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
"Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked him what this meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, 'Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.' "
— LUKE 15:25-32
Anybody who has even a modicum of appreciation of the art of storytelling senses a complete change of atmosphere in this second part of our parable. In the first half it is all dramatic movement. There is a struggle between father and son, until this son gets his own way and departs into the far country. After the young man has had his moment of freedom, everything that happens later happens as it must happen. It proceeds with fateful cogency and inevitability down to the last misery of the pigsty. And in it all I recognize myself, I recognize, so to speak, the blueprint of my own life.
At one moment we are free and masters of our own resolutions. But the door slams behind us and then of necessity we are compelled to walk down an endless corridor; or, like the lost son, we are caught in a snare of guilt and guilt repeated that we can no longer cope with.
But then in the very midst of this law of guilt and retribution a great miracle happens: the lost son is allowed to come home. He becomes free again. Again he becomes a child, a son. And as his chains fall clattering to the floor the house of the father is filled with exultant joy over this one who has come back.
And if you survey this course of the story's action you see that here we are confronted with passionate, dramatic tensions; the wild, headlong, catastrophic fall of a man and his being graciously caught up at the last moment. Here we see the wrongheadedness of our life, the many wrong turnings, and here we also see the everlasting arms that hold us up through it all. Here in a compass almost incredibly compressed practically all the ultimate problems of human life are plumbed.
The second part of the parable, on the other hand, in which the elder brother has the center of the stage, seems by contrast to be a bit dull and humdrum. The story actually has no proper ending at all. It seems-at first reading at least-to run on somewhat forlornly and endlessly.
'The man who occupies the center here does not live "dangerously." Nor does he get what Sartre calls "dirty hands." When a man is good and remains faithful to the father he has played it safe.
Undoubtedly there are many people today, young and old, who live their lives quite differently from the elder brother and therefore would much more readily recognize themselves in the image of the younger brother. Perhaps they have no time, or in any case think they have no time, to devote to the ultimate things of our life. Each day they ride the carrousel of their round of business, disposing of this and calculating that. And when evening comes they hardly know where their heads are. And therefore they do not know where God is either; for to know this, one must have some time to spare for him.
But there are still others among us, perhaps young people especially, who are utterly in earnest about this question of the meaning of life. They study Nietzsche or Marxism or anthropology. And in doing so great tensions are created and often they are afraid of falling into the void. Often they want to become Christians and yearn for peace and some solid ground to stand on (after all, who doesn't?). But they forbid themselves a too-hasty homecoming, because they do not want to be weak and come crawling to the warmth of just any religion and because the question of God is far too serious for them to want to make a soft pillow of him.
These two kinds of people are quite different, of course. But there is one thing on which they certainly agree: they cannot stand this elder brother, because he gets his peace with the father a little too cheaply, because he never takes any risks, just because he "played it safe."
Well, who is this elder brother anyhow? What is the secret of his personality?
This elder brother-this seems to be characteristic of him-cannot understand why the whole house should be turned upside down, why there should be celebrating, singing, fiddling, and lights in every window, just because it pleased this irresponsible scamp of a brother to come back home, poor as a church mouse and badly compromised when obviously there was nothing else for him to do. For his pockets are empty and he also looks pretty starved. In a desolate condition like that even sin is no longer any fun. The best thing to do in that case is to go back home and lead a respectable life after having properly sown one's wild oats.
One can never understand a conversion, one can never understand any divine miracle "from the outside." The fact is that there are certain truths which simply cannot be understood but which must be experienced. Therefore, it is quite natural that the elder brother simply cannot get it into his head why the father should be so terribly happy and why all heaven should begin to exult. He finds this unjust. This good-for-nothing has somehow contrived to get everybody around him in a dither over him. But nobody ever got excited over him, who never found it necessary to come back home because he had always stayed at home; nobody ever killed even so much as a kid to celebrate over him. It strikes him, this faithful Christian church member, this model citizen of the Christian West, the guardian and representative of tradition, that he is being pushed over to the shady side of life.
But is he really? Finally, the father assures him too of his love and says to him, "Son(!), you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." This is, after all, a very considerable avowal, and the recognition and acceptance inherent in it are unmistakable. The father does not say: You are a dog in the manger; you are a stick-in-the-mud; you don't even have the courage to sin; you have stayed respectable only because you lack the spirit to be anything else. No. The father honors the son who has served him faithfully. And by telling the story in this way Jesus gives us to understand that what he means in the figure of the elder brother is the type of Pharisee who takes his ethical and religious duties in bitter earnest. True, he shows this Pharisee (and there are thousands like him in the church today) his secret shortcomings, but he by no means makes him contemptible, as we are wont to do, even deriving a malicious enjoyment from it, when we include the term "Pharisee" in our catalogue of especially attractive insults. After all, it is something when a person faithfully reads his Bible every day of his life, prays every day, and faithfully follows the commandments of God.
And, again, anybody who looks at this from the outside will probably say: This is just conventional religious morality; this is nothing but the well-tempered equanimity of people who never have an "urge" and consequently never act out of character, never kick over the traces. They are the dull, tiresome, prissy paragons.
But this is not the way the father thinks. He sees the life of the elder brother too from the inside, from the point of view of his heart, and he says to him, "Yes, you are my beloved son, you are always with me, and therefore we share everything."
There you have the infinite goodness of the Father. When to men the conversion of the lost appears to be only a cheap capitulation, he sees in it the blessed homecoming of an unhappy soul. And when to men the faithfulness of the elder brother seems nothing more than dull, Philistine respectability, he sees in it the dependability of a heart surrendered to him. How broad is this love of the Father! It spans the whole scale of human possibilities. And the wonder of it is that even you and I, with all our peculiarities, have a place in that heart and are safe there!
And yet somehow there must be something in the fact that the elder son feels that he has been disadvantaged, that he feels that his life is being deprived of any real fulfillment, that it never has in it a shining flight, never a tingling joy that sweeps a man off his feet, never a wild and consuming passion. There are no festivals in this life, but only tedious, tiresome, though highly serious, monotony.
Actually, this is very strange. One would think that if a person were thus privileged to be so close to the Father this would in itself be fulfillment. Then a man would certainly not be merely vegetating, but really living. Then life would have purpose and meaning and direction. But there must be something wrong somewhere. Obviously, there is a kind of piety, a kind of obedience that has about it a mildewed, numbing lack of freshness and vitality that never makes a person really happy. There are plenty of "good people" whose religion never makes them really warm and happy. And many times in hours of weakness they even have a certain secret longing for the "far country" where at least a person can have a bit of "experience." They are honest, serious people with integrity and good will. But there is no concealing the fact that sometimes God becomes boring to them. These people should take a look at themselves in the mirror of this elder brother. What is the cause of his boredom and his discontent?
Just visualize his situation. This elder brother has lived from his childhood up and still lives every day from morning till night in the atmosphere and protection of the father's house. Naturally he loves the father and his environment. But the fact that he loves his father and is loved in return is so taken for granted that he is hardly conscious of it and nobody even speaks about it. To him it would have seemed ridiculous to go up to his father and say, "Father, today I love you quite specially." We do not reflect upon what is as normal and near as the air we breathe. Nor do we give thanks for it. It is the same way with many long-married couples. They are accustomed to each other. It would not occur to them to express in words what they mean to each other. Each is hardly aware of what the other means until he or she has gone on a journey or one is left forlorn at an open grave. Something like this is the elder son's relationship to his father.
Is not the Christianity of many people very much like this relationship? From childhood on they have heard that there is a "loving God"; they have, as it were, merely "heard" something about forgiveness and the Lord's atoning death rather than actually experienced and realized the sinfulness for which they are to be forgiven. But when through habit forgiveness has become something taken for granted, it has been falsified in the process. Then you begin to think of this "loving God" as someone who could never really be angry with you, someone who surely doesn't take things amiss and is always willing to stretch a point. Heaven becomes a rubber band that always gives. It is quite impossible ever to get hurt by it. The wonder of forgiveness has become a banality.
It takes no great acuteness to see that this kind of "faith" is no longer a joy and a liberation. What it means to drag about a wounded, tortured conscience, to be tormented by emptiness and meaninglessness, beset by accident and fate, and shocked by unseen bonds and dependencies, and then to be able to lift up one's eyes again and have a loving Father and a living Saviour — none of this can ever be realized with that kind of faith. Actually, it can be the death of our faith if we forget that it is literally a miracle, a gift, an absolutely-not-to-be-taken-for-granted fact that we are able to say, "Abba, Father," and "My Lord and my God."
Of course we don't have to go into the far country and of course we need not first have gone out and lived and sinned with a vengeance in order to experience this miracle of homecoming. It is quite enough if every day the first thing we do in our morning prayer is to give thanks that we are even permitted to speak with God, that he has promised to listen to us, and that we may lay all the burdens of our heart before him.
If we want to learn to "thank" aright we must "think" about the miracle that is happening to us. For thinking and thanking belong together. Both are worship and they cannot be separated. Both are an exercise which we must perform every day.
And if we want to do something more, we ought to think about our fellow men who know nothing about Jesus. We ought to realize what efforts many of them must make to shut their eyes to the meaninglessness and emptiness of their lives and how they seek to console themselves with all the entertainment which the world has ready for this purpose. We should hear in it the secret, scarcely ever admitted cry: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."
We should do well not to look with a feeling of Pharisaic superiority upon these driven and drifting "wicked worldlings," so called; but rather with hearts wrung by that sympathy with which the father looked upon his departing son. We should do well to realize with thankfulness what it means that we are delivered from this anxiety and the torments of unforgiven guilt and that God has allowed his great miracle to happen in our poor lives.
Let us remember this one thing: the worst thing that can happen to our Christianity is to let it become a thing taken for granted, which we wear around every day, just as the elder brother wore, and wore out, his existence in the father's house as he would wear an old, tattered shirt.
The marvel of God's gracious act upon our life never really dawns upon us unless we render thanks to him every day. Only the man who gives thanks retains the wonder of God's fatherly love in his thoughts. But one who has this wonder in his thoughts keeps the very spring and freshness of his Christianity. He holds on daily and nightly, to a living joy in his Lord and Saviour. He knows that all this is not mere ideas and habits, but life, and fullness, and joy.
How else can we explain why it is that Paul is repeatedly admonishing us to rejoice, even in the midst of the pain and anguish of imprisonment; how else explain the rousing, vibrant cheerfulness that runs through all his letters? The reason is that for him Christianity was not merely a general philosophy, but because he lived his life in the name of a miracle, something utterly not taken for granted, and never allowed this miracle to become a matter of course, "second nature." He had persecuted and hated this Christ; he had rebelled against him fervently and passionately. But then, suddenly, he was wrenched out of this devilish circle of hate when the persecuted Christ met him on the road, not with blows of retaliation but mercifully calling him home.
Not long ago a young student told me that he grew up without the slightest knowledge of Jesus Christ. He lived as a child in a village where the village fool was given the nickname "Jesus." The children would run after the poor feeble-minded fellow, calling him "Jesus, Jesus." One may guess what it meant to this young man when later he learned the message of Christ and what tremendous adjustments he had to make in order to overcome these first impressions of his childhood and this caricature of Jesus. But would not one expect (and this is what actually did happen) that this young student, when he finally discovered who Jesus Christ is, would be able to praise his new Lord far more joyfully, far more originally, and in quite other tongues than many a tradition-minded church member for whom what burst upon this young student as the most fabulous of miracles has become only a matter of course?
This surely is also what the Book of Revelation means when it speaks of the "first love." The charm of this first love is that it has not yet become habit and second nature, but comes into our life as an amazing surprise. That there should be someone like Jesus, that he should gain the Father's heart for us, that he should rescue us from the frustration of our personal lives and snatch us away from this horrible vegetating on the edge of the void-all this is indeed a tremendous surprise. But one must have cried out from the depths, one must have been at the end of the tether, one must have realized the fragility of all human consolations to comprehend what it is when it comes.
For how many a soldier in a concentration camp, weak with hunger and smarting under the knot of the torturers; for how many a person huddling in the last extremity of ghastly dread in a bomb shelter; for how many on the endless gray road of a refugee trek was it not the great experience suddenly to know: I am not in the hands of men, despite everything to the contrary; another hand, a higher hand is governing in the midst of all man's madness and canceling all the logic of my calculations and all the images of my anxious sick imagination? I am being led to the undreamed-of shore, the harbor, the Father's house. And always when things grow dark, suddenly that marvelous helping hand is there. If there is anything that is really bombproof, then it is this, that God is there, on the spot, punctually and with the most amazing precision!
But yet I ask myself why it is that so many "worldlings," even the very respectable and definitely serious ones, are so difficult to get inside a church. Many of them have said to me, "Sure, when you speak in the university or in an auditorium I'm glad to come. But I have the same horror of a church that the devil has of a holy water font."
Even though this must surely be a complex, there are nevertheless some serious reasons here which ought to interest us. And one of these reasons is certainly this, that many say to themselves, "I am a seeker; I'm not treating this thing lightly. But these people in the church have everything settled, and they ought not to look down on me."
Or here is another who said to me, "It's the respectable people who go to church [he was referring, of course, to the "elder brothers"]. But I have led a reckless life, because I have some vitality and I am anything but a goody-goody. I've got some wild nights behind me and during the day too I've cut some corners in my job. But these respectable sheep, who never faced the temptations I have, need not think they are any better than I am. And they certainly need not think, 'Ah, he's a latecomer, but he's coming. How nice that he finally caught on; we knew he'd come around sooner or later."'
This may be unjust and prejudiced, but there is a grain of truth in it. And now I submit that both kinds are here today, the church Christians and also the "gate-crasher," the hungry and the thirsty. And now we so-called pious people are going to make a confession to our brothers and sisters.
So, here goes! It is true that the "good" people have been affected by the acids of Pharisaism. We know, of course, that God has accepted us through grace alone. But yet we think there must be something rather decent and nice about us that God should have cast an eye upon you and me of all people and drawn us into his fellowship. And quite naturally we look down on the nihilists who believe nothing; we despise the people who have nothing to hold on to and take refuge with such a "dubious character" as Nietzsche or Rilke or Gottfried Benn. We despise those superficial types who cannot even enjoy nature without having a portable radio blaring away or some other fribble to distract them. We delude ourselves a bit about the eternal foundations upon which our lives are built, even though we have absolutely nothing to do with the placing of those foundations. Oh, we are fine fellows! God may well congratulate himself for singling us out of the crowd. He knew what he was getting when he got us. Yes, we are the salt of the earth, we are the Old Guard of the kingdom of God. What would happen to the world if there were no solid Christian middle class!
And look, my dear companions in the pious bracket, our nihilist brethren catch these spiritual waves which we emit and they react against them. All of a sudden we are identified with the elder brother in our parable.
For now we must observe the subtleties in our text. The elder brother, we should note, actually dissociated himself from the poor prodigal. He does not say, "My dear brother is back again." No, he says with a clearly defensive reaction, "This son of yours has come back," He and we do not say, "My brother down-and-outers . . ." but rather "These down-and-outers are God's creatures too." And the elder brother goes on to say, " I was always with you."
Doesn't he see that in the very act of saying so he is not any longer with the father? The father is overjoyed to have this dreadfully endangered son of his back again. His heart is simply leaping with joy. Doesn't the elder brother see that with all his respectability and faithfulness he is estranging himself from his father just because his heart is not beating in tune with his father's, just because his heart is at odds with the father's heart? A person who cannot wholeheartedly rejoice with God when the icy crust about a torpid, empty heart begins to thaw, a person who is not himself inflamed by the glowing love of Jesus for the erring and the lost and is not impelled to rescue human souls that person is alienating himself from God in a very subtle but dreadful way, no matter how consciously and determinedly he continues to dwell with him, even though he prays and reads the Bible and goes to church. Now do we see where the bleeding wound is located in this elder brother, and where perhaps it lies in you and me?
Further, the elder brother is outraged by all that the younger son has squandered. It simply enrages this dutiful, correct man when he thinks of the many wasted hours which this adventurous madcap has failed to make use of. 'He is distressed by all the wasted money, which might have been used so much more productively and for Christian purposes. To him it is altogether uneconomical that this young struggler and seeker, going through the throes of "storm and stress," should take such a tremendously roundabout way to get home. He could have done the whole thing much cheaper if he had stayed home in the first place. Why does he have to read Nietzsche and Marx, why does he have to go off on these perilous odysseys?
So the sight of this human wreck does not move him to sympathy but rather makes him wild and whips up a wave of reproaches. And, again, he does not see that all this takes him away from his father. For how differently the father receives his poor, misguided son! He has no thought whatsoever of the wasted goods and all that the son has lost, but is simply overjoyed that he has him back again. What matters to him is not the wasted goods at all, but the person who has been regained. Despite the rags, despite the marks of dissipation and the ravages of passion, he recognizes and accepts his son. That's the heart and center of the gospel.
In our lives we may have squandered what we would. Perhaps we have squandered and mismanaged our marriage. We may have squandered away our good reputation. We may have ruined our bodies or our imaginations. Perhaps our thinking has been corroded by envy and the heat of harmful passions. Perhaps we have dragged the faith of our childhood in the gutter and become nihilists and cynics. All this may be true. But right here comes the great surprise: God has not given me up. He still counts me his child. He tells me that he cannot forget me. When anybody has done as much for me as my Father in heaven has done, when he sacrifices his best beloved for me, he simply cannot forget me. And therefore I can come to him. God pays no regard to what I have lost; he thinks only of what I am: his unhappy child, standing there at his door again.
But what if this unhappy child is not myself, but some other person, my brother perhaps or my friend? How do I act then? Like the elder brother, who simply says, "I come first; for after all, God, am I not your old standby?" But wouldn't this be a terrible attitude to take? Don't we see that this just takes us farther away from God-the very people who are the old and perhaps tried and tested Christians? When the Father accepts a man as his child, we certainly should accept him as our brother. Do I want to exclude myself from the Father's joy? This would simply nullify what the Father says: "All that is mine is yours." Then I myself would be revoking what he says. Peace with God is taken away from us immediately we can no longer rejoice when God rejoices and sorrow when God sorrows, immediately our heart beats out of tune with the Father's.
But even more than this happens. Very soon we also begin to doubt the Father, just as does this elder son, who may have asked himself in all seriousness, "Is this really my father if he acts so strangely?" Yes, the elder son doubts.
Have we ever thought why it is that so many doubts enter our hearts?
How many things we doubt and how many things we men are at odds with God about! We doubt whether there is a loving, fatherly God when we think of the frightful things we saw during the war, or when we think of torments we suffered or saw others suffer in prison camps or sickrooms. We doubt the omnipotence of God and his ability to keep his hand on the helm of history in all this confusion between East and West, in this insurrection of the powers of darkness. We doubt that God really breaks the law of sin and retribution. We doubt everything-except our own worries, anxieties, and hopelessness. These we believe in unshakably. God is surrounded by a ghastly silence and we have not the faintest inkling of where he is or what he is doing.
Have we really understood once and for all that doubts do not have their roots in the intellect, in rational difficulties at all, but in something altogether different? Do we understand that these doubts (look at the case of the elder brother!) keep rising like a toxic fog from a heart that is not in tune with the Father's, a heart that is no longer always with the Father, even though it lives every day in the atmosphere of Christianity? A heart that therefore not only loses God but its brothers too, and perhaps becomes cynical, seeing only the rags but not the lost children of God who are clothed in these rags and for whom Christ died?
Here is the source of our doubt and discord, here and nowhere else. The elder brother shows us how it comes about that we doubt the Father, that we question him and quarrel with him, that even in the midst of our churchgoing and Bible reading we still feed upon the food of swine.
So we shall not close this hour of taking stock of ourselves without .asking ourselves whether as Christian men and women we are also really free and joyful people or whether we are Christian slaves. Only if we allow ourselves to be kindled by the love of the Father's heart and then this very day look around for those to whom we can apply this love: this colleague who is so strangely impersonal and is perhaps bleeding from some hidden wound; that neighbor who needs help and counsel; our teen-age children who perhaps have become so estranged from us and are grappling with so many things that torment them, things which we do not see and understand-only if we enter into this living circuit of divine love and let it warm us and flow through us will it suddenly become clear to us what it means and what a joy it is to know the fatherly heart in heaven and the blessed brotherly heart of our Lord and Saviour. Then our daily prayer, which perhaps before we rattled off slavishly like a burdensome duty, becomes a gladsome conversation with the Father. Then our reading of the Bible, which we performed as a conscientious but servile obligation, becomes the catching of deep breaths of the air of eternity.
What a wretched thing it is to call oneself a Christian and yet be a stranger and a grumbling servant in the Father's house. And what a glorious thing it is to become aware every day anew of the miracle that there is Someone who hears us. Someone who is waiting for us. Someone who wonderfully sets everything to rights and finds a way out for us when all we can do is to wear ourselves out with worry. Someone who one day, when our last hour comes and we go back home from the far country and the hectic adventure of life, will be waiting for us on the steps of the eternal home of the Father and will lead us to the place where we may speak with Jesus forever and ever and where we shall be surrounded by that joy which here we have only begun to taste.