One of the most beloved stories that Jesus told has been called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Many have identified with his need for mercy after his excursion into arrogance and stupidity. 

By focusing on the prodigal son, however, we miss the central lesson of the parable. The central character in this story is not the son, but the father. Perhaps if we called it the Parable of the Incredible Father we’d find it easier to focus on the portrait Jesus painted of him. 

He is like no father you have ever known and with Father’s Day approaching, it might be an appropriate time to reexamine this familiar story from an unfamiliar angle.

There are two sons in this story, not one. And neither one of them had a loving relationship with their father. The younger son saw him only as a conduit to his own pleasures, the elder as a taskmaster that made him serve in the fields. While they were both in the house, neither was at home in his love.

The actions of the father throughout are shocking. His arrogant son dishonored him by asking for his inheritance while his father was still alive. Rather than force his son to stay and deepen his hostility, the father gave him his share and let him go. The son squandered his inheritance on his own pleasures and ended up destitute and alone.

All the while the Father waited. Parents who have watched their sons or daughters make bad choices know that waiting is far more difficult than prodding or nagging. But wait the father did, for a marvelous thing to happen – to let the son come to his senses.

We soon found out just how expectant that waiting was. Years later when the son returned, the father spotted him while he was still a long way off. He had never stopped scanning the horizon against hope that one day his boy would come home. Now the waiting was over. The father ran to embrace him, showing him that nothing his son had done in the intervening years had compromised that love.

Soon the older brother found out that his younger brother had come home to dad’s open arms. He exploded in anger, refusing to come to the house and join the lavish party. When the father approached him, he complained that he had never pursued his own aims, but had slaved tirelessly on his dad’s farm. Though a son, he lived as a slave and saw every request of his father as an onerous chore. On the day of his father’s greatest joy, he sought to destroy it with his own anger. Now we know he didn’t have any better relationship with his father than his brother had had. 

Though the father deeply loved both of his children, neither of them embraced that love. Jesus' point is clear. There are two ways to run from God. We see that more easily in the younger son who ran into rebellion, satisfying his own selfish desires.

It is harder to see it in those who run headlong into religious activities thinking they can impress God with their commitment. They slave away for him only because they fear the consequences if they don't. Like the Pharisees Jesus told this story to, they feel justified by their anger at more obvious sins of others. But they, too, never come to realize the depth of God’s love for them. 

All that the father wanted both of them to know was how deeply they were loved. It wasn’t their obedience he wanted most, but their affection. As a parent of adult children, I understand that. There’s nothing I prize more with my children than those moments when we share the honesty and intimacy of friendship. When they know I love them, and they respond in love with me, there’s nothing better.

God feels the same way about you. He's not interested in your service or sacrifice. He only wants you to know how much you are loved, hoping that you will choose to love him in return. Understand that, and everything else about your life will fall into place; miss that, and nothing else will make any difference.

Adapted from Wayne Jacobsen’s book,  “He Loves Me: Learning to Live in the Father’s Affection.”

Wayne Jacobsen 
is the author of 
He Loves Me: Learning to Live in the Father’s Affection. Used with permission, courtesy of A. Larry Ross Communications.

Original article publication date: June 9, 2009