If I ever became a female UFC fighter, I’d play this song as I walked into the Octagon:
There’s an intensity about it that grabs my attention (and my soul). It gets me all revved up and elevates my spiritual pulse. I feel a certain theological energy course through me as I ponder the magnitude of God’s love, and its ability to shatter barriers, retrieve us from exile, and call us back to relationship regardless of the cost.
I feel this same intensity when I read Luke 15.
The Bible dubs this parable “The Prodigal Son;” though many scholars have offered alternative names, as this title doesn’t quite capture the essence of Jesus’ story.
Without a doubt, this is one of, if not thee, most famous of Jesus’ parables. And, rightly so.
However, when we become over-familiarized with something, we run the risk of desensitization. As a result, we forget or minimize that very something’s import or significance.
Additionally, familiarity often breeds an inability to see things from a different perspective. Particularly, when it comes to Scripture, well-known renderings can often cloud our ability to see with new eyes.
I think this tends to happen with The Prodigal Son. In our western, 21st century world, we tend to fixate on the “prodigal.” We highlight his sin, his extravagance, his lostness. In doing so, we make this a one-character, individualistic parable, while in fact, it’s a three person, relational story.
Emphasizing the prodigal’s plight isn’t wrong. It’s part of the story. We are the prodigal; however, at its core, this parable is about relationship (or rather, broken relationships), and the costly action God takes to repair these relational schisms.*
The father in the parable represents God. Jesus, and Luke, want us to see how the father’s response to his son directly mirrors the type of love God has for his children.
The parable opens with the younger son asking for his inheritance. In 1st century Palestinian culture, this request was equivalent to saying, “Please die so I can get the money from your will.” This would’ve been a significant hit to the father’s honor. To defend himself, the father had every right to slap his son, put him in his rightful place, or cast him out of his home. The father does none of these. Rather, he divides the inheritance, accepts his son’s rejection, and lets him go. There’s no coercion, force, or retribution. **
Mid-parable, the prodigal returns and the father reenters the scene. It’s likely that along with the father, people from the village would’ve been out and about, and would’ve seen the younger son approaching. No doubt, in light of how things were left, villagers would’ve been on the edge of their seats, waiting to see how this dramatic reunion was going to play out, and waiting to mock, shame, and scorn the son in the same way he had shamed and mocked his father. Again, the 1st century expectation would be for the son to crawl back on his knees, groveling, begging for forgiveness from the father he had so badly dishonored. The son was the one in the wrong, and thus, the one who needed to initiate reconciliation. ***
And this is what makes the scene dramatic indeed.
Going against all expectations, and customs, the father initiates; he runs to his son.
Running would’ve been unheard of for an older man during this time. It necessitated lifting one’s robes, which was a public display of impropriety, and a shaming act. Yet, the father willingly does so. In conjunction, he throws his arms around his son, smothers him with kisses, and escorts him back through the village, taking the shame and scorn of the villagers upon himself. He risks his honor and status to bear the shame intended for his son. ****
As if this weren’t enough, he clothes his son in the finest garments, throws an elaborate banquet in celebration of his return, and begs (another shaming act for a father during this time) his older son to partake in the festivities. This extravagant party, while a literary foil to his son’s extravagant living, is more so a celebratory display of the father’s ability to restore the relationship. While this extravagance seems displaced or overstated (especially from the older son’s perspective), it’s a commentary on God’s extravagant love, mercy, and grace.
Like the father in the parable, God goes against all rules and expectations to mend relational breaches, lavishly rejoicing over just one who is found.
Like the father, God takes on our shame, disgrace, and pain, at the risk of defaming his name, at the threat of dishonoring himself. His love and forgiveness is costly. He pays the tab, yet, he does so willingly, pulling out all the stops to show us his unrelenting affection and desire for relationship. Perhaps we see this display of costly love most profoundly in Jesus’ self-giving on the cross.
Despite our deepest doubts, there is no distance that God cannot transcend. There is no divide so great which God cannot straddle. Even death cannot hinder God’s redeeming love (Romans 8.38).
Therefore, “come all you saints and sinners, for you can’t outrun God.”*****
*Geddert, Timothy J. Double Take: New Meanings from Old Stories, pp. 131-134. Kindred Books, 2007.
**Bailey, Kenneth E. The Cross & the Prodigal: Luke 15Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants. InterVarsity Press, 2005.
*** Geddert, Timothy J. Double Take: New Meanings from Old Stories, pp. 131-134. Kindred Books, 2007.
**** Bailey, Kenneth E. The Cross & the Prodigal: Luke 15Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants. InterVarsity Press, 2005.