The Prodigal Son, and Christmas

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In the Bible, there’s an account of a man whose son wanted to go out and see the world, to live life to its fullest, to live according to his own rules rather than the rules that others made for him. So he asked his father for his portion of his inheritance — now, rather than waiting on his father to die.

Of course, the father didn’t “have” to give his son his inheritance early. He was under no such obligation. And I’m sure he didn’t want his son to go. He very likely knew the ends of those pursuits, and that they’d lead to a lot of pain for his son. But he loved his son enough to let him make his own choices — his own mistakes.

Sure enough, when the son’s pursuits bore fruit, he found himself at rock bottom, working as a swineherd — an unclean job by Jewish standards, managing unclean animals that would be made into unclean food. Worse, he (born a rich kid) was so poor that he envied the food that the swine ate.

So he goes home. He didn’t have any presumptions that his father would treat him like a son. After all, he’d squandered his entire inheritance — the money that he would otherwise have gotten only when his father had DIED. In a very real way, the son had treated his father as if he HAD died, and his father similarly had nothing left of his son but memories. Their relationship was utterly broken.

So it was an utter SHOCK when the prodigal son comes home, and the father not only welcomes him onto the property — he welcomes him back into his life! He lavishes his riches on his son — a robe (signifying acceptance), a ring (signifying his authority, granted to his son), good food, a bed, the works. Far from the unclean heathen that he had become, his father treated him like the son that he had always been… even when the son didn’t think he was.

Now, we all know this story, and it does teach a lot about gratitude and love — particularly, the love of God for His rebellious creation — but rarely does this come across as a Christmas story. And yet, that’s exactly what I think this is. I know — when we think Christmas, we think of the virgin birth, the angels, the wise men, and of Linus Van Pelt reciting Luke 2 for Charlie Brown. But when you get right down to it, that’s all about how Christmas HAPPENED. The parable of the prodigal son is about WHY Christmas happened.

Through the parable, we see ourselves, coveting what rightly belongs to our Father, but brutishly rejecting His Will for us. Rather than abide by His rules, we go out and live by our own rules… to our detriment. He didn’t “have” to allow us the opportunity to rebel. He could’ve denied us the freedom to disobey Him, just as the father of the prodigal son could’ve denied him his inheritance. But God chose to allow us the room to mess up, not because He wants us to experience the pain that He KNOWS will result of our decisions, but because He loves us enough to allow us to make them. The result? We willfully squander what He has entrusted to us — as if it were OURS all along rather than His — and break our relationship with Him, becoming unclean before Him.

But though we deserve the ends that we bring upon ourselves, our Father is not content to leave us to them. Far from it, He has left the door open for us — sacrificed of HIMSELF in ways that He did not deserve in order to offer us a redemption that we did not deserve. In the Christmas account, God became flesh. He took the door that we slammed shut with our sin, and opened it again with a virgin birth. Not only is Jesus the answer to about a hundred prophecies in the Old Testament, but He answers a number of them merely by the circumstances of His birth — something that a mere man could never do.

When we say that Jesus is the ultimate Christmas present, it doesn’t do justice to the sheer miracle that is Christmas — where a sinless God took upon Himself the form of sinful man in an act that HE KNEW would end with His physical pain and death and, worse, REJECTION at the hands of the very creation He loved.

He knew the hatred of a king would drive Herod to murder a generation of babies in an attempt to kill the King of Kings. And yet Jesus came anyway, for God so loved the whole world… including Herod.

He knew that the scribes and Pharisees would proclaim Him a heretic — Him, God In The Flesh, a heretic!!! — but He came anyway, for God so loved the world… including those scribes and Pharisees.

He knew that Judas — His disciple, His friend, His bro — would betray Him to those who would have Him killed, but He came anyway, for God so loved the world… including Judas.

See, that really is the miracle of Christmas — not just that God would become a man so that He could save us, but that He would do so for a world that DID NOT WANT SAVING. Just like the father of the prodigal son, He didn’t “force” His love upon us, or make us make the first step. Rather, He did His part WITHOUT waiting on us to do ours, loving us while we still hated Him. And then He stood in the road, watching, waiting to see us come around the bend, so that He could lavish upon us a redemption that He had already paid for in full.

Christmas isn’t just about God loving us. It’s about God loving us while we were still unlovable. Remember that, the next time you sing about “God and sinners reconciled”, and about “peace on Earth, good will to men”.

Merry Christmas, and may God bless!

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