever travel this road back home again—I never intended to. When I asked my father to give me my inheritance I could think only of the life I would find outside my father’s home. Starry-eyed and foolish I left in search of something more, something better. I wanted life on my terms rather than my father’s.
I was as surprised as my older brother was when my father actually gave me my inheritance. He had to sell the southern portion of the farm to give it to me. What was that old man thinking? How foolish was he to actually give me the inheritance, bringing shame upon himself and his entire household. He must’ve been the laughing stock of the whole town—he was probably called as reckless and indulgent as I was. And a lot of good it did him. It didn’t take me more than a few years to squander it all searching for something that kept slipping through my fingers.
He shouldn’t have let me go. But he did. I’ll never forget the sadness in his eyes as he handed me the inheritance and watched me turn my back. I could see his quiet tears. They were almost enough to keep me there, but I had already made up my mind. I needed to find my own meaning in the world; I needed to pursue happiness at any cost. But the thing about happiness is that the moment you think you’ve grasped it, it slips through your fingers. The harder you search for it, the more elusive it seems to become. I used to happen upon it at home when I wasn’t looking for it, but then when I left to find it, it was nowhere to be found.
Walking. Well, trudging. My bare feet carry me down the dirt road I wish I didn’t have to travel. Sandals would have made this journey at least slightly more bearable, but I traded away my last pair in exchange for some pig slop – my only meal in days. The rocks that dig into my blistered and bloody feet each step I take are a painful reminder of the harm I’ve inflicted upon myself.
And that’s why I have to go back. I have nowhere else to go. I look up and can see the hills rolling, one over another for miles in every direction. My brother and I named most of these hills in our youth. They were our playground. But that was before I left, before I broke our family apart. Just over this next hill I will see my father’s farm. My feet instinctively start to pick up speed, as if they know what lies beyond the hill, but I have to tell them to stop.
Am I such an idiot to think that I can come home? My father is a gracious man, but even he can’t be that gracious. Asking for my inheritance was worse than spitting in his face; I basically told him that I wished he were dead. And I did at the time. But not now. Now I wish I could take it all back. But the damage is done. Things will never go back to the way they were. Things that are this broken just don’t get put back together.
My only hope is that father will take me in as one of his servants. I’m not worthy to be his son any longer. I lost that right awhile ago. I hardly deserve to be taken back as a servant, but it’s my only chance. I’ll beg to be taken in, I’ll even work for no pay. I’ll plead for just a meal or two a day and a blanket at night. That’s all I’ll need. In exchange I’ll work the whole day in the field, doing the hardest job of breaking rocks to clear room for more crops. If I beg enough, then maybe he’ll take me back. But even then I wouldn’t blame him if he doesn’t. Maybe he’ll beat me and toss me back out on the street—I wouldn’t complain.
I take a deep breath in and urge my feet forward with every ounce of will I have. Each step feels like an eternity as I crest the final hill. Step. Step. Step. Rocks digging in between my toes. Step. Step. Step.
I look up and there it is. Father’s farm. What I used to call home, but will forever be something different. Home is a long lost dream. Step. Step. Step. The farm is about a quarter of a mile away. I start rehearsing what I’ll say…how I’ll beg.
I notice a person sitting with their back up against a tree. I can’t quite tell who it is. They’re staring my direction as if they were expecting someone to be coming. Probably some servant. Step. Step. Step. The person jumps to their feet, startling me. I stop walking. All of the sudden they’re jumping up and down and begin running in my direction. Who is that? He has gray hair and he lifts his long garments up as he runs, exposing his legs. I have never seen such a strange sight. Grown men do not run – it’s a shameful thing. Who could be…wait. It can’t be. I know that face. It’s my dad.
I’m struck by sheer terror. Why is he running? Oh no. He’s coming for his revenge. For a moment all I can do is think to turn and run away. But no. I deserve whatever punishment my father feels the need to inflict upon me. He’s still running, seconds away from colliding with me. I lower my head in shame and brace myself for what’s about to happen. I begin babbling out of fear and shame: “Father, I’m so sorry. I messed up. I’m not worthy to be your son. I’ve only come back to be a servant.”
The next thing I know my father has his arms wrapped around me. “My son, my son. You’ve finally come home!” He’s weeping as he embraces me, hugging me tighter than he’s ever hugged me. All I can do is stand there, limp, utterly taken aback by what is happening. I try to babble again, stuttering: “I’m so sorry, Dad. I’ll be your servant, just take me back.”
My dad releases his hold slightly, gripping both of my shoulders as he looks into my face. “Take you back as a servant? Why would I do that? My son has come home! I’ve been dreaming of this day! We need to get you your robe, your family ring and some sandals. Tonight we’ll throw the biggest party and have the biggest feast this town has ever known. We’ll invite everyone. Tonight we celebrate the homecoming of my beloved son, who I thought was dead, but is surely alive!”
The tears come. I have no control over it. My father embraces me again and I allow myself to be embraced. What reckless love is this? What scandalous grace? It confounds me. Amazing grace, how can it be, that my father would still embrace a wretch like me.
This parable that Jesus tells is quite possibly the most beautiful representation of the kingdom of God we see in all of Scripture. If you are ever in doubt about who God is or what God is like, just read this story. God is reckless love. God is scandalous grace.
I don’t use either of these phrases lightly. The reason Jesus was rejected by the religious elite, and the reason he was killed brutally on the cross is because his love was too reckless. His grace was too scandalous.
Jesus tells this parable of the prodigal son while the sinners and the tax collectors are drawing near to him, and while the religious elite grumble and chastise him because he eats with sinners. He is in the presence of prodigal sons and elder brothers.
Now, when this parable is told, we often focus on the prodigal son’s story and we pay less attention to or skip over the elder brother’s story. This makes sense, because the prodigal’s story is so beautiful and so redemptive. This son who was lost, who was thought dead, returns home to be embraced by his father who never stopped loving him; he is immediately restored as part of the family. But the elder brother’s story does not have quite the same emotional and redemptive bend, but it is nevertheless still hopeful and representative of the kingdom of God.
Walking. Well, trudging. My feet are tired from the long day of hard work I just put in. Father will certainly be proud of the progress I made today. Though, I should know better by now that my father is just as appreciative of my work, no matter how much I do. But still, I try to impress him. Ever since that blasted younger brother of mine left home, there’s been twice as much work to get done, so I’m of course the one who has to pick up his slack.
As I near the house I hear music and see dancing. What’s going on? I call the nearest servant over and ask them what the meaning of this is? “Sir,” the servant tells me, “Your brother has come home, and your father has killed the fattened calf to celebrate his homecoming!”
I stand there absolutely dumbfounded by what I am hearing. That wayward brother of mine comes home and father is throwing a party?! Are you kidding me? I turn to the servant, “Go tell my father that I want nothing to do with that son of yours and neither should you. Don’t forget what he did to us. What he did to you.” The servant hurries off to deliver the message.
I stand in the field as the crops sway lightly in the breeze. The sun is about to set and the party seems like it is just beginning. I look up and see my father coming out of the house towards me. I flush with guilt for a moment, but then it’s washed away by my anger. Refusing my father’s party and requiring him to come out here to me breaks custom and probably shames my father a bit. He doesn’t seem bothered by it though. And I have good reason to refuse!
“Son, your brother has come home! Please, come in and celebrate with us. This is a joyous day!” I lower my brow and stare at him with searching eyes. How foolish is my father? I thought he was a fool the day he actually gave my brother his inheritance and let him walk away, but to take him back now, after what he did? This is a new level of stupidity, even for him. His son leaves for years and gets a party when he comes back, but I’ve worked so hard all those years and never had a party this big thrown for me!
“Look, Dad, I’ve served you my whole life and have never disobeyed a single command. Yet, you never threw me a party like this. You never killed the fattened calf for me. And then that son of yours comes home after gallivanting for three whole years, and you welcome him back as if he’s the king of the world. Tell me, how is this fair?? How does he deserve anything from you? I should get what he has.”
My father looks at me, as he always does, with those big compassionate eyes. He puts his hand on my shoulder and says: “My son, you are always with me. Everything that is mine is yours. But this is an occasion to celebrate. Your brother was dead, but is alive; he was lost, but now is found. So please, son, come inside and celebrate with us.”
And this is where Jesus’ parable ends. Talk about a cliff-hanger. Jesus does not tell us whether the elder son comes around and joins the celebration. Perhaps Jesus didn’t give an ending to this story because the ending is ours to write.
When we hear the younger son’s story, we easily imagine ourselves in his place. We can remember the times we screwed up; the things we’ve done to hurt our friends, our family, God. We know what it is like to long for forgiveness, to want so badly to piece back together what we broke. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been the younger son at some point in our life; perhaps we’re still the younger son right now, trying to find the road back home.
But when we come to the elder brother’s story we have trouble putting ourselves in his shoes. We like to be the person who receives God’s free grace; but we don’t like to acknowledge that we are also the person who is skeptical when that same grace is doled out just as freely to others who are in our minds less deserving.
We all have a bit of the prodigal son and the elder son in us. And if we read Jesus’ parable carefully, we see that both sons aren’t so different from each other. Both sons misunderstand the father’s love. The younger son believes the only way he’ll be welcomed home is as a servant. He thinks he has lost the father’s love and so he is undeserving of it anymore. The older son believes that he must earn the father’s love. He’s jealous of his brother because he has been so obedient and has worked so hard for his father, while his brother disobeyed. The older brother has completely misread his relationship with his father as one of slavery. He thinks he is earning the father’s love by working hard and being obedient. Both sons are lost. One is lost away from home. One is lost at home. Neither son understands the reckless love of the father, nor his scandalous, unearned, undeserved grace.
Pastor and theologian, Tim Keller, aptly renames this parable “the prodigal God”. Prodigal means wastefully extravagant; it means giving or spending too recklessly, too lavishly. I like Keller’s renaming, because this parable is not ultimately about the younger son’s prodigal story – his wastefully extravagant nature – but it is ultimately a story about the father’s recklessly extravagant love for both of his sons.
Both sons were lost. Both sons are received and loved so fully by the father, no strings attached. No caveats. No confessions or penance needed. This is indeed reckless love. It’s something our minds can barely comprehend because few of us have ever known such unconditional love.
Hopefully if you’ve learned nothing else from this series on the kingdom of God, you’ve learned that God’s kingdom is not a place we wait to inhabit once we die. The kingdom of God is a way of life. To live in the kingdom of God is to live inside of God’s reckless love and scandalous grace. To live in God’s kingdom is to allow ourselves to be restored to our full humanity. Only God’s love has to power to restore us to who we are meant to be. Only God’s love has to power to restore our broken relationships. Only God’s love has to power to restore our divided and wounded world. Only God’s love is reckless enough to try.
But we live in a time where it feels much more satisfying to hate than to love; shaming someone is much easier than forgiving them; holding up a middle finger to “those people” over there feels much better than apologizing for the ways we’ve acted; it’s easier to criticize and yell than to listen and have a conversation. It comes most naturally to us to demonize those we disagree with or don’t get along with; and once they’re demonized we no longer have to love them or give them grace. We still misunderstand God’s love. We sell it short.
For those of you who have seen Harry Potter or read the books, you know that ultimately the way Harry, the main character, defeats the dark Lord Voldemort is not with force, hatred, or violence, but with love. He’s protected by his mother’s sacrificial love for him and it makes it so that Lord Voldemort can’t touch him.
Now, as kid reading these books, I thought that was just the dumbest, cheesiest thing. I remember thinking “yeah, right, ok there’s no way love can defeat Voldemort. I want to see Harry fight back and destroy him. That would be way cooler!” My response was a symptom of our larger culture, because we undersell what sacrificial, unconditional love can accomplish in our world. We resort to fixing things through shaming, gossip, hate and violence. There’s no way love can actually deal with the problems in our world…that’s the stuff of children’s books. Like the two sons in this parable, we misunderstand how transformative love can be.
The kingdom of God is in our midst here and now. God’s kingdom is present in the lives of people who choose love over hate, forgiveness over broken relationship, reconciliation over division, restorative justice over retributive justice. God’s kingdom is present in the reckless love we choose to offer to others. It’s present in the reckless love we allow ourselves to accept from others. God’s kingdom touches earth wherever grace is given. It is only once we understand God’s wastefully extravagant love for us that we are able to turn around and offer that same love to someone who may not deserve it, but is nevertheless deeply in need of it.
God’s love is about making a way for life in dead places. It’s about taking things like yeast and mustard seeds, undesirable substances, and including them in the restoring process. God’s love is about ditching the ax to instead spread manure on trees and people we thought dead, hoping and praying for new life. God’s love restores what was broken, redeems what was irredeemable, it finds us when we’re lost and welcomes us home.
God’s stance towards us is always the stance of the father towards his sons. God is always looking out over the hillside, waiting and hoping to catch a glimpse of us wandering home. And he comes running.
The kingdom of God is all about the joy of finding and being found. Of loving and being loved. Of forgiving and being forgiven. Only the father’s love is reckless enough to change our world. It is this love we carry with us as we go out and help others find the road back home to the father’s love.