3 Things to Do When Prodigals Return
By Daniel Darling
In the famous story of the prodigal son, Jesus described the father as running toward his approaching prodigal. The descriptions Jesus used were Jesus at His storytelling best: an aging man, tying his tunic, running hard.
You can almost hear the excitement in his voice and the smile fixed on his face.
His son was home.
Jesus also describes another kind of reception for prodigals. This one was more muted, even critical. The older brother, who hadn’t become fooled by easy money, who’d been there consoling his anguished father when his brother took off, was having none of this.
His response: Where have you been?
Most of us would like to imagine ourselves, in this story, as the benevolent, forgiving father. But often, we are the cold, arrogant older brother.
We scoff at those who come into the family of God late, whose spiritual light bulb comes on in a different season than ours, who come to understand the truth and justice we’ve known for years, or who have been missing in action from the church for an extended period of time.
How do we become less like the older brother and more like the father? How can we create communities in our homes and churches that celebrate when someone comes home?
Remember there is a little prodigal in all of us.
You may not have messed up your life like the person whose marriage crashed or who recently left rehab. But that doesn’t mean, on any given day, you are not running away from the Father.
In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen encourages Christians to see themselves in each of the characters in the biblical narrative. Most days, I would say, we are a bit of all three. We run from what we know is God’s best and then are forced, by the embarrassment of sin, to repent and come home.
It could be a snarky comment to a coworker, an ungrateful attitude about our finances, or yielding to the little, subtle lusts that prey upon our hearts.
If we’ve been in church too long, we may have forgotten our own capacity to run. We envision ourselves as the good people and everyone else as needing to get up to our level of sanctification.
We can learn from Paul’s admission, in a letter to his spiritual protégé, that he was “the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15, CSB).”
The Christian life is one of continual repentance, of seeing our own sin and prevailing upon Christ’s purchased righteousness for forgiveness. If we are doing this—if we are remembering we are often “prone to wander”—we’ll be less arrogant when others’ sins are exposed.
We’ll be more welcoming when our brothers and sisters genuinely repent and come home.
Recognize everyone’s sanctification timeline is different.
I remember the first time I really started reading, understanding and thinking about civil rights. A patient, faithful African-American brother helped me understand racial reconciliation and justice.
He introduced me to books and speeches on the topic and put up with my ridiculous questions. Even though what he was teaching me was elementary to him, it was life-changing for me. I’m still struck by what he did for me, because it’s so rare.
Unlike my kind, patient friend, may of us default to shaming, as if everyone on a spiritual journey should be as far along as we think we are.
There is room, of course, for rebuke. The writer of Hebrews was frustrated that his audience was still processing the milk of the Word of God instead of meat. And Paul often lamented the spiritual condition of his audience.
Still, the New Testament never encourages an “I told you so” or “where have you been” model of discipleship.
Neither should we. We too, were once that person who didn’t understand or who needed some patient encouragement. And, if we are honest with ourselves, there are many areas of our lives that are woefully in need of listening and learning.
Refuse to see people only as the sum total of their choices.
When the older brother in the biblical narrative saw his younger sibling amble up the driveway and run into the arms of his father, he couldn’t take it.
All he could see was the prodigal—the one who spoiled his inheritance and made his parents weep, and as an obstacle to his own flourishing in the household.
In a sense, he dehumanized his brother: He was no longer a human, created in the image of God. He was no longer a son, beloved by their father. He was no longer a man, with strengths and weaknesses, talents and shortcomings.
We do this with people we don’t want to love. Jesus said to love our neighbors as ourselves, but if we, like the religious people in Jesus’ day, see some people as irredeemable, we can wiggle our way out of love.
We need to embrace prodigals in their full humanity, not look at them as the sum total of their choices. We are more than our mistakes. We are more than our flights away from the Father.
In Christ, we are not recovering prodigals, but future kings and queens of the universe. We no longer eat from the pigpen; we dine at Christ’s table every time we take the Lord’s Supper.
The person who freshly repents is your brother or sister in Christ. He or she is an heir of the same grace you enjoy.
So welcome them home.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including his new release, The Dignity Revolution.