Prodigal Love

Icon of the Prodigal Son

Second Week of Lent, Saturday

Micah 7:14-15, 18-20; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them Jesus addressed this parable. 

“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.

Luke 15:1-3, 11-12

Jesus’ parable opens with the unprecedented request of the younger son asking for his inheritance while his father was still alive, the height of impertinence and rapacity in Middle Eastern culture. As far as the son was concerned, his father was dead. 

After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.

Luke 15:13-16

When the ragged, penniless prodigal hit rock bottom in the swine pen, friendless and deserted, starvation finally turned his sights toward home. Pulling himself together, he rehearsed the possible scenario in his heart:

Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ 

Luke 15:17-19

Broken and impoverished, the scrawny youth trudged home in desperation.

So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.

Luke 15:20

A warmer, heartier welcome could not have been imagined. His father ran! 

The Greek word used for “filled with compassion” (splagchnizomai) means to be moved in the inward parts—the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. It occurs twelve times in the Synoptic Gospels, such as when Jesus is filled with pity for the crowds who are “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36), and when the good Samaritan finds the half-dead traveler on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:33).

Running was considered shameful in Middle Eastern culture. But from the edge of the village—“a long way off”—the father spotted the apple of his eye, pulled up his robes, and took off.

Why did the father throw decorum to the wind and run? He wanted to get to his son before he entered the village to spare him the kezazah ceremony. In first-century Jewish culture, a man who lost all his wealth after living among Gentiles was subjected to a chastening ceremony at the city gates. A large pot was thrown down and shattered in front of him to symbolize the shattered relationship between the “sinner” and the community. Scorn and derision followed.

The father wanted to spare his son this cutting off ceremony by embracing him ahead of the crowd and reinstating him in public. 

His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’

Luke 15:17-24

According to Middle Eastern culture expert, Kenneth Bailey, the response of the father from running and embracing to kissing and feasting was unheard of, and would have shocked Jesus’ audience. The father humiliated himself by pouring out such lavish, undeserved mercy and grace upon an irreverent rebel. 

The prodigal never uttered his proposal to become a hireling in the face of his father’s prodigal love. Overwhelmed by his father’s running embrace before the whole village, he surrendered himself. Restoration of sonship was the father’s deepest desire, and he called a feast to celebrate the finding of his lost son whom he restored back to “life.”

Inviting the village to celebrate the renewed father-son relationship not only overrided the kezazah ceremony, but restored the son’s dignity in the family and community.

The older son, unable to enter into the joy of his father’s heart, failed to see his own sonship as entirely gratuitous, and thus spiritually cut himself off from the family and community. His father, however, mercifully reached out to him with the same love he showed the younger son:

‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.

Luke 15:31

Jesus used the same phrase, “everything of mine is yours,” in his prayer to the Father during the Last Supper Discourse (John 17:10), revealing the essence of sonship. The same divine love given to the younger brother is also given to the elder.

But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”

Luke 15:32

Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son encapsulates the sacrificial love of Christ poured out upon the whole human race. The ocean of divine mercy is indeed incomprehensible and fathomless.

Who is a God like you, who removes guilt
and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance;
Who does not persist in anger forever,
but instead delights in mercy,
And will again have compassion on us,
treading underfoot our iniquities?
You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins.

Micah 7:18-19

Speck in the distance,
Apple of the father’s eye,
Embraced like a prince.

-GMC

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