This article should be read in conjunction with the previous one – ‘Running God’
The party was over. Jacob had heard stories circulating among the guests last night that all was not well in the father’s house – that his oldest son was furious with his father for having welcomed home his younger, rebel brother. He had even refused to mingle with the guests, something unheard of in his community, as the elder son was always expected to play host. Nevertheless, the party had been a good one – and the father was obviously still overjoyed to see his lost son home again.
But, underneath the music, feasting and dancing there were still whispers. It had all been so unexpected, so bizarre, so unseemly – and for many still unacceptable. How could this father – this highly respected elder of the community have demeaned himself so publicly in the eyes of his neighbours – running through the streets with his skirts in his hands like a demented woman? And then, with no apparent thought to the religious requirements of the community in such a scenario, to have so blatantly set these aside. The requirements for repentance and restoration were so clear and universally accepted. They even had a name for it – ‘the 5 R’s of repentance’ – recognition, remorse, restitution, reformation and resolution. Oh, there may have been slight hints of the first two – but what had happened fell well short of what was expected – demanded. Sure the lad had stuttered a few words of confession – but then these were lost in the shocking, again, feminine-like embrace, tears and kisses the father had showered on his rebel son. This was simply outrageous – no man in their culture behaved like this. And now there the lad had been, last night, at the centre of a party as if nothing else had mattered – his past rebellion, abuse and unknown past in the far country apparently all forgotten. Suddenly a line from Psalm 51 impressed itself on Jacob – ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.’ Had the lad had a ‘broken spirit’ and a ‘contrite heart’ – his tears had surely seemed to say so! In fact, the more he considered it, the more Jacob realised he there was no about it – he was totally broken by the extravagant and unexpected display of love and acceptance shown to him by his weeping father. Was this not then true repentance – to fall into such a love?
As Jacob sat in the early morning light continuing to consider the night before his mind drifted to another Jacob – in fact a forebear of his. Had he not experienced something similar? Did not that Jacob have an older brother called Esau who sold his birthright just as certainly as the boy last night had sold his many years ago? Did not that Jacob, by deception, steal Esau’s blessing, alienating the brothers from one another? And yet, many years later, they too were reconciled on a road similar to the one the prodigal had walked down yesterday. What’s more – when Esau heard that his brother was coming he, just like the father of the boy yesterday, set out to meet him. Jacob knew the book of Genesis by heart and his mind went immediately to the moment of their meeting on a dusty road outside another village in another time – ‘Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. And they both wept.’
Jacob’s mind returned again to events on the dusty road outside his own village yesterday – the scene was certainly reminiscent of the one he had just recalled. In fact these scenes would keep playing in his mind for the rest of the day – the embrace, the kissing, the tears.
Jacob was familiar with the metaphor, simile, and shadow – all these were part of the mystery of his faith. But here he saw, as if for the first time, a picture of Yahweh. Indeed was He not like a father? Was not the heart of the father on the dusty road yesterday just like his! Suddenly other scriptures started to flood his mind – songs, in particular, songs he had sung so often before –
Psalm 2 – ‘The Lord said to me, “You are my son. Today I have become your Father”.’
Psalm 68 – ‘Father to the fatherless, defender of widows— this is God, whose dwelling is holy.’
Psalm 89 – ‘And he will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’
Psalm 103 – ‘The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.’
And then one of the most enigmatic of all from the prophet Isaiah –
‘For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’
So the coming One – the Messiah he and his countrymen were longing for – would be the fulfilment of it all! He would be ‘The Everlasting Father’! How Jacob longed to see that day and yet, in contemplating what he had witnessed yesterday he had a thought – just a thought – perhaps that day was not so far away!
Jacob paused again to consider. In the light of such a One how else could we come – really, honestly? How could he come himself? Surely there would be a sense that before the Christ all would be forced come in their rags and not their righteousness – he included. And even in the blessing of being clothed with the Father’s Robe – he would never be able to forget that it was in his rags he had first come home and in his rags he would keep coming home – throwing himself in his failure, lostness and rebellion again and again into the arms of Divine Love.
But in the end there was a spoiler to the story. It would be great to have heard of a happy-ever-after ending but that was not to be. Jacob was right – all was not well in the father’s house. As the Angels rejoiced with the father over the return of the prodigal – there were others who did not. Prominent among them of course was his older brother. He was extremely angry – and his anger had not abated in the intervening hours. In fact, he made it known he would happily throw his prodigal brother back in the dust outside the village if he could.
Of course, it was painfully obvious to this returning lad that his older brother did not share his father’s welcome, his father’s heart, his father’s acceptance, his father’s love – and that was hard to take. How he longed, like the Jacob of old, to be reunited and accepted unconditionally by his estranged brother. How he longed, as Esau had experienced, to feel his brother’s embrace – his kiss of love and his unconditional acceptance. But that was not to be. The truth was that his older brother was an orphan at heart who had never truly become a son to his father. Sadly, in many a church and among many self proclaimed ‘Christians’ as well as in many a pulpit we still have orphan sons and daughters – living in alienation from the father heart of God. This is truly tragic.
All of this may have been enough to spoil his homecoming completely – but a few days after his arrival he had dared to go to the synagogue of his childhood – to face, even for a moment the community he had so disgraced by his past behaviour. As he entered and stood momentarily at the door the priest was reading from Psalm 27 – ‘Hide not thy face far from me; put not thy servant away in anger: thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation. When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up.’ Faces turned towards him as the door had creaked open and he had stood stock still – struck by the words of the Psalm. A few smiled at him, mostly women – but the majority frowned. The priest himself glanced up and glared at him angrily. He quietly closed the door as he turned and left – but he had heard enough. The Lord would ‘take him up’ in his embrace – just as his father had a few days before, even if his very own brother and community should forsake him. As he walked back to his father’s house in the warm morning sunshine another verse of scripture from the days of his childhood came clearly to mind, from the book of Proverbs he thought – ‘There is a friend that sticks closer than a brother.’ He knew at that moment the truth of it! His Friend, his Abba would never give up on him – never leave him – never forsake him and always be there to lift him up again and again from the dust of the broken roads he may yet be forced to travel.
O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.
Robert Robinson, 1735-1790