It’s not the typical image we have for God. Perhaps that’s because we view God as powerful, magnificent, almighty, etc. that we find it strange to think that God ran, or that God runs. Strong powerful beings don’t have to run, they’ve earned the right not to run. But Jesus wants us to see God as one who runs.
The last of Jesus’s three parables in Luke 15 is often referred to as the prodigal son. A prodigal is one who spends money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant. The younger brother clearly fits that billing. Jesus says that he “squandered his property in reckless living.” It appears from the story that the Father is a wealthy land owner, so to burn through a third of his Father’s wealth quickly is truly one who spends freely.
However, it is the Father who is the true prodigal in the story. It is the Father who loves freely and recklessly. It is the Father who doesn’t get upset at the younger son’s request, even though it would have been very shameful since he is in essence saying he no longer wants to be apart of the family. The Father still loves the younger son even when he leaves. It is the Father, who upon seeing the younger son’s return, runs to him. This is again a shameful act; father’s don’t run, especially to their wayward children. And the Father doesn’t just accept the younger son back as a slave, but as a full son. It is the Father who throws a lavish party, even killing the fattened calf that had been fed extra grain for years preparing for a great celebration. It is the Father, who even after the younger son has wasted everything gives him more gifts (a ring, shoes, and a robe) to signify he has fully returned. And it is the Father who leaves the party, another shameful act, to go out to the fields and invite the older brother to the party. It is the Father, who when the older brother removes himself from the family, chooses to invite the older brother back. The Father loves recklessly, both the older and younger sons.
We often don’t know what to do with this type of love. We don’t know what to do with reckless and extravagantly wasteful love. We think love needs to have conditions. Love is true, unless you’ve committed some horrendous mistake. Love is true, unless you’ve personally hurt or offended me. Love is true, unless you are judgemental and self-righteous. We don’t understand how the Father could love both the self-righteous and the wayward sons. That’s why the image of God running doesn’t make sense to us. How can the Father’s prodigal love cause him to run to both the younger and the older brothers? How can the Father love so freely and recklessly?
What makes the love even more reckless is that it’s freely given even while the sons are removing themselves from the family. The Father’s love is not conditioned on one being a child, it’s freely given in the simple hope that one will accept being apart of the family.
Both sons have removed themselves from the family. The younger son returns, not because he believes he is still a son, but hoping that in pity he can become a slave. The younger son knows he doesn’t deserve sonship any longer. Even after the Father’s embrace, the younger son still tries to remove himself from the family. “Father, I have sinned…and am no longer worthy to be called a son.” The older brother as well has removed himself from the family. He refuses to enter the house during the party. When the Father comes out to him, the older brother uses language removing himself from the family “this son of yours.” Yet the Father doesn’t let either son’s refusal to be considered members of the family stop his love. The Father continues to love recklessly, hoping that both sons will accept the invitation to return to the family.
God offers us the same reckless love. It’s not based on something we’ve done to earn it, or our faithfulness to the family. God’s reckless love is given abundantly to us with no strings attached. We don’t have to offer something, or repent, to receive God’s love. It’s freely given before we even want to return. It’s offered as an invitation: come be apart of the family, you will be loved with wasteful extravagance. That’s the offer. Now, like both the younger and older brothers, the only thing left is for us to decide, is will we enter the party?