Perhaps the holiest moment in the Armenian Divine Liturgy is when the congregation fills the church with the singing of the Lord’s Prayer. We begin with the words Hayr Mer—“Our Father”; but what really do we mean by referring to God as a “father” Do we mean that God brought us into this world? That He is responsible for our welfare until we can go off on our own? Do we think of God as a stern disciplinarian, who will punish us if we go astray? Or do we expect Him to treat us with fatherly favoritism, and turn a blind eye to our faults and misdeeds?
We are told in the Bible that the followers of Jesus were also struggling with this question. The answer that Jesus gave is probably the best summary of Christian love that has ever been uttered: the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
This gospel passage (Luke 15:11-32) should be familiar to everyone—it provides the reading for the second Sunday of the current season of Lent—but let us try to see it with new eyes.
Bowing to the request of his younger offspring, a man divides his property between his two sons. The younger son takes his share and leaves home, but quickly squanders his wealth. Destitute and disgraced, and feeling unworthy of his father, the boy swallows what little pride he has left and returns to his father’s house, where he expects a cool reception. To his surprise, the father welcomes him with embraces and kisses, ordering the servants to make preparations for a great celebration: “My son was dead, and is alive again,” the father announces; “he was lost, and is found.”
Jesus could have ended the parable here—with the “happy ending” of a father celebrating the return of his lost son—and had a simple story expressing God’s undying forgiveness for man, and His joy when a sinner repents. But Jesus did not stop there: he switches the scene to the field where the older son is working—and has been working diligently his entire life. The older boy is outraged when he learns of his father’s behavior, and corners his father to complain bitterly of the injustice of it.
From Public to Private
From a public celebration, we are pulled into a private family argument, and it is as if reality suddenly bursts into the story. In the real world, grand public displays of forgiveness are easy to make; but in private—in the family, so to speak—resentments still linger. The older son’s anger has the ring of truth: he has worked hard to do the right thing, taken responsibility for his life. He has earned his father’s love. One might ask whether a father who throws away his affection on an undeserving child is so very different from a prodigal son who squanders his inheritance.
Part of what makes this such a touching parable is the way the details seem drawn from real life. Jesus shows himself not as a teller of moral fables, but as an acute observer of human behavior and the human heart. An upright son who demands fair play and just deserts; the uneasy feelings of competition which brothers harbor for a parent’s approval and love—these are all too human, and all too recognizable even to us. The father’s response to his eldest son is the same: having already lost one son, he does not want to lose the other; yet he can offer no counter-argument, nor appeal to any greater standard of justice.
The best he can do is to repeat what he said to the onlookers when his wayward son first returned. But this time, in this quiet, private setting, the same words have a different feeling: not a joyful announcement to the world, but a father’s plea for understanding from his son: “Your brother was dead, but now he is alive again.”
What person who has ever lost a family member—to whatever circumstance—can hear those words and not be moved? The love of a parent for a child is very strong; but to lose that child, and then to get him back again—this must bring forth the most powerful love of all.
This is what God’s love for us is like. This is what it means for us to be able to call Him “Father.” With regard to God, we are all like children who want to be close to our parents: we wonder which child they love best, and worry that we may become unworthy of their love. These are not small concerns, but in our child-like way, we miss the point about our father’s love, which is not necessarily the same for all, but which is so deep that it makes no sense to set up a ranking of least to most favored. It is a love whose depth cannot be measured, and which sometimes is not even fully recognized until it confronts the prospect of loss.
It is a powerful lesson, and a fine example of the kind of teaching that made Jesus famous during his mission to the world. He offers not a fairy tale where actions have no consequences and love conquers all, but rather a full portrait of what real love requires, and of the obstacles such love presents to real people.
—Christopher H. Zakian