May 24, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Luke 15:20-24 (NRSV)
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
There is certainly a time and place for didactic language, for explanations and demonstrations, for elucidation and evidence. But the power of imaginative story can take the truth from our heads to our hearts, and from our hearts into our daily lives. We experience this power as we hear the parable of Jesus known as The Prodigal Son.
This devotion is part of the series, Imagination: Redeemed and Redemptive.
A few days ago, I made a case for the goodness of the imagination, pointing to Jesus’s own imaginative efforts. In particular, the parables of Jesus – a mainstay of his messianic work – are products of Jesus’s fertile, redemptive imagination.
Today, I’d like to examine one of the most striking examples of imagination in the gospels. It appears in what we know as The Parable of the Prodigal Son. You are probably familiar with this story. The younger of two sons dishonors his father by demanding his inheritance before the father’s death. Then, traveling to a distant land, this son squanders what he has inherited through what we might call “loose living.” Out of money, the son is forced to feed pigs—not exactly prime employment for a Jewish boy. In desperation, this “prodigal” son returns to his home, hoping that his father will allow him to be one of his hired hands.
So far, this story of Jesus already reveals an active imagination. But Jesus is just warming up. Here’s what comes next:
So [the younger son] set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
Talk about redemptive imagination! There may never before have been a scene quite like this one in human storytelling. The closest we come in Scripture may be the reunions of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 33:1-11) or Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 45:1-15). What Jesus imagined was so contrary to the ways of his culture, so unexpected, so unprecedented that it must have astounded his listeners. Some may have been deeply moved; others may have been offended. Unfortunately, we don’t know how the audience of Jesus responded to this parable. But we do know just how imaginative it was . . . and redemptive, too. It portrayed the redemption of a wayward, broken child with his father.
This imaginative parable wasn’t just a story about a human family, of course. Jesus told the parable to help us grasp the forgiving love and grace of God. Jesus could have spoken more didactically, saying something like, “God’s forgiving love and grace are astounding and limitless. No matter what wrong you’ve done, God is ready to forgive you.” That would have been good news, for sure. But by telling a story in which a Jewish father runs to embrace his once rebellious son, we see the truth of God’s love more precisely and powerfully. We can feel the father’s joy at the sight of his son and the son’s amazement at the embrace of his father.
There is certainly a time and place for didactic language, for explanations and demonstrations, for elucidation and evidence. At least I sure hope there is, because I spend a lot of my life speaking or writing this way! But the power of imaginative story can take the truth from our heads to our hearts, and from our hearts into our daily lives.
How grateful we are for God’s gift of imagination. And how grateful we are for the extraordinary imagination of Jesus.
When you read The Parable of the Prodigal Son, what stands out to you?
Jesus pictures the father running to his son, contrary to all cultural expectations. Why do you think Jesus did this?
When have you experienced God’s love in a transformational way?
Set aside some time to reflect on Luke 15:11-32. As you do, let the redemptive imagination of Jesus touch your mind and heart.
Gracious God, thank you for coming among us in Jesus, the Word Incarnate. Thank you for all the ways you make yourself known through Jesus, including his imaginative parables.
Today, I thank you in particular for The Parable of the Prodigal Son. What a wondrous and moving story! Thank you for giving us this picture of a father who runs to welcome his son. Thank you, Heavenly Father, for being that kind of father to me. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Verbs That Make All the Difference in the World: Splagchnizomai.
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.