From The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus, by Helmut Thielicke, translated by John W. Doberstein (Harper & Row, ©1957)

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

And he said, "There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.' And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants."' And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to make merry."
-LUKE 15:11-24

Several years ago I once set my little son down in front of a large mirror. At first he did not recognize himself because he was still too young. He quite obviously enjoyed seeing the small image that smiled at him from this glass wall. But all of a sudden the expression on his little face changed as he began to recognize the similarity of the motions and he seemed to be saying, "That's me!"

The same thing may happen to us when we hear this story. We listen to it at first as if it were an interesting tale with which we ourselves have nothing to do. A rather odd but fascinating fellow, this prodigal son. Undoubtedly true to life, undoubtedly a definite type of person whom we have all met at some time or other. And certainly we are all objective enough to feel a bit of sympathy with him.

Until suddenly our face may change too, and we are compelled to say, "There I am, actually. This is I." All of a sudden we have identified the hero of this tale and now we can read the whole story in the first person. Truly this is no small thrill. This is the way we must move back and forth until we have identified ourselves with the many people who surrounded Jesus. For as long as we fail to recognize ourselves in these people we fail to recognize the Lord. A landscape painter moves about from one spot to another until he discovers the right perspective for his picture. There is no value in his pedaling through the high country until he spies the outline of a snow-capped peak between two treetops and then says, "This is the Santis," and immediately dismounts and sets up his easel. No. From this point the outline of the Santis is so undefined that it might just as well be some other mountain. The artist must rather search for a long time until he has found the spot from which he can see all the characteristic features of this mountain. That is the only way it will be recognized and the only way to avoid the danger of people's saying that his picture is an imaginary landscape or confusing the painted Santis with some other mountain.

So we too must search for the right vantage point from which we can see the Lord rightly and without distortion, and not in such a way that he can be confused with all kinds of other people, heroes, moral teachers, or founders of religions. Now, the best thing to do is always to take up your position at exactly the same spot where one of the persons who meet him or appear in his parables stands; to stand, for. example, where John is in prison, addressing doubting questions to him, or the Canaanite woman, who desires nothing of him but the crumbs that fall from the Lord's table, or the rich young ruler, who will not forsake the god Mammon and so goes away unblessed.

When we do this we make a remarkable discovery: in all these figures we suddenly find ourselves gazing at our own portrait. In every one of these stories we find sketched out the ground plan of our own life. The prodigal son-this is I, this is you! And the father-this is our Father in heaven who is waiting for us. But now for a moment we must stand here before this mirror and get the image very clearly in our minds, so that we can say from the bottom of our hearts, "This is I."

The first thing we are told about this young man is that he is a "child in the house," a child in the house of his father. At first to the son this is far too natural and matter-of-course for him to be able to notice it himself. He accepts it as perfectly natural that he, the son of the lord of the manor, should be the leader in all the boys' games. He accepts the role almost automatically. But one day he hears one of his companions say, "Ah, if I were only a nobleman's son, a king's son just for one hour! But I am only a poor boy and I never knew my father."

And when he hears this, all of a sudden it is no longer a matter of course to this son that he should be a child in the house. Suddenly he sees the house and his comrades and even the father with new eyes. After all, it might not have been so, it need not have been this way. There is no reason why I should deserve, he says to himself, to be the child in this house and not a servant. And exactly in the same way it is by no means whatsoever a self-evident thing that we as Christians should be the children of our Father in heaven and that we should have peace. It could very well be-indeed, according to the laws of our natural existence, it must necessarily be-that we should think of ourselves as being surrounded and imprisoned by the sinister serpent of Midgard, or pursued by the avenging Furies, or delivered over to nothingness. It is absolutely not a matter of course that all this should not be true and that we may have a home, an eternal security.

But for the young man in our parable this is only a passing mood. Often the old man gets on his nerves. Why can't a fellow be his own boss? Don't do this and don't do that. Always coming around with his everlasting "Thou shalt not"; always jerking the leash and whistling a fellow back. Even those "children" Adam and Eve may often have rebelled at this when they were still in Paradise, in the "Father's house." There, too, was the prohibiting sign, "Thou shalt not," and very specifically placed on the tree of life with all the dark allurements of its mysteries. There for the first time appeared that annoying limitation: so far and no farther. "And you call this freedom; always tripping over barriers and signboards; how is a person going to be able to develop and live his own life with the old man constantly stepping in with his house rules?" Just so have Adam and Eve and all their children and children's children sighed and groaned again and again.

The Father, of course, thinks otherwise about this. He does not bid and forbid in order to "play the Lord" (why should he need to?) or to play tricks on his children or even to give them "inferiority feelings." No, he knows that children need this kind of guidance and need to respect boundaries. We all know the educational product of parents who have trained their children in "freedom," and what unbearable brats they can turn out to be-not only unbearable to others but also a burden to themselves, sick of themselves and at odds with themselves, utterly unhappy in this fictitious freedom that knows no fear, no reverence, no limits.

Surely the father and son in the parable must have talked about this many times. The son would say, "Father, I want to be independent. You must give me my freedom. I can't go on listening to this everlasting 'Thou shalt' and 'Thou shalt not."' And the Father replies: "My dear boy, do you really think you have no freedom? After all, you are the child in the house, you can come to me any time you wish, and you can tell me anything and everything that troubles you. Many a person would be happy to have such a son's privilege. Isn't that freedom? Look, my whole kingdom belongs to you. I love you and I give you your daily bread, I forgive your trespasses with joy whenever you bring to me the burdens of your heart. You are quite free and subject to no one; you don't have to account to anybody except me. And yet you complain that you are not free."

And the son flares up and says, "No, father, to be honest with you, I don't care a hoot about all that. I can't stand this constant training. For me freedom means to be able to do what I want to do." And the father quietly replies, "And for me freedom means that you should become what you ought to be. You should not, for example, become a servant of your desires, a slave to your ambition, to your need for recognition, your love of Mammon, your blase intellectual boredom-oh, I could go on adding to the list. (For when it comes to a man's desires and drives, his physical and mental drives, he has a full inventory of them.) That's why I forbid you so many things. Not to limit your freedom but just the opposite, in order that you may remain free of all this, that you may become worthy of your origin and be free for sonship, just because you are a king's son. Don't you understand that it is love that is behind my bidding and forbidding?"

But the son leaves the room grumbling and slams the door. Naturally, he knows that the father is right. But he can't use this rightness now. He has other plans and what his father says does not suit him now; it does not fit in with the way he wants to live. It is too terribly narrow for him. Outside the mysteries of life are beckoning, his pulses are beating and his passions are seething. The elemental force of a healthy vitality is straining to overflow its banks. Isn't it right to let all this get out and express itself?

The son has a dreadful fear that he will not taste life to the full, that he may miss something. "Is that bad?" he asks himself (for he is not a bad fellow at heart). He feels a tremendous urge to live and he is ready to fight for it and carry it out. "Even if it means stopping at nothing, so be it. I'll show them what I can do and what good there is in me, and bad too; I'll show them my creative powers, my passions, and my kingly urge to assert myself."

And as he is thinking all of this the face of his father appears to him again. And, though he thinks he is only affirming life by wanting all these things, he still has the vague feeling that his father's face would condemn him.

But he does not give in that easily. "I want all this just once; then I'll come back. Just once let my body have its fling, one ecstasy. After all, you must be able to do that too, otherwise a fellow is not a `real man' and never develops his full potential. Then I'll come back! I know that a man has to have a home somewhere and that one can't separate oneself from one's roots. But now-now I need a break, where I can be beyond good and evil, where neither God, devil, father, nor mother matters; otherwise I'll miss the boat to life. Then, when I'm old and the wild oats have been sown, I'll come back; then I'll be good. But for the time being-thank God-I'm a long way from a coronary or any other kind of seizure."

So he says, and he still has no intention of being a rascal, but only a fellow who is alive to life. And now I ask for the first time: Haven't we all felt this at one time? Do we not hear our own voices in the bickering of this soul?

Again the son appears in his father's office. Resolutely he says, "Tomorrow I'm going away to be my own boss. Pay me my inheritance."

Perhaps at the next meal there is a family discussion of this "nasty business at the office." And perhaps the boy's uncle is there, or the kind of avuncular friend of the family who knows life and the world. He defends the young man. "After all, it's a good thing for a young man to sow his wild oats. A man grows up when he gets away from home. Sure, he'll get into some messes; you have to expect that if you're a human being with any adventure in you. But the main thing is whether he wriggles out of them. Then he'll know what life is and he'll be a man. You have to risk boys to get men. Better get into trouble-and out of it-than stay at home like a good, innocent mamma's boy.

"What?" breaks in the older brother, the one who appears at the end of the parable. "You say it's a healthy thing to leave one's father and go bumming around in all the sinks and dives of the world? Surely, it's the worst mistake a man could make to cut himself off from his roots, violently separate himself from what he is bound to with all the fibers of his being, and even cut loose from his father! God help him, if he really goes. But he doesn't want any help."

That is what the family says and that is what the children of this world say when they answer this age-old human question and never come to any agreement on it.

And now they all look at the father. How will he solve the problem? And the father says not a word. He goes to the safe, gets the money, and without a word pays out the boy's share of the inheritance. He does not force the son to stay at home. He must have his freedom. God forces nobody. He did not force Adam and Eve to refrain from snatching at the forbidden fruit.

Then, wordless, the father watches the departing son.

I imagine that as he stands there in silence a deep affliction shadows his face and that in itself is eloquent. I am sure he is not thinking that the boy will grow more mature in the far country. He is asking the anxious question: How will he come back?

The father will keep the son in his thoughts. He will wait for him and never stop watching for him. Every step he takes will give him pain. For the father knows better than this son who sets out, happy and lighthearted, on his chosen life. But the voice of his father in his heart will follow him wherever he goes.

So now the son can do what he wants.

He lives in grand style; he has friends, of both sexes. People turn around to look at him on the street when he appears in his brilliant new wardrobe. The house he rents has taste and is better than most. One day he sums up his new life: he has a following, he has developed taste and culture, he is making an impression-even though everything seems mysteriously to run through his fingers.

There is one thing about his situation, of course, that he cannot overlook (but he does!), and that is that everything he has came from his father. But he uses it all without taking him into account. His body, which he adorns and uses, which so many are in love with-that came from him. His possessions, money, clothes, shoes, food, and drink-they too came from his father, gained from the capital he gave to him. In themselves they are good things; otherwise the father would not have given them to him. But as he uses them they become his undoing, for he uses them for himself, he uses them without the father.

So all this becomes mysteriously changed. His body becomes a vehicle of uncontrolled passions; he becomes something completely different from what he expected from his former radiant vitality. And his inheritance, the dower of his father? It makes him soft, gives him delusions of greatness, diverts him, and makes him dependent upon the people he thinks he can "buy" with it. (For he knows very well that the love of his friends and the regard of his fellow men, which he values so much, would soon cool if he were obliged to cut down his standard of living and no longer had power, buying power, that is.) Somehow, puzzlingly and oppressively, everything is changed. Sometimes he even gets no pleasure from the delights he could secure with his father's capital.

After all, he can't keep on sipping tall cool ones from his refrigerator, that dream appliance of modern civilization. A man gets fed up. But then everything goes so horribly flat. Where will this aimless boredom lead me? A man can't spend all his time staring at a television screen. Oh, the horrible hours afterward, the hideous emptiness which we have tried to forget for a little while with these optical delusions.

Again this text catches at us and we feel that we are hearing a part of our own biography. But it also grasps at our whole generation.

Is not Europe, is not the Christian Western world on this same road of separation from its origin and the source of its blessings? Who today knows the peace of the paternal home, of which Matthias Claudius sang in his evening song, when the whole world lay at rest in the hand of the Lord and he caught the vision of that "quiet room where you may sleep away and forget the day's distress"? Are we not in danger of being stuck with our freezers and television sets-not that they are bad in themselves but because we have made them into a delusive kind of stuffing to fill up our emptied and peaceless lives? And meanwhile we are still impressed by all this blown-up nothingness and many even indulge the illusion that when "X day" comes we shall be able to impress the invading Communists with all these gimcracks. I am afraid the Communists will hold their noses at the vile-smelling wealth of the man who has squandered the Father's capital and goes blabbing around a battlefield with a few decayed Christian ideas. Europe, the Christian West, threatens to become something impossible to believe.

True, everything we have comes from our Father, our ability, our industry, our technical know-how. But when we use it without him, when we treat it as paid-out capital which we can use as we please, it decays in our hands.

Take our reason, for example. It is the supreme gift with which the Father has endowed us, the endowment which really distinguishes us from the animals. By nature it is the organ of "perception" which is attuned to his eternal Word. But when did that curious reversal occur that made reason make us "more beastly than any beast"? Have not all the arguments against God, philosophical and otherwise, been financed out of this capital of reason, which has now become a DP in a "far country"? Are not the torture methods of the GPU and Gestapo simply excesses of this exceedingly acute reason which was given to us by the Father and then misused?

And when the great physicists and scientists of our time repeatedly conjure up in horror the vision of Goethe's sorcerer's apprentice, are they not expressing something like what the prodigal son felt when his capital had dwindled away? Isn't this what they are saying: We are at the end of our reason and that which the Father once gave us-"Fill the earth and subdue it!"-is now turning against us! God changed his creative energy into substance and we are changing this substance back into blind energy!

And what about our art? Cannot art, too, become a squandered inheritance when the design of creation is no longer reflected and, as it were, focused and concentrated in the work of art? How is the artist to capture the mystery of being in form if he no longer knows the thoughts of the Creator and his very theme has escaped him? Is not what has been described with the (admittedly too prejudiced) catchphrase, "loss of the center," an index to the fact that this theme has been squandered? Does not art then become merely the expression of dim dreams, the dreams of a man who seems to be saying almost out loud, "I must say something, but what is there to talk about?"

Are not these the dreams of a homeless man who has lost his Father, a man who goes plodding down the endless street because the windows of the Father's house no longer shine above him? A man who since he lost his wholeness no longer has a whole and healthy world?

But I should not wish to be thought only a negative critic of the artist. For the same thing could surely happen to this artist, who, even though he is on the wrong track as he stumbles confusedly down that street, may still be a great and honest artist, as happened when Jesus met the rich young ruler. What happened then was that "Jesus, looking upon him, loved him." But the very moment in which he would let Jesus look upon him so, he would suddenly realize how far away is the country he is dreaming in and what a home is awaiting him.

Of course, the artist dare not merely fabricate this whole and integrated world; he dare not be a hypocrite and act as if he were still at home in the world of Joseph Haydn or Adalbert Stifter. After all, the prodigal son cannot act as if he were still at home either. On the contrary, he deserves all respect when he honestly despairs, when he calls the far country by its right name, as existentialism does, and when he fashions works of art in the far country. But how much he would gain if he would only allow himself to be told that the Father is waiting for him! Reason and art, too, can come home again and find fulfillment beneath the eternal eyes.

Every age has its own peculiar "far country," and so has ours. All these estrangements, in whatever age they occur, have certain common features. It is true that we work with the Father's capital, with our energy and ambition, our highly developed reason, our technical skills, our ability to be inspired by great things and great ideas-for, after all, these are all things which the Father has given us! But we use them without him, even though we may still have moments when we talk about providence and the Almighty. That's why we get nowhere. That's why our capital keeps constantly dwindling. That's why what we possess explodes in our hands. That's why it cripples us. That's why modem man has bad dreams as soon as he is alone and has a little time for reflection. That's why he has to turn on the radio or run to the movies to divert himself. It's true, isn't it: this is the portrait of us all that presents itself here; this is the portrait of our whole era?

And yet this is the way it is: the more unhappy and lost the son feels the more he celebrates, the more he throws himself into the company of his "friends," the more he diverts himself. "He diverts himself"-we know what that means. More than anything else it means that he can no longer be alone; he must have something going on around him. What did we say? He cannot be alone; he must have diversion. And one day this realization must have struck the prodigal son too. (It strikes us all at some time or other, when God is so gracious as to remove the blinkers from our eyes.) But when he cannot and therefore must, then he is no longer free! No, God knows, he is not free. This is the great new thing that suddenly dawns upon him-him who, after all, set out to be free, free above all from his father.

He is bound to his homesickness, so he must amuse himself.

He is bound to urges, so he must satisfy them.

He is bound to a grand style of living and therefore he cannot let it go. He would be prepared to lie and cheat and disregard every good resolution, so spellbound is he by his standard of living.

That's what freedom looks like outside the Father's house-to be bound, to have to do this and that, to be under a spell, to be compelled to pursue the path he has chosen by an inexorable law. His friends and others when they look at him think: "What an imposing, free man, so independent of his otherwise very influential old man! He pays no attention to principles or education; he's the very type of the sovereign `superman,' the prototype of autonomy."

But he, the prodigal son, who sees his condition from the inside, knows differently. The world outside sees only the facade and what is put in the show window of this botched-up life. But he hears the rattle of the invisible chains in which he walks and they are beginning to make him groan. But nobody helps him and nobody really knows him. Only the distant father, who watched him go away, knows.

And so it goes on from bad to worse. He loses his possessions, falls into destitution, and finally has to hire himself out to a farmer-this fellow who never before was dependent upon any man, subject only to his father. He becomes subject to men. He has to work somewhere in the fields. His life is worse than that of the cattle whose feed he would be glad to share if somebody would only give it to him. Naturally he complains but nobody pays any attention. Now he is under a master, a "man," who has no interest in him, for whom he hardly exists. Now for the first time he begins to realize what it means not to be with the father, no more to be a son. So this is the end of his freedom, his autonomy, and whatever other glittering terms one may use.

The fact is, of course, that we are always subject to one master. Either to God, and then we are in the Father's house, possessing the freedom of the children of God, sons and not servants, with constant access to the Father. Or we are subject to our urges and therefore to ourselves, subject to our dependence on men, subject to our fears-with which our hearts are always well supplied-our worries, our Mammon.

There is no such thing as neutrality between these two masters. And we begin to surmise what Luther was saying when he spoke of our human life as a battlefield between these two masters. We are not masters at all, as the prodigal son wanted to be; we are only "battlefields" between the real masters. In other words, the question we face is whether we want to be the child of the one or the slave of the other.

"I wanted to be free," says the prodigal son to himself-perhaps he cries it aloud, "I wanted to become myself; and I thought I would get all this by cutting myself off from my father and my roots, fool that I am! I have found nothing but chains." And bitter laughter goes up from the pigsty.

That he should have wanted to separate himself from his father now seems just as ridiculous as that a person should fret over being dependent on air and then hold his breath in order to assert his freedom. We cannot with impunity-actually, without being utterly foolish-separate ourselves from the element in which we live and have our being. We can't take God off as we would take off a shirt. To separate ourselves from the Father is at bottom not merely "unbelief" at all, but simply the most monstrous kind of silliness. Does not mankind often present the spectacle of a Mardi Gras parade, reeling about like a man who has lost his balance and his bearings?

And now this is the point to which the prodigal son has come. Now comes the great crisis in his life. Now he is in a fever to get home. Now he is ready to turn around and look at himself.

I wonder whether we can visualize this turn in his life. Surely he must first have been disgusted with himself. And this disgust grew as he saw in his mind's eye the pinnacles of his father's house, which he had lost and upon which he no longer had any claim. He knows he has no right to sonship. But now, as he remembers his father's face when he left, suddenly, despite all the justified scruples, he knows that his father is waiting for him. And as he looks at his empty hands, even though he realizes that he is too ashamed even to lift up his eyes to his father, he knows, he is sure that his father is waiting for him.

In Wilhelm Raabe's Abu Telfan the wise mother, Claudine, says, "My son, there is one bell that rings above all the tinkling cymbals," above all the tintinnabulation of the far country. This bell had never quite ceased to ring in his life. And this bell he now listens to and follows.

The repentance of the lost son is therefore not something merely negative. In the last analysis it is not merely disgust; it is above all homesickness; not just turning away from something, but turning back home. Whenever the New Testament speaks of repentance, always the great joy is in the background. It does not say, "Repent or hell will swallow you up," but "Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand." When the son thinks he has come to the end of his road, then God really begins with his way. This end, from man's point of view, and this beginning, from God's point of view-this is repentance. Disgust with himself could never help him. It might perhaps have made a nihilist of him, but in no case would it have shown him the way back home. No, it's the other way round; it was because the father and the father's house loomed up before his soul that he became disgusted with himself, and therefore it became a salutary disgust, a disgust that brought him home. It was the father's influence from afar, a byproduct of sudden realization of where he really belonged. So it was not because the far country made him sick that he turned back home. It was rather that the consciousness of home disgusted him with the far country, actually made him realize what estrangement and lostness is. So it was a godly grief that came over him and not that worldly grief which produces death (II Cor. 7:10).

And now the lost son arises and goes home. In all his rags he dares to approach the father's house. How will the father receive him? But, more important, what will he himself say when suddenly he is there before the father again? Will he say, "Father, I grew more mature in the far country. Father, I've grown up, I have suffered and atoned for all my sins; I have a claim on your acceptance. I accepted the risk of life and in good and evil I have been a man. Now you must take me in; I'm at the end of my resources!" Is this the way the lost son will speak when he meets his father?

Andre Gide, the French writer (along with many other thinkers), takes this point of view. He invents another ending to the parable and has the returned prodigal sending his brother out into the far country so that he, too, can "grow up" and mature. What Gide is really saying is that it was good for the lost son to be lost for a while. It was good for him to sin. After all, a person has to go through this kind of thing. And one must have the courage to renounce God in order that one may be accepted by him afterward. The son has simply experienced to the full the fruitful polarity of life.

But Jesus' parable says nothing about all this. The son who came home says only, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you." What he is saying is, "Father, I have no claim on you whatsoever."

The fact that the lost son was taken back again is not attributable to his greater maturity, but solely to the miracle of God's love. Here a man has no claim whatsoever upon God. Here a man can only be surprised and seized by God. It is the amazing, gracious mystery of God's love that he seeks the lost and heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents.

But now we face one last question. Where does Jesus Christ appear in this story, or, if there are no direct traces in the story, where are we going to place him? Is not the Father, of and by himself, so altogether kindly and well disposed that he is ready to forgive? Why, then, do we need the Cross, why do we need any mediatorship and reconciliation and the whole of Christology? Does not this story, just as it stands, have about it a divine simplicity; and is it not a fact that there is no Christ in it?

We are not the first to ask this question.

In any case, there is one thing we have seen, and that is that it is only because heaven and the Father were open and receptive to him that the lost son was able to come home at all and be reconciled. Otherwise the best he could have done (that is, if he had not become utterly obdurate, a complete nihilist) would have been to pull himself together and assume some sort of attitude. But the torments inside would have remained. His conscience would have gone on accusing him beneath the cloak of his assumed attitude.

But Jesus wants to show us that this is not the case and that we shall be given a complete liberation. "You are right," he says, "you are lost, if you look only to yourselves. Who is there who has not lied, murdered, committed adultery? Who does not have this possibility lurking in his heart? You are right when you give yourself up as lost. But look, now something has happened that has nothing to do with your attitudes at all, something that is simply given to you. Now the kingdom of God is among you, now the father's house is wide open. And I-I am the door, I am the way, I am the life, I am the hand of the Father. He who sees me sees the Father. And what do you see when you see me? You see one who came to you down in the depths where you could never rise to the heights. You see that God 'so' loved the world that he delivered me, his Son, to these depths, that it cost him something to help you, that it cost the very agony of God, that God had to do something contrary to his own being to deal with your sin, to recognize the chasm between you and himself and yet bridge it over. All this you see when you look at me!"

So Jesus, who tells this parable, is pointing to himself, between the lines and back of every word. If this were just anyone telling us this story of the good and kindly Father we could only laugh. We could only say, "How do you know there is a God who seeks me, who takes any interest in my lostness, who, indeed, suffers because of me? Why do you tell such nursery tales? If there is a God, he has enough to do to keep the planets moving. And perhaps if he has nothing better to do, he may sometimes take pleasure in an upstanding man or a great heroic act. But run after the lost like the Salvation Army? Some God!"

Or another says, "What are you saying? God intervene with forgiveness and a new beginning? No, God does nothing but carry out the eternal law of sin and atonement. 'God' is only another word for the law of justice and retribution, because every sin has to be paid for on earth. That's what concerns God, my friend, not forgiveness!" And, indeed, this is what we should all have to say if just anybody were to tell us of such a Father.

But this is not just "anybody." This is Jesus Christ himself who is speaking. And he is not merely telling us about this Father; the Father himself is in him. He is not merely imagining a picture of an alleged heaven that is open to sinners; in him the kingdom is actually in the midst of us. Does he not eat with sinners? Does he not seek out the lost? Is he not with us when we die and leave all others behind? Is he not the light that shines in the darkness? Is he not the very voice of the Father's heart that overtakes us in the far country and tells us that incredibly joyful news, "You can come home. Come home!"?

The ultimate theme of this story, therefore, is not the prodigal son, but the Father who finds us. The ultimate theme is not the faithlessness of men, but the faithfulness of God.

And this is also the reason why the joyful sound of festivity rings out from this story. Wherever forgiveness is proclaimed there is joy and festive garments. We must read and hear this gospel story as it was really meant to be: good news! News so good that we should never have imagined it. News that would stagger us if we were able to hear it for the first time as a message that everything about God is so completely different from what we thought or feared. News that he has sent his Son to us and is inviting us to share in an unspeakable joy.

The ultimate secret of this story is this: There is a homecoming for us all because there is a home.