There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was a long way off, the father saw him and said, “Look, the son who I have foreordained and elected to follow my commands is returning.” And the father stood and waited for his son to approach.
When the son finally stood before his father he said, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”
The father said, “It is true, you are not worthy to be called my son,” and the father turned away because he could not bear to look upon the filth and sin of his son. “I cannot even be in the presence of your depravity. There is nothing good in you. I hate you. I am sick of you. I am frustrated by you. I am wearied by you.”
The son began to walk away, expecting nothing more from his father, but the father continued to speak. “I am willing, though, to give you the free gift of my grace and forgiveness if you will take these steps: confess your evil deeds, repent of your old life and promise to follow my rules, believe that I love you and have a wonderful plan for you, and receive my free gift.”
The father went on, “Then you must also agree to follow the rules of this community. If you break any of these rules, I will hold it against you. I will remove my blessing. To restore my love, though, all you have to do is to confess your law-breaking. If you do not admit your wrong, you will be ejected from this community. If you continue to do wrong, I will pour out death and destruction on you.
The son was desperate, and he immediately agreed to his father’s demands. He lived content within his father’s system for some time, until the day he was not content, and he left to search for a new home.
That is not really the way Jesus told the story. I made up the ending. Actually, I didn’t make it up. The ending is compiled of the statements of so many Christians who see the love of the Father as conditional. Reading the story above, it is easy to think that the response of the father to the son’s return makes sense, because we have heard these same statements over and over.
Here is Jesus’ ending to the story:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The Father loves, accepts, and even forgives the son “while he is a long way off.”
The Father who loves me while I am a long way off makes me want to not be a long way off.