He stands at the window, looking as far in the distance as his aging eyes can see. The road twists away to his left, toward a trade route that branches out in all the directions of the wind. As always, the road is empty in this early morning hour, just before the sun breaks the horizon behind him and long shadows begin to darken the road as he looks on. He bows his head and whispers, “blessed is he who is the true judge” before turning away from the view of the empty road and beginning the work of the day.
The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) may be one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables. It has been represented in art, film, stage, music, television, and literature. Some scholars have argued that Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” may be the greatest painting of all time (Gregory, 2019; Welton, 2018), not just because it is a technical masterpiece, but also because it evokes feelings of grace and forgiveness like few other paintings do. The story is consistently listed in “top ten” parables on both sacred and secular websites. It is a story about a father, his two sons, and the consequences of repentance and forgiveness.
As literature, the younger son is the most fleshed-out of the characters, which is why we know the story as The Prodigal Son. He is young, reckless, demanding, and spoiled, but he learns that his life choices lead to disaster, and he humbly returns home, willing to be a slave to his father. The elder son is also rounded out enough to be recognizable as the person who dutifully checks all the boxes of expectation. His flaw is in his assumption that checking all the boxes is enough to earn his father’s love. When the prodigal returns home, this elder brother is aghast at how the father receives the younger. He is indignant and even envious of the father’s lavish forgiveness.
The father is humanized in his response to the sons: rejoicing at the return of the younger, and reasoning against the anger of the elder. There is no doubt that he loves both sons and wants his family to be unified.
What is missing from the story is the father’s life between the prodigal’s leaving and his return. The younger son’s exploits are described by Jesus as reckless living and extravagance until the money ran out, the friends disappeared, and the only job for which the son was qualified was maintaining pens of pigs. The elder son tells his own story, reminding his father that he had worked hard the whole time the younger was gone and that he had foregone even the smallest entertainment to ensure all the work was done. The father, however, has no such explication of his activities, thoughts, or worries during the time his younger son was absent.
When I was rereading the story, one verse jumped out at me: ” 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” I’ve read and heard this parable dozens of times, but when thinking about how the Church can respond to parents, I stopped at the phrase, “while he was still a long way off.” The only way the father could have seen the son from a distance was as if he had been watching for him.
Watching and waiting. Like so many people whose children have wandered away from the principles their parents instilled in them, this father continued to watch the road for his son’s return long after everyone else had given him up for dead. There’s no indication exactly how long the son had been gone, but it was multiple years (verse 29). Still, the father watched for his son’s return, ever hopeful that his prayers would be answered.
This is the challenge for parents who live with children who leave the faith. They cling to the promises that God will redeem those who placed their trust in Him, and that those whom they had trained in the path of God’s will ultimately return to it. As the years pass, the prayers for restoration get lonelier. It becomes harder and harder to share with other believers the grief of a child who is absent in spirit because there is no quick answer or visible return-on-investment for the prayer of reconciliation. Over time, the friends who prayed fervently when the child first left the faith family stop talking about the subject, partly because they run out of platitudes and they don’t know what to say or do. Other times parents are judged for the wandering of the children; they must have done something wrong for the child to walk away from the faith. The solitary father in the parable watched and waited for years. There is no mention of a wife, friend, or even another child to share the pain of watching an empty road. Likewise, parents of modern prodigals face a lonely vigil as years pass without a joyful reconciliation. The question for our time is this: how can the community of believers come alongside the lonely without judgment, pity, or unsolicited advice?