While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms, and kissed him.
|Prodigal Son - drawing by Rembrandt|
Christians for almost 2000 years have spoken of God as Father, following the pattern of relationship and prayers of Jesus. In the prayer our Lord taught his disciples, used almost every time we gather for public worship as well as in private prayer, we begin “Our Father….” In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus refer to his Father in intimate words and tones which comes from knowing he is loved. At his baptism, Jesus hears, “You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) The familial and paternal bond is inescapable throughout the Christian Scriptures. We can find hints of that same bond between God and Israel as well, but it becomes most obvious in Jesus’ life.
Every person who professes to be a disciple of Jesus is called to enter into this father-child relationship with God as well. The difficulty for me, however, is that our earthly paternal relationship is the model that either guides or impedes such a relationship. I have known too many parishioners whose fathers have been abusive, creating great difficulty in seeing God as Father. Many others, whose father was not abusive but absent through divorce, can only see God as a too-distant figure. My own father was in many ways an absentee parent; he lived in our home but was preoccupied with his profession, medicine. My dad was a small town doctor with a 25-bed hospital. He was an old fashioned physician who still made house calls, mostly in the evening. We used to joke that he worked 28 hours a day, 8 days a week. It was not uncommon for him to leave the house by 7AM, come home just long enough to eat supper, return to the hospital for an emergency by 7:30 p. m. and not come home again until midnight or later, and then repeat again the next day. There was precious little time with us kids. Then to top it all off, he died of a heart attack when I was almost 16. I was really angry with God the Father for many years until a very astute spiritual director helped me understand that I was really angry with my own father and needed to forgive him first.
All of us have been parented by mothers and fathers who were themselves parented by less than perfect parents, continuing back for untold generations. After First Man and First Woman were expelled from the Garden of Eden, difficulties arose between parents and parents and parents and children. Why did Cain surmise that his offering was less pleasing to God than that of his brother Abel? After all God says to Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Did it have anything to do with his father Adam and the way Cain felt he was accepted? Psychologists could have a field day with that (and probably have). It goes on and on down through all of Salvation history as recorded in the Hebrew and Christian Testaments.
I am still working on my own relationship with God the Father. I have never had problems with the Son Jesus, and not so much with the Holy Spirit, as with Father God. For much of my life the Transcendent God, the distant One, the unapproachable One, has been, perhaps, my defense against allowing the loving Father into my life, holding off the fear of being disappointed yet again. One would think that after 43 years of raising children and grandchildren, working as hard as I know how to change the pattern with which I grew up, would have opened me to see the relationship with God the Father in a new way in my own spiritual life. And it has changed to some degree, but not as much as I would desire.
As I have been praying through our parable of the two sons and their father, I have come to some new insights about fatherhood in general, about God the Father, and about my own relationship with my father and with my Father in Heaven. Both Henri Nouwen and Timothy Keller have called me, each in his own way, to “come home” to the place where I am acknowledged as beloved son. In the next couple of days I will explore some of those insights and hope that perhaps something resonates for you.
Again, as we rush toward the great festival of Incarnation, I encourage you to slow down and take a few minutes to read aloud the parable of the Man Who Had Two Sons in Luke Chapter 15. Read slowly and explore the relationships between the man and each of his sons, the servants, even the man who hired the younger son, the undescribed and unspoken mother, perhaps even those who entered into debauchery with Younger Brother. Let the Scriptures speak to you today about your life in Christ and how you, too, are the beloved child. Let us look forward together to the one who reminds us of what it is to be the beloved child.