Reflections on Luke 15:21-22
And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet…” Luke 15:22-22
He wrapped himself around his son’s neck like a warm blanket in winter and refused to let go. Nor could he stop the joy, the tears, the roar of praise to God that bellowed deep from within his soul. For, wonder of wonders, from heaven above, God had brought his son home. Kisses – a thousand and more kisses.
He’s not dead! All these years he thought he was dead. But he’s here, and alive, and warm, and whole, and – way beyond impossible to believe – in his arms.
“Father,” the boy says, trying to push his father back.
Their eyes meet. Really meet. Oh yes, the boy’s face has changed. So much about him has changed. But at the same time, nothing has changed. The eyes are the same eyes he saw when he first held him as a baby. The nose, the mouth, the color of his hair, the voice – this is him, the son he’d lost, standing here, found.
“I have sinned against God.”
His father is still breathing hard – from the run, from the joy. He steps back but he doesn’t let go. He listens but it takes time to hear because it’s everything – absolutely everything – that he’s here, physically here. Did it matter, really matter, if his son had come back still wild in his rebellion? Yes, but no, but still he’d have run just as hard. Just as fast. Just to hold him again – alive! Not dead.
“I have sinned against you.”
His boy’s eyes have longing in them. Pleading. It’s not like it was before when all he saw in his son was emptiness, and lies, and hatred. But look at him now – is he hearing what he thinks he’s hearing? These words from his son, these first words, aren’t about money. He’s not asking for money. He’s saying what people say when they want to get right again. Right with God. Right with each other.
“I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
He hears it this time. Really hears it. If joy can spread its wings to the heavens, he was there the moment he held his son. But now, this joy surpassed it all, joy soaring to the highest of all heavens – he didn’t just have his son back.
He had his heart too.
There was more to say. Did the boy say it?
Maybe he tried, “Father, make me as one of your hired men.” But his father’s voice was stronger. Maybe they even spoke at the same time. Maybe his father never heard. Or maybe he did and simply, powerfully, denied his request. Because out of his mouth he commanded his slaves to quickly adorn his son in the finest of robes. The family ring. Soft sandals for his calloused, bloodied feet.
For his son is his son indeed.
And with that, he ran back into his arms and clothed him with love and kindness and a fierce but tender assurance that he is – here and now -- worthy to be his.
* * *
Late that Thursday afternoon, Callie texted Erilynne: “I’m sorry for running out. It was a little too much. Forgive me?”
“I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have pushed – will you forgive me?”
“But I need what you said so badly. I want more. Write me? Meet with me?” They texted back and forth until they found a time to meet a few days later. Then Erilynne added: “I’ll do my best to send an email tomorrow. Deal?”
“Deal!” Callie wrote with a noted exclamation point.
This, Erilynne knew, was a safe way to communicate with Callie. One on one can sometimes be hard for her. Especially when the conversation becomes too personal, too intimate, appealing more to her heart than to her mind. It’s better this way. She can write and give Callie space and time to wrestle with it.
But how far should she go?
A few years ago, I wrote in my journal that you remind me of the prodigal son. Not that you lived like him. But that you saw yourself like he saw himself.
How painful it must have been for him to stand there -- his self-value still back with the pigs, the mud, the slop, his body still aching with hunger – and see his father running toward him, his arms wide open, with shouts of love for him. How does anybody do this? Just open our arms to receive what we don’t deserve?
It’s easier to say, “May I be a farm hand?”
In other words, “Let me serve. And help. But don’t make me what I’m not. Don’t force me into your arms and make me feel the strength of your compassion for me. I am no son. If you knew the real me -- the pig-sty me – you’d never do this. So, no, don’t love me. Let me love you by serving you and leave it like that.”
You see, that way, this young man’s self-worth can stay with the pigs.
He doesn’t have to open his heart to his father. Instead, he can convince himself he’s doing the right and noble thing. He’s taking a position of humility by being nothing more than an out-of-sight, no-name, worthless farm hand. While his family eats at the plantation dining room, he eats with the servants. Or alone.
Why? Because he is, always is, unworthy of love.
But here’s the ironic twist. When we stand this ground, what we think is humility is actually a cold-hearted arrogance. We take a position that suits us – not our Father. This isn’t what He wants. It’s what we want. When we refuse Him – we reject Him. And what’s behind that rejection? I can say it one word: Unbelief.
Our Father loves us with a great love. Do we believe it or not?
I know this sounds too simple: Open your heart and receive Him. But I know, I really know, it’s not a simple thing. We spend a lifetime forging our identity. We know the real us. How do we throw all that away? Just like that? I say it again: How do we do this? How do we receive what we know we don’t deserve?
But that’s the story.
Callie, you’re not a farm hand in the kingdom of God. You’re His daughter. You’ve been bought by the precious blood of His Son. He wants nothing more than to clothe you in all the robes of daughtership. Say yes. If it’s hard, really hard, then ask Him to help you. Pray the prayer deep in your soul, “Lord, help my unbelief.”
And then, open your arms. Open your heart. And wait for Him. Soon enough, He will come and the words of the prophet will be yours – all yours!
The Lord your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing. 1
with love for you,
A day passed, then another. Callie didn’t email back. Or text. Or call.
Nor was she in church the next Sunday.
An hour before she and Erilynne were supposed to meet, Callie sent a text: “Sorry, can’t come. Not ready.” Surprisingly, she didn’t come to the Thursday morning women’s Bible study that week. Or the next.
It was three weeks before Erilynne saw her again. Every month, on the fourth Friday night, there’s a prayer meeting at one of the inner city churches. It’s a night like no other filled with worship and praise. Young and old, black, white and Hispanic, inner city and suburban, this denomination and that – all coming together to worship Jesus to the glory of God.
The presence of the Lord is there – palpable, holy, intimate.
Callie would never come to a night like this. And especially tonight. Choirs were singing the blessing of God over the congregation. Pastors rose to pray that each person be “strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.” 2 People were turning to each other and praying for each other.
And there they were. Across the aisle, three rows back. Dave and Callie. There were people all around her. Praying for her – just for her -- as she sat there.
Her eyes closed. Her face bathed in tears. Her hands gently lifted.
1 Zephaniah 3:17 (NIV)
2 Ephesians 3:16-17, 19