The Father Is More Prodigal Than the Son
Today’s Reading: Luke 15
Today’s reading contains one of the most incredible stories ever told. We call it the story of the prodigal son. Let’s read it together:
[Jesus] said, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:11-24)
When it comes to the word father, some people cringe. Today that name can evoke all kinds of images—from absentee, abusive, uncaring, to never saying “I love you” or “I’m proud of you.” Jesus enters an environment in which He is about to redefine the image of father, just as it needs help today.
In Middle Eastern culture, to ask for the inheritance while the father is still alive is to wish him dead. A traditional Middle Eastern father can only respond one way. He is expected to refuse and then drive the boy out of the house with verbal and physical blows.
But something strange happens . . .
The father’s granting the request makes clear that the character of the father in the parable is not modeled after a traditional Middle Eastern patriarch. Though in the previous two parables that Jesus tells—the shepherd in his search for the sheep and the woman in her search for the coin—the people do not do anything out of the ordinary beyond what anyone in their place would do. But the actions of the father in the third story are unique, marvelous, divine actions that have not been done by any earthly father in the past. On three different occasions the father in this parable clearly violates the traditional expectations of a Middle Eastern father. This is the first of them. An awareness of the redefinition of the word father takes place.
You are about to see that the father is more prodigal than the son. I’ll explain shortly.
In the parable the reader learns that the son “gathered all he had,” which the New English Bible rightly translates, he “turned the whole of his share into cash.”
This is demonstrated by the fact that the prodigal completes all transactions in “not many days.” He just wants the money for the inheritance.
The son got all that he wanted (gathered everything).
He got to spend it on whatever he wanted (loose living).
He got to go where he wanted (distant country).
And do it with whomever he wanted.
And when it was all done, he ended up with nothing.
You knew this when it came to pod eating. Can’t get lower than this.
That’s when something happens to this boy. He comes to himself:
When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!” (Luke 15:17)
Now enters the dad—the prodigal father. Did you catch what I called him? The focus is so much on the prodigal son when it should be on the prodigal father.
What does prodigal mean? We think prodigal means sinful and that bad living is associated with it. But prodigal is a neutral word. You can attach it to any noun, and the noun determines if it’s positive or negative.
It means to lavish, to go all out, extreme generosity. In the story the father is just as prodigal. This is the challenge for us who have prodigals. We must be just as prodigal as them. We have to be prodigal with grace, forgiveness, and love and lavish it on them.
Then the father does something unusual—he runs. He is getting prodigal big time.
Eastern gentlemen do not run in public. People of prominence did not and do not run in public.
Why does the father run? To protect him against others. He does not want him meeting the city first; he wants his son to meet open arms first.
Why does he run? To protect him from the comments of others. He is sending a signal to the community—a signal of forgiveness.
And then it gets crazier. He starts giving the son really significant things. The first is to order the servants to dress the prodigal. He doesn’t tell his son to go and get cleaned up. Rather he instructs the servants to dress him with the best robe and sandals. “Quickly bring out best robe and put it on him” (verse 22). This can only mean, I don’t want anyone else to see him in these rags!
The son never stops being a son while covered in mud. That’s an important message for you to remember. God loves you as you are—not as you should be. God loves you without caution, regret, boundary, limit, or breaking point. When the prodigal son comes back home, he doesn’t just get a ring, a robe, and shoes. The greatest thing he gets back is his father.