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Archive for February 17th, 2019

It’s a story I had heard enough times that I could confidently re-tell it to completion. There is a difference, though, between telling a story and fully understanding it’s message.

As I listened attentively to the pastor tell the story of the prodigal son, my mind was illuminated to the details and meaning as never before.

I have never quite understood (or maybe I did) the reaction of the older brother as I did Sunday morning, listening to the pastor share the message … but it was not that which caught my attention, my heart’s attention, the most.

It was the return of the younger son.

He is off in the big city, not a hint of any money from what he had demanded from his father, starving as he watches pigs eat their fill. He decides he will go back home and offer himself as a servant to his father.

He plans what he will say:

“I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:18-19).

Then he heads home.

Head bowed.
Shoulders slumped.
Moving at a snail’s pace.
Rumbling in his tummy.
Fear and dread in his soul.

Why fear and dread?

Where do you come from? I come from a small town … a very small town, that was still a village when I lived there and the population was under two thousand. Everyone knew everyone, and everything about everyone (at least they thought they did).

This young man, the prodigal son … he knew that returning to his father was the easy part (remember, his father willingly gave his son what he asked for … not what he was required or expected to do … not what was culturally acceptable to ask for). What he was fearing was his return to his village.

In Jewish society, to have left the village in such a shameful way, to go live with, spent his money on, slept with the unclean Gentiles … would all mean that he would face a kezazah (means “cutting off”) ceremony. He knew that as he arrived in the village, the people (older men) would greet him, breaking a large clay pot at his feet, as a public shaming of how he has cut himself off from his village, from his father.

This is what was in his son’s mind as he considered going home, as he took each step closer to the village.

His father knew of this ceremony too.

And the father knew his son.

So …

“ … while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son” (v. 20a).

Aristotle had said, “great men never run in public” and perhaps he knew of the societal norms within the Hebrew society at the time that Jesus told this parable.

It was okay for servants to run, even women were permitted to run (but just a bit), but a man, a patriarch … never. That would be unacceptable, disgraceful!

The father in the story (who we know to understand as representing God himself) saw his son “while he was still a long way off.” This father had to have been looking for his son, perhaps at the village gate. I think we can surmise that he was planning on circumnavigating the villagers and the custom of kezazah.

“(he) threw his arms around him and kissed him” (v. 20b).

The Return of the Prodigal
Pompeo Batoni, 1773

I love the image above, of an oil on canvas, by Pompeo Batoni. This painting, more than any other I have seen before, communicates the mercy that this father offers. Not only are his arms open wide, but see his right hand, grabbing onto his cloak, in an effort to wrap it around his son … in an effort to shield his son from the consequences that are due him.

It is then, in that moment of mercy when the father steps between the son (us) and the wages of sin, that the son abandons the speech he planned in his mind, for a confession born in his soul:

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21).

And when the father says let’s party, it is a celebration of the lost sheep.

“Behold what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God–and we are!” (1 John 3:1)

Our heavenly father loves us so much that he waits at the gate of the village for our return, prepared to ensure that we will not be “cut off” from a life with him.

” When we find the insufficiency of creatures to make us happy, and have tried all other ways of relief for our poor souls in vain, then it is time to think of returning to God.” Matthew Henry Commentary

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