The Parable of the Prodigal Father

Presence is more than just being there.
-Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, publisher of Forbes Magazine

Unconditional love is total. In unconditional love, we enter into relationships with others that are based upon being loved even when we have nothing to offer in return.

Skeptical of this line of thinking? Many people are, and if you are one of them, I want you to hear a story that I read some years ago and have adapted from Philip Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (I love that title) for it dramatically illustrates this point. But let me warn you in advance. Wait until you have the time to read the following words because the story is a bit longer than the average post, but I guarantee you it is more than worth your while if you stick with it to the end.

Jenny was a teenager who grew up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tended to overreact to her nose ring, the music to which she listened, and the length of her skirts. They grounded her a few times, and she seethed inside. “I hate you!” she screamed at her father when he knocked on the door of her room after a particularly unpleasant and heated argument, and that night she acted on a plan that she had mentally rehearsed scores of times – she ran away to Detroit.

She had visited Detroit once before and because the newspapers in Traverse City reported in lurid detail the gangs, the drugs and the violence in downtown Detroit, she concluded that was probably the last place on earth that her parents would look for her.

On her second day there, Jenny met a man who drove the biggest car that she had ever seen. He offered her a ride, bought her lunch, and arranged for a place for her to stay. He gave her some pills that made her feel better than she had ever felt before. She had been correct all along she decided: Her parents were keeping her from all the fun.

The good life continued for a month, then two months, and after that into a year. The man with the big car – Jenny called him “the Boss” – taught her a few things that men like. Since she was underage, men paid a premium for her. She lived in a penthouse and ordered room service whenever she wanted. Occasionally, she thought about her family and friends back in Traverse City, but their lives now seemed so boring to her that she could hardly believe that she had ever lived there. Jenny had a brief scare when she saw her picture printed on the back of a milk carton with the caption, “Have you seen this child?” But by now she had blond hair, and with all the makeup and body-piercing jewelry she wore, no one would mistake her for a child. Besides, now most of her friends were runaways, and, to paraphrase a saying: “What happens in Detroit, stays in Detroit.”

After a year, the first ashen signs of illness appeared, and it amazed Jenny how fast “the Boss” turned mean. Before she knew it, she was out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turned a couple of tricks a night, but they did not pay much, and all the money was spent to support her drug habit. When winter arrived, she found herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. “Sleeping” was the wrong word, for a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit could never relax her guard. Dark bands circled her eyes. Her cough worsened.

One night, as Jenny lay awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looked different. She no longer felt like a woman of the world. She felt like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She began to whimper. Her pockets were empty and she was hungry. She needed a fix. She pulled her legs tight underneath her and shivered under the newspapers she had piled atop her threadbare coat. Something jolted her memory and a single image filled her mind. It was an image of springtime in Traverse City when a million cherry trees bloom at once – an image in which she was with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball.

“God, why did I leave?” she said to herself, and pain stabbed at her heart. She thought, “My dog back home eats better than I do now.” She was sobbing, and she knew in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wanted to go home.

Jenny made three straight phone calls, each making the connection with the answering machine. She hung up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she steeled herself and said, “Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”

It took about seven hours for the bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during all that time Jenny realized the flaws in her plan. What if her parents were out of town and missed the message? Perhaps she should have waited another day or so until she could talk to them! Even if they were home, they probably had written her off as dead long ago. She should have given them some time to overcome the shock of her phone call and its message.

Jenny’s thoughts bounced back and forth between those worries and the speech she had prepared for her father. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault; it’s all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?” She said the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearsed them. She had not apologized to anyone in years.

The bus had been driving with lights on since Bay City. Tiny snowflakes hit the road and the asphalt steamed. Every so often, Jenny saw a billboard. She saw a sign posting the mileage to Traverse City. Oh, God!

When the bus finally rolled into the bus terminal, the driver announced in a crackly voice over the microphone, “Traverse City. Traverse City, Michigan. Fifteen minutes, folks. That’s all we have here.” Fifteen minutes to decide her life. Jenny checked herself in a compact mirror, smoothed her hair, and licked the lipstick off her teeth. She looked at the tobacco stains on her fingertips and hoped that her parents would not notice. That is, if they were there at all.

Jenny walked into the terminal not knowing what to expect, and not one of the thousand scenes that had played out in her mind prepared her for what she saw. There, in the bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stood a group of forty family members – brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They were all there wearing ridiculous-looking party hats and blowing noisemakers, and taped across an entire wall of the terminal was a computer-generated banner that read “Welcome home!”

Out of the crowd of well-wishers, stepped her dad who ran to her and embraced her. Jenny looked at him through tears and began her memorized speech, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know. . .”

Jenny’s dad interrupted and whispered to her. “Hush, child. We’ve no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.” There were no solemn lectures. There were no words of reproach. There was no unkindness hidden behind the hugs. There was simply love. Unexpected! Undeserved! Love!

I told you it would be worth it if you stuck with this story to the very end. The story is a tale about a young woman who did not expect the loving welcome that she received. But then, this is not a story about receiving what we expect. It is a story about being loved even when we have nothing to offer in return, even when we have no expectation of being loved. Listen and learn from that father’s tender whisper to his daughter: “Hush my child. We’ve no time for this. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for your party.”

True love is total. It is unexpected, undeserved and unconditional! Of course, any similarity between this story and the story that Jesus told in Luke’s Gospel is purely intentional.

Prodigal love comes to those who fail; to those who recognize their failure, and to those who return home for a new start in life. The word “prodigal” means extravagant, lavish, and unrestrained, even to the point of being what some would consider wasteful. Yes, Jenny was a prodigal daughter; she had lived wastefully. But so too was her father; he loved wastefully! It was Jenny’s father’s extravagant and unrestrained love for her that knew no limits, his forgiveness that knew no boundaries, and his joy that knew no restraint. For me, John Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark sums up this story best when he writes: “My mission as a Christian is not ‘to convert the heathen’ as we once asserted, it is rather to assist in the task of helping all people to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that they are capable of being.” This is a Christianity grounded in a radical understanding of humanity.


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