Prodigal Sons and Daughters
by Kurt Lantz
The little wisps of steam have ceased swirling around the cooling cups of coffee as moms corral their tots into winter coats and impatient teenagers drag their dawdling parents away with the rolling of their eyes. There are only a few left finishing their refreshments in the fellowship hall after the service. With just the right blend of privacy and unobtrusiveness, Irene asks her Sunday School friend of sixty-two years, “How’s Evan doing? I haven’t seen him for a while.”
Ruth knows that no one has seen her son in church since she pleaded with him to have the grandchildren baptized. Nevertheless she answers Irene’s question with a glowing report. “Evan’s been promoted to Accounts Manager. Shirley, his wife, is now teaching computer science at the high school. They are going to Bermuda for the March Break. It’s been quite the hassle to get passports for the children.”
That is the extent of the spoken conversation on this topic for these two old gals confirmed together so many years ago. Yet, the exchange has been more telling than what either of them is willing to discuss out loud. One of Irene’s daughters no longer goes to church either. Her story is the same as Evan’s. She’s too busy with her career in order to pay for their luxury home and exotic vacations.
Somewhere along the way, not just the church, but the Christian faith got left behind as the world beckoned Irene and Ruth’s children away. For some inexplicable reason, the seed sown in their children from infancy fell among the thorns, and the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choked the Word (Matthew 13:22).
Somewhere along the way, not just the church, but the Christian faith got left behind as the world beckoned our children away.
Irene and Ruth are heart broken, but what can they do? Talking to their grown children about their departure from the church doesn’t seem to go anywhere. In fact it seems that phone calls and visits become more infrequent after any attempted conversations about the church. And if they should mention Jesus or God the Father, they get that look that says, “You’re so deluded. I can’t believe you still cling to that stuff.” There doesn’t seem any point in pushing it.
Irene and Ruth sit staring at their half-drunk coffees, cooled to the point where it is now unpleasant to swallow. Their shallow repartee is all they can stand as they bear one another’s burdens in mutual consolation. All seems lost. They know their children are lost to Jesus and they themselves have become lost in their grief.
In his gospel, Luke devotes a whole chapter to Jesus’ parables about the lost. There is the lost sheep (15:1-7), the lost coin (8-10), and yes, the child lost when he has grown up and followed the deceitfulness of riches (11-32). It is an extended commentary that gets summed up in chapter 19 where Jesus speaks of Zaccheaus and says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
In the intervening chapters we see Jesus doing just that. He draws tax collectors and sinners to Himself. He praises the dishonest manager who pours out mercy on those indebted. He warns the Pharisees and the rich who would neglect and ignore the lost and the outcast. He teaches of the effectiveness of the widow’s persistent prayer. He declares the kingdom wide open to any who would come as children, and as difficult to enter for the rich as passing through the eye of a needle. Yet, “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
And approaching Jerusalem, He said, “Everything written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging Him, they will kill Him, and on the third day He will rise” (Luke 18:31-33). And this for the express purpose “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
It is right for Irene and Ruth to grieve the loss of their children to the saving faith in Jesus. It is right for them to turn to each other for consolation. And they are not the only ones grieving the loss. Their pastor also shares their grief—the pastor who baptized their children, catechized them, and tossed and turned all night long on the basement floor with them at a youth retreat.
But their pastor has words for Irene and Ruth, words that he has had to turn to himself. He has the promise of Jesus who said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” The Son of Man endured mocking and shame and spit. He was flogged and killed and raised again to seek and to save those lost to the faith, and those lost in grief over them. He was forsaken by His heavenly Father in order that prodigals might be welcomed back.
There is no sin that our lost children have committed for which Jesus did not die. There is no path down which they have gone that He cannot bridge back to the Father. He is ready to run to meet them and embrace them and clothe them with His righteousness so that they may enter the eternal banquet with the whole family of God (Luke 15:20-24).
“What is impossible with men is possible with God.” They are the lost, but in no way a lost cause. They are the cause of the loving sacrifice of God’s Son, as we all were when we too were “dead in our trespasses and sins, in which you once walked, following the course of this world… But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:1-5).
Pastors, parents, and prodigals are all saved by the One who came to seek and to save the lost. That good news strengthens our hope and allows us to share our burdens with the whole body of Christ. We grieve together and we find strength together as we gather under the cross where our heavenly Father’s love was poured out, where we always find His waiting arms open for us to come home.
Pastors, parents, and prodigals are all saved by the One who came to seek and to save the lost. That good news strengthens our hope and allows us to share our burdens with the whole body of Christ.
That is what our prodigal children need to witness. They need to see us in humble repentance going home to the Father to be embraced in His love. That is what they truly desire as well. Once they have gone astray they need to know that they can come back. Prodigals live in a fear that they have gone too far. When they see the humble repentance of their parents, they see the path that leads home to the Father.
Likewise our prodigal children need to witness the love of the heavenly Father flowing through us. If they don’t feel they can come to their earthly parents, they won’t ever feel they can come to the God and Father of us all. A parent’s love continually reaches out. Through visits and phone calls, cards, and letters we let them know that we still want them in our lives, even if we cannot approve of their prodigal living. It is the same way that our heavenly Father is always reaching out to us through His preached word, never condoning our sin, but always calling us home. It is a real authentic love when it flows from His love for us out to our children.
There is something in their lives for us to work with. The ground is not completely barren. The seeds sown in their childhood still remain scattered around them, perhaps covered up by the debris of life, or fallen on a hard path or rocky ground. But the sower has sown liberally, and scattered the seed with reckless abandon, and you never know when the Holy Spirit, blowing where He wills (John 3:8), might uncover that seed and toss it into fertile ground. Prodigals who have returned to the church confess that everything taught them in their childhood comes back.
In the moments of silence passed between Irene and Ruth after their brief conversation, the fellowship hall has almost completely emptied. The clean-up is well under way. Neither of them are sure that they will get down the last swallow of cold coffee that they are staring at in the bottom of their cups. They look up as someone approaches. It is their pastor trying to empty the last pot on his way to the kitchen. He stops and offers, “Can I warm that up for you?”
Rev. Kurt A. Lantz is pastor at Resurrection Lutheran Church (St. Catharines, Ontario) and associate chaplain at Brock University.