16 June 2023

The parable of the loving father

Major Julian Watchorn

Photo shows a father and child walking down a path.

Major Julian Watchorn reflects on God’s example of unchanging love.

I have often thought that the parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11–32) should really be called the parable of the loving father. One of the greatest challenges as a parent is allowing your children to make mistakes so they can learn from them. There is a natural urge to protect them, perhaps especially from themselves. Yet, if they are to truly learn, you have to let them go – but not before demonstrating just how much they are loved so they can find their way home when they are ready.

Therein lies the beauty of this parable: the prodigal son came back. He came back because he knew the justice of his father’s house. He remembered all his father had shown him without him even knowing. It was not just about his relationship with his father, but also his father’s relationships with others, his brother, even his servants.

The son’s return was about the example of the father before he went away, not the hoped-for response when he returned.

The prodigal son was not the first or the last in the Bible to choose to go their own way. The people of Israel frequently did, as did Samson, Jonah and others in the Old Testament. That would also be part of the testimony of many a Christian today. And yet they each found their way home.

When the world is a mess and we cannot see which way is up, or when we find ourselves experiencing the famine of our own self-centredness, we need to be able to reset our spiritual compass, find true north and go back to our loving heavenly Father.

Although the prodigal son and his brother grew up with the same example from their father, they responded to it differently. Their father would have had high hopes for them both. Their choices led them on different paths, but they ultimately came back to the same constant: his love for them never wavered. As we read the parable, we are left in no doubt that this was the father’s day.

In verse 20, we read that while the son was still a long way off his father saw him. The father was waiting patiently, looking constantly, hoping expectantly for the return of his precious child.

The father did not love because he had to, or even as an investment in his own wellbeing; he loved simply because he could. That love was felt and seen by his son, who – when his perspective eventually changed – saw what was true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable (see Philippians 4:8). And he returned to it.

Of course, not everyone has had the privilege of good parents or role models. For some, these relationships were, or are, very challenging or painful. For some, they do not exist. However, whatever our circumstance, this story reminds us to celebrate the heavenly Father we all share, whose example is true and unchanging, no matter the context or how far we may wander from him.

If you are a prodigal child, whether you have been gone for 5 minutes or 50 years, God’s love has not changed. It is everlasting. Whatever our reason for losing sight of him, our heavenly Father loves each of us as we are. He sees through our sin, shame, guilt and past, and loves the child he first created, however deep down we might have hidden them. We each have that inheritance of undeserved love to receive and live in. May we be ready to return to it daily.

Written by

Photo of Julian Watchorn.

Major Julian Watchorn

Editor, Salvationist magazine

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