The blessing of presence

I recently stumbled across The Phil Vischer Podcast, which I have subsequently recommended to several people in the church whom I know listen to podcasts. This weekly podcast is hosted by Phil Vischer—the creator of VeggieTales—and is co-hosted by Skye Jethani and Christian Taylor. Coming from the mind of the VeggieTales creator, you can imagine that there is sometimes some rather corny humour involved, but I find the discussions to be generally very helpful. Jethani is particularly insightful as they discuss recent news articles that Vischer has stumbled across.

Jethani often makes mention of his subscription-based daily devotional, and having benefited for several months from his insight on the podcast, I recently decided to take a one-year subscription to the devotional as a means of showing some tangible appreciation to a man whose ministry I’ve appreciated. I have found his devotional as insightful as his contribution to the podcast.

Over the last couple of weeks, the devotional has focused on the parable of the prodigal son, and Jethani has been driving home the theme of presence. The chapter in which the parable is recorded begins with a complaint: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1–2). Jesus responds to this complaint with a series of parables, three of which are recorded in this chapter: the parable of the lost sheep (vv. 3–7), the parable of the lost coin (vv. 8–10) and the parable of the lost (prodigal) son (vv. 11­–32).

The third parable is the longest and perhaps the best known of the three. It is crucial for proper interpretation to remember the complaint at the outset of the chapter. The religious leaders were complaining that sinners were being “received” by Jesus as they were “drawing near” to him. Sinners were coming to his presence—and being received—and this irritated the religious leaders. The theme of presence to the Lord is set in those opening verses, and it continues in the parable of the prodigal son.

We see the younger son removing himself from his father’s presence as he “took a journey into a far country” (v. 13). After he lost his entire inheritance in the “far country” he finally came to his senses and decided, “I will arise and go to my father” (v. 18). The text tells us that that is precisely what he did: “And he arose and came to his father” (v. 20). The son once had all he needed, before he lost all he had, before he once again gained all he needed. And the common denominator was his father’s presence. When he was in his father’s presence, he had all he needed; when he was away from his father’s presence, he lacked what he needed.

We see the theme of presence too with the older son. Verse 25 tells us that he was “in the field.” He was doing his duty, to be fair, but his duty kept him from the father’s presence and he missed out on the blessing of his brother’s return. When he eventually “drew near to the house” where his father was (v. 25) he realised that something was going on. When he enquired and was told what was happening, “he was angry and refused to go in” (v. 28). He is portrayed in poor light, at least to some degree, because he refused to enjoy the presence of his father.

Jethani notes,

Jesus’ story reveals the two sons to be mirror images of each other. One was away from home in a distant country pursuing “reckless living,” and the other was away from home in the field pursuing righteous work—but both were away from home.

 

We are often reminded that sin can tempt us away from God. It can draw us from his presence and the intimate communion he desires with us. We are warned about the dangers to our souls that lurk in the “distant countries” of immorality. What we don’t often hear about are the more subtle, but equally deadly perils that can rot the souls of those who work tirelessly “in the field” for the Lord. As Dallas Willard observed, “The greatest threat to intimacy with God is service for God.”

The lesson is clear: We must remain connected to the Father. Whether we are like the younger son—wasting our inheritance on riotous living in a far country—or the older son—working tirelessly at our duty in the field—if we are disconnected from the Father we are missing out on the blessings that God has for us.

David made the same point in Psalm 16:11:

You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

We may be tempted to condemn the younger son for his riotous living and suggest that if he simply lived more responsibly, he would have been far better off. We may be tempted to commend the older son for working tirelessly in his father’s field. But we must bear in mind that both sons missed out on the fullness of their father’s blessing when they kept themselves at a distance. And we must be sure that we stay close to our Father if we will enjoy the fullness of the blessings that He has for us.

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