Yesterday I preached from Luke 15:11-32. This passage is usually titled “The Prodigal Son.” This title deals only partially with the content, and I believe that Tim Keller is correct when he says that a better title is “The Two Lost Sons,” for both of the sons are lost. In fact, the elder is in a more desperate situation.
However, Keller makes a strong argument that an even better title is The Prodigal God. Because the father in the story is the real hero and he is the one who lavishly shows his compassion and mercy.
The parable has many “elements” that also appear in the Story of Jacob as found in Genesis 25-36. The definite study on the parallels and contrasts is by Kenneth Bailey in Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story. He nicely points out the parallels, the changes, and the contrasts.
One of the major contrasts is in the depiction of the father. While Isaac in the Jacob story is an inept and rather passive Oriental patriarch, in Jesus’s parable we reach the pinnacle of understanding of the father as a symbol of compassion and tenderness.
Bailey shows very nicely that (even) in the Old Testament, as a metaphor for God, “the word father is overwhelmingly a symbol of tenderness and compassion.” Out of the 12 times when God is described as the father of his people in the OT, seven times he is associated with redemption/compassion/mercy. A classical text is found in Psalm 103:13 – As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him (ESV).
What is even more ‘touching’ is when God the Father is presented as acting like a mother: As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you…(Isaiah 49:5). See also the classic Isaiah 66:13.
The compassion of the father in Jesus’s parable can be seen in the following scenes (from Bailey):
- He grants the unprecedented and unreasonable request the younger sons’ share of inheritance while he is still alive (in 2 contemporary cases from Persia and Syria, the fathers were deeply offended and gave the young men NOTHING).
- He allows the prodigal to sell his property – generosity beyond custom.
- He runs down the road to welcome him. A gentleman does not run, but a child, and the mother can be expected to do so.
- He endures the unspeakably painful public humiliation of leaving his guests, at a banquet in his home, and offers more costly love to a publicly rebellious son. Traditionally the father stays with the guests, but the mother could have rushed to plead for reconciliation.
- After the verbal insults from the older son, the father appeals for JOY rather than resorting to judgment and punishment.
These observations are very powerful and point clearly to the compassion and tenderness of God that this father represents. What impressed me again, was the depiction of the “father who acts like a mother” (see points 3 and 4). Of course God is neither male nor female, yet God in his compassion and tenderness is depicted as a father who acts like a mother.
Yesterday I watched Jim Sheridan’s movie In the Name of the Father. This was a powerful movie in which a broken relationship between a father and a son gets real and mended in a prison cell where they are locked together even though they are innocent (this is not the main point of the movie, but it is relevant here). The son begins to see and understand the love that his father always had for him, and ends up fighting for freedom “in the name of the father” who dies unjustly in prison.
In my opinion, the movie shows very well the strong emotions that exist in families in spite of their sinful behavior and fallen condition. Our Father, as seen from Jesus’s parable, is much more tender and compassionate than any earthly father (whether Oriental or Western). More than that, His love is perfect.
He sent his “elder son” to seek and to save the lost. How much more should we seek to live our lives with passion and purity “in the Name of the Father”?