Recently, while reading Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son, I began to reflect on the character of the father. Preaching on this parable tends to highlight the father's loving welcome, his compassion and grace upon both sons, his willingness to come out to greet both sons at great cost in terms of social shame and dishonor, and his great joy at receiving the lost son. This is right and good. But I think it’s worth considering Luke 15:20:
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
We often focus on the fact the son was a long way off when the father saw him. The father was sitting there, waiting, hoping for his wandering son to come home. The welcoming heart precedes the prodigal's repentance. Long before you ever thought to come back, God was there, waiting to run to you. So with our own prodigals, we wait with open arms, ready to receive with joy all who come in repentance seeking grace.
But what is the father allowed to feel in the meantime? There's danger in reading too much into a parable beyond the plot as it's developed, or delving deeply into the psyches of characters whose existence spans about 20 verses. Still, it says in the text the father saw him and then he “felt compassion,” moved to action.
What did the father feel before he saw the son coming home? Can we imagine him frustrated and angry? Are we to suppose during the months, or even years, the prodigal is away the father is only and solely feeling a mild, welcoming compassion? Is there no place for a holy frustration at destructive choices he sees his beloved child making? Is there no place for hurt, for grief at the pain of rejection in the midst of his unrelenting love and mercy? Are these feelings allowed for gracious Christians?
Danger of Adding Guilt to Grief
Parents of wandering children know such pain. Many pastors know the feeling too. It is a bitter pill to watch a wandering member, a child of that faithful elder, perhaps one of your own disciples, straying into apathy, sin, or open unbelief. You know as soon as you see the slightest hint of remorse, repentance, or even signs of hope of these things, that your heart will move toward them with tender care. In the meantime, there is angst. Is this simply sin?
I worry that in the middle of the already high call to mercy, grace, and compassion contained in the parable, we might be subtly adding a heavy load on the parents of prodigals. Not only must they avoid bitterness and prepare to welcome prodigals back, they must also never be angry, never frustrated, never irritated at the sin into which the loved ones has fallen.
Reflecting on this question, I was reminded of Jesus’s woes against the Pharisees and teachers of the law in Matthew 23. At the end of Jesus's withering assault on the hypocrisy, false spirituality, and legalistic piety of the Pharisees, he issues this lament:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matt. 23:37-39)
In the middle of the same speech, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for blind arrogance, their rebellion, and all of the ways their hearts remain far from God even while they praise him with their lips. And yet Jesus speaks of the great compassion with which he would have welcomed them, sheltered them, and protected them from the storm to come. Anger, grief, and compassion all come to full display in Jesus's lament over Jerusalem.
It should come as no surprise. We hear the echo of lament from Yahweh in Hosea 11:5-9 as he cries out in frustrated anger at his beloved son Israel's sin, and he shows compassion upon him nonetheless:
Will they not return to Egypt
and will not Assyria rule over them
because they refuse to repent?
A sword will flash in their cities;
it will devour their false prophets
and put an end to their plans.
My people are determined to turn from me.
Even though they call me God Most High,
I will by no means exalt them.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.
Even while acknowledging the analogical nature of the language, we see grief, anger, and compassion of the Holy One of Israel himself.
Take Your Grief to the One Who Grieved First
At my young age, I haven’t known years of struggling with prodigals. Still, I want to offer a few words of encouragement to those who have.
It's okay to be frustrated when the ones you love wander. Looking to the God of Israel revealed in the Old Testament and walking around in flesh in the New Testament, we see frustrated, angry compassion. Mourning and grief are how love reacts to the rejection and self-destructive sin of its object. There is no need to feel guilty for lacking perfectly composed compassion.
That said, we must take care to not fall into trap of the Pharisees. Jesus's lament and anger was aimed precisely at the religious who did not seem to be wandering according to their outer appearances. We mourn people who are explicitly wandering, chasing sin, and rejecting fellowship and Jesus. But beware your anger does not turn to bitterness that sets you up to fall inadvertently into the role of the older brother, lost behind the walls of self-righteousness.
Instead, in prayer, take the pain, the frustration, the anger, the mourning, and the grief to the one who has known it intimately. Take it to the one who suffered it infinitely in the agony of the Cross. Take it to the Holy One of Israel who, though “God and not a man,” nonetheless became man for our sake, precisely because in his great compassion he would not hand us over.
Only he can keep your grief from turning to bitterness. Only he can bring hope in the midst of your mourning. Only he can keep your anger from overwhelming your compassion. Only he can give you the strength it takes to keep your heart open with grace and mercy for the prodigals in your life.