In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen writes that the challenge for him is to become the father. It is a challenge that is full of difficulties. When we look again at the Father in our own stories, we can see how daunting it is.
Our Father is gracious and loving without condition. He gives us many good gifts, but the most important gift he gives is himself. The Father is reckless in giving himself to us. Jesus, who is the image of the Father, gave his very life for us, pouring out his blood for our salvation. We are granted grace and mercy without measure from an eternal, inexhaustible love. There is nothing our Father wouldn't do for our good.
As children of God, we are called to be like him. When I look in a mirror, I see my dad. The eyes, the facial features, the hair (or lack thereof), the voice, all show whose son I am. The same is to be true of those who are children of the heavenly Father. As God is loving and compassionate, so we are to be loving and compassionate. As God is gracious and merciful, so we are to be gracious and merciful. As God gives himself, so we are to give ourselves. You get the idea.
In my late twenties my life changed as I became a father. Even though I was still a son, I was now a person with a child. That brought a change in responsibilities, and a change in perspective. As we mature in Christ, we are to leave both the prodigal and the elder son behind. We are still in need of fathering from God, but our vocation changes. We are now called to be the father. As I look at the father in the story, I see some things that will be true as we become the father. Nouwen states that the three ways to compassionate fatherhood are grief, forgiveness, and generosity.
We grieve over those who have left home, we grieve over the injustice and abuse in the world, and we grieve over our own weakness. One aspect of grieving is realizing that we cannot save the one who has wandered away. The father in the story didn't go after his son, but he watched and waited for him to return. So it is with us. Many times, all we can do is pray that God will turn the prodigal around. We can not go into the far country and drag them back. All we can do is wait and be ready to welcome them home.
This grieving makes us sensitive to others who are hurting, and the sensitivity leads us to forgive those who wrong us. As the father did, we forgive without question any and all who return. As Jesus said, we forgive, and forgive, and forgive, and forgive, and so on. True forgiveness also reconciles. The father didn't say to the prodigal, "I forgive you, but I think I'll just keep you on as a servant." He accepted him back as his beloved son. No strings attached.
The third way to compassionate fatherhood is generosity. The father spared nothing to celebrate his son's return. He gave the best of everything, including himself. We are called to give ourselves to others in the same way. Yes, we may get hurt. I'm sure the father was hurt when the elder son refused to join the party, and I would guess the younger son wasn't perfect after he was restored. He may well have cause his father more pain. We are to remember the hurt we have caused our Father and the grace he gives us regardless, and do the same for others.
May the Father enable us to be as gracious, loving, and compassionate to others as he is to us.