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I recently read this parable from an entirely different point of view. We typically see this parable as an illustration of grace and forgiveness. My new way of looking at it is an illustration of prayer.
I’m currently involved in a Bible study using Dr. Larry Crabb’s book, The Papa Prayer. The emphasis of his book is that our relationship with the Lord should be paramount to any request or petition we ask of God. This book has opened my eyes and my heart as to how self centered we as a Christian people have become. Our prayers are riddled from beginning to end with requests, wants and entreaties. For many of us, that’s what prayer is all about, asking. After all, isn’t that what Matthew 7:7 instructs us to do? “Ask and it shall be given you, see and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened until you.” We’ve even turned that scripture segment into an acrostic: A (ask) S (seek) K (knock).
It’s not difficult to figure out how we got that way. That’s what many of us were taught as young children. We were taught to pray before meals, asking God to bless the food. We were taught to pray before going to bed that God would bless mom and dad, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, our teachers, our pastor, our best friends, and very possibly we’d throw in the cat, dog or hamster for good measure. So, what role did prayer play between breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner, or between dinner and bedtime? Oh, yeah, we’d pray that God would help us pass an exam in school, regardless of whether or not we studied. Perhaps we’d pray that someone we liked would like us back, or that we’d make the sports team for which we were trying out. I remember pouring out my heart to God as a child asking Him to bring back a much-loved cat that had gone missing. Or, maybe there was really something quite serious going on in our lives, like asking God not to let our parents separate, or requesting Him to spare a relative from dying.
As conditioned children, we grew into adults, and the word “prayer” became synonymous with “asking.” We open and close our church services and committee meetings with prayer, asking God to do something. We pray before the offering, asking God to do something. Our church prayer lists, prayer chains and prayer walls are all about asking God to do something.
I know I sound a bit cynical, so let me redeem myself by saying that I realize that many of those involved in these prayer practices have a wonderful relationship with the Lord, and their supplications are an outpouring of their love and rapport with their Heavenly Father. But, that’s not what we see in the story of the prodigal son.
What we do see is a self-centered son, who has his own interests at heart. He wants what belongs to him. We are not told in this story what type of son he has been for his father. Has he been a good worker? Has he been dependable? Has he been a loving and respectful son? Has he been an integral part of his father’s business? When he leaves, will his presence be missed? It doesn’t matter, because it’s obvious the youngest son doesn’t care. He just wants his inheritance so that he can get out from under his father’s roof. He asks his father to do something: “give me the portion of goods that falleth to me,” and his father complies. Like many Christians, he was all about “gimme, gimme, gimme!”
We are also not told in this story what the father thought about his son’s request. Did he think his son’s demand was reasonable? Did he have second thoughts about giving him his inheritance? Did he anticipate the outcome? Regardless whether or not he had misgivings, he complied and divided up the inheritance between his sons.
This earthly father’s grace and generosity toward his youngest son is not unlike our Heavenly Father’s toward us. Sometimes we ask for “things” that are not for our good, and God knows it. But just as the prodigal’s father may have felt that he had to let his son go and learn his life lessons the hard way, I believe God, as well, will sometimes grant our desires. After all, He’s not a puppeteer, and we are not His puppets. He’d prefer that our desires would match His, but He also knows that, at some point, we’re hard headed enough to want to go our own way and learn our life lessons the hard way. And, for His purposes that we don’t always understand, He grants our desires.
Getting back to the prodigal, we all know what happens next. The prodigal parties, wastes his inheritance, and eventually finds himself in a pig sty, literally. When he hits bottom, he begins to remember how well he had it at home. His circumstances and his hunger are severe enough to override his pride, and he begins the trek home to face his father.
I don’t know about you, but I can relate to the prodigal, not to the prodigal’s physical hunger, but to his spiritual hunger. There was a time when I distanced myself from my spiritual Father to go out on my own and live my own lifestyle. I eventually found myself remembering how good I had it at my spiritual home, when I lived a life in harmony with the Lord. That memory started drawing me back to my spiritual home, and back to my Heavenly Father.
Like the prodigal, I also had to put aside my pride and admit that God did better at running my life than I did. And, my Heavenly Father bestowed me with an unbelievable amount of grace and forgiveness, just as the prodigal’s father did.
The speech, or prayer of repentance, the prodigal had prepared never had to be spoken. His father came running toward his beloved son with open arms, full of forgiveness and grace. I truly believe that our Heavenly Father figuratively does much the same when we come to Him with a repentant heart. He loves us, and He celebrates when we come back to Him.
The last prayer I see in this parable is one that should never have been uttered. It’s the prayer of the elder son. From afar he sees the festivity getting underway, and he becomes angry when he finds out the purpose for it. How dare his father make such a big deal over the younger son, when he was the one who stayed behind and remained a faithful son and employee. He didn’t let his father down, so why isn’t a party being thrown for him? In anger, he vents to his father in the 29th verse. “I’ve served you. I haven’t sinned against you. Why are you doing this?”
Unfortunately, he’s like many Christians who remain faithful to the Lord and don’t wander away from the homestead, but when they notice that God is blessing someone else whom they perceive doesn’t deserve His blessings, they get upset. They pout, and they vent to the Lord, “What about me? Where are my blessings? Why aren’t you celebrating my faithfulness?”
What they fail to recognize, just like the elder son, is that they are being blessed. Their needs are being provided. They have a roof over their heads and food on the table. They are being loved unconditionally by a Heavenly Father who has no hidden agenda. Yet, all of sudden they see someone “getting” something they don’t have, or they wished they had, and their attitude takes a downward turn. They forget that their faithfulness to the Father is storing up heavenly treasures of the best type (Matthew 6:19-21), not the earthly treasures they see others receiving.
However, at the time, all he could focus on was that his father was throwing a party for his undeserving brother. His jealousy got in his way, and he couldn’t see beyond his self pity. The father’s unlimited love and grace that was displayed when he welcomed home his prodigal son should have been a reminder to the elder son what a wonderful father he had. Unfortunately, the son’s speech (prayer) to his dad was condemning, shameful and petty.
Dr. Crabb asks the question in The Papa Prayer, “Why does most of our praise to God have more to do with all the blessings we have than with the intimacy He offers?” There’s much truth revealed in that question. I’m still working my way through Dr. Crabb’s book, and I haven’t yet totally grasped the concepts, but I do know that the following prayer would have been a much better one for the older brother to have expressed:
“Father, one of the servants just told me that my brother has returned home. At first I was upset that he came back. He acted so selfishly, thinking about no one but himself. O how he betrayed you! But now I'm being selfish, because I know how much you've missed him. I've often seen you watching the road in the hopes that you'd see him coming up the pathway. So, Father, I think it's wonderful that he's back. God has granted your prayers for his protection, and I can’t wait to see him. I know how worried you have been, not knowing where he was or if he was even still alive. I know you have to be thrilled to know that he’s safe and back home again. I can’t blame you for throwing him the biggest party this family has ever seen. Once again, the love and forgiveness that is so much a part of who you are is being demonstrated.
“Brother and I are so fortunate to have you as a father. We know that we can always count on you. At times you let us stretch our wings, even when you knew we weren’t ready. You allowed us to learn lessons for ourselves even when it meant we’d get hurt. Your love was never suffocating; instead, it was liberating, because no matter what we did, not matter how we might have disappointed you, we always knew that you’d never love us any less. It has been a blessing to remain here at home and to work alongside you, and I am so grateful for the closeness that has developed between us. I can’t wait for brother to share in that love. He’ll never want to leave home again. I love you Papa.”
Notice three things. First of all, the prayer was personal and intimate, and it revolved around the relationship between the father and his son. Secondly, it was real and authentic. Thirdly, nowhere within the prayer was there a request, a plea or a petition for his father “to do” something. It was all about the son sharing his heart with his father, and just spending time with Him.
That’s what our Heavenly Father desires of us. He wants intimacy and a relationship without rules and boundaries. He wants us to be real with Him, not just saying words we think He wants to hear. He wants us to desire spending time with Him and basking in His glory. While Scripture does extend an invitation to us to present our requests to God (i.e. Philippians 4:6), being in our Father’s company and being intimate with Him is way beyond any of the “stuff” He might do for us. Let’s not make the same mistake as the prodigal or his brother by praying selfishly and self-centeredly. Instead, let us desire to dwell in the presence of our Papa and have the sweetest and most precious experience we can ever imagine or desire.