The Father of the Prodigal Son. It’s about the Cross
Luke 15.11-24 (20-24)
Following Kenneth Bailey’s book, The Cross and the Prodigal (1), we have focused on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. What you might not have considered is that this parable is designed to prepare us for the cross. You see, I assumed throughout most of my life that the ministry of Jesus was one period of time and the cross was an interruption – a different period of time. I assumed that these two periods in Jesus’ life and death had different purposes and different messages. His life was filled with so much joy and hope; his death was so tragic; I assumed that they were simply different. Luke would insist that his life and his death are one unbroken whole.
I do not know if Jesus told the Parable of the Prodigal Son with the Cross in mind, but I am certain that Luke included this parable in his Gospel with the cross in mind. Luke wants to prepare us. He wants us to understand the profound meaning of the cross. In the re-telling of the Parable story, he wants us to experience again the great work of love Jesus accomplished with the cross.
The younger son insulted his father, his village, and his way of life by demanding his share of the inheritance. When he received his share, he made matters worse by selling it and hightailing it out of town. Then, he squandered all his treasure in wasteful living in foreign lands. Of course, the village back home hears what he is doing. They know how he spent it; they know when he runs out of money; they know when he falls destitute. So, they are watching to see if he will come back to hurt the old father once again.
The first time I heard Bailey talk about this parable, he told us that the village is not only watching to see if the boy comes back, the villagers are prepared to meet him long before he reaches his father’s house. They will not allow him to insult his father or his way of life again. As the reports on the boy filter back to them, their resolve has only solidified. He must not return. Therefore, if he tries to return, they will meet him and try to drive him away. If he persists, they may kill him to protect the father and themselves from further dishonor.
You will recall that back in the far country, the younger son came to himself sitting in the pigsty. He realized that he was about to starve, but that his father’s servants had enough to eat and more. So, he prepared a speech: “Father, I have sinned before heaven and against you. I am not worthy to be called you son. Make me a hired hand.” Last week, we examined this speech and found it be a calculated repentance. He was not ready for full reconciliation; he just wanted to eat. Like any of us, he could not stand the idea of falling prostrate before his father; he preferred to meet his father standing, discussing his proposed apology and return in a manly sort of way.
The younger son now begins the long walk back to his father’s house. Imagine the scene: the younger son approaches the village where his father lives. The house, of course, sits in the middle of the village. He must pass through the village gate where everyone will see him - perhaps through the market where everyone gathers. The village, as we have said, has been watching for him to return. They will notice him. He cannot quietly slink into town. As he enters, someone recognizes him and word spreads: The younger boy is back! The crowd begins to come out; they are going to meet him.
At the same time, the father sees him coming while he is still far off. The parable tells us that he not only noticed his son, he had been watching for him. The father knows that if the villagers get to him first, they will at least beat him and drive him away; they might well kill him. Community solidarity and honor are very important qualities in village life. He has violated both. He has no right to return.
The father, knowing all this, steps out of his house and he runs.
1. Now, understand that no great man in the Middle East runs. We run sometimes because we are time oriented; when the time says something should begin, it must begin. In contrast, a great man in the Middle East knows that the great occasion can only begin when he is there to begin it. So, in that culture a great man considers it beneath him to run. This father not only ran, according to the Greek text, he raced.
2. Secondly, recall that a great man like this is probably wearing a long robe. It is hard to run in a long robe. Women know this already; you wear long dresses. Modern men, of course, wear britches. The only way to run in a long robe is for the father to gather the hem of the robe in his hands, his hairy legs and his underwear exposed for all to see. At his great age, he probably does not run particularly well – certainly not with the grace of a teenager. Does he shout in excitement? Does he warn the villagers to stay away? We cannot know. At this point, we see a boy straggling along the village road, we see the villagers gathering to intercept him, and the father sprinting for all he worth to meet him.
3. What is clear is that the father, who was humiliated before when the younger son sold off his share of the estate, now humiliates himself in this very public footrace to reach the boy before anyone else can.
4. The younger son stops and with one look, he takes it all in: the villagers with blood in their eyes heading toward him and his father sprinting awkwardly, painfully in a race to reach him first. At first, he does not quite understand what all this means. He stops - watching, wondering, trying to figure it out.
5. The father runs, puts his arms around him, and kisses him. The boy is a mess; the father pays no attention. The boy stinks from the road and the pigs, and the father is too intent on gathering his boy into his arms to notice.
6. The scripture says that he kissed him. In the Middle East, men kiss in greeting. You have seen this on the TV news, and like me, you have probably found it a bit strange. Still, this is the way men honor each other in that culture on meeting. The impression is that the father not only kissed him in the ceremonial ways we have seen on TV, but he kept on kissing him.
a. He kissed him the way a delighted father kisses the son he thought he had lost.
b. He kissed him to tell the gathering villagers that he accepted and welcomed his son regardless what he might have done.
c. And he kissed him for the pure joy of having his son back in his arms again.
7. The younger son regains his composure and begins the speech, but it is different. Something has happened to him.
a. 21 Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
8. Notice that he does not finish the speech he had planned. The part about offering himself as a hired hand is lost. He stops with the words, “I am not worthy to be called your son.”
a. Did the father interrupt him? Maybe. But, maybe there is more to the early end to the speech.
b. What if in that moment, walking up the road, the younger son saw the crowd coming toward him with determination AND at the same moment saw his father sprinting in that awkward, painful way that arthritic old men run? Seeing all this, he finally understands something about his father and his father’s love that earlier he was just too pigheaded to see. His father does not care about the money and the inheritance; he does not worry what anyone thinks of him. The younger son finally understands that his father simply wants him to be his child. Finally realizing all this, the younger son is ready to offer himself in repentance and sorrow – now willing to be simply his father’s child for the first time in his life. Their reunion is a new beginning for absolutely everyone – well, all but one.
9. The father calls the slaves, who apparently ran along behind him when he made the sprint from the house down the road, and orders them to kill the fatted calf and throw a party. The fact is: the party has already started. The astonished crowd, which had come out to meet the boy with a harsh lesson, has become witness to the most generous restoration they have ever seen. The slaves are dispatched back to the house to get everything going. And, absolutely everyone in the village is invited to join in the father’s joy.
II. Now, let us reflect on what this tells us about the cross.
a. The father, knowing everything that we know about this younger son, knowing how he has dishonored his father and his heritage, is determined to restore him as a son. The father has no interest in a hired hand; he wants this boy back to be his child. The father knows that the village plans to drive away for his sins and perhaps kill him.
b. The only way the boy is going to have a chance to become the father’s son again is:
i. If the father can provide the moment when he might just understand for the first time in his young life the depth of the father’s love.
ii. If the father can protect him from all the just punishment that he has coming long enough for this to sink in.
iii. If the father can demonstrate his love so vividly that even his headstrong son will finally stop and really see.
iv. This crazy scene on the village road with the younger son, the determined villagers and the sprinting father is just that scene.
c. Instead of demanding his rights, the father willingly humiliates himself before his son and the whole village to demonstrate his unfailing love for the son. In this act of willing humiliation, he offers the son the chance to get it and to acknowledge that he is his father’s child. If the father had done anything less, the boy would have been lost forever.
d. But, in that moment the younger son did get it, responded, and stepped forward – his father’s child again.
2. Finally, this is the work of the cross. On the day he was crucified, Jesus had all power in heaven and on earth at his command. He had cast out demons; the wind and waves have obeyed him; he had been transfigured on the mountain to walk with Elijah and Moses. He did not have to endure the cross. He chose the humiliation of the nails and the cross to demonstrate once and for all time the unfailing love of God for the children of earth, which God created. He chose the humiliation of the cross to provide us that life-giving moment when we might “get it” and fall into the embrace of the loving Father – when we too might respond to the Father’s generous love to become sons and daughters of God.
3. This is the work of Lent. Through this season, we stand before the cross to figure out how this long-ago event still reverberates through history. We stand in wonder at such love and the invitation it places in our hands. We stand speechless at the sight of God now watching to see how we will respond.
1. Bailey, Kenneth. The Cross and the Prodigal, chapter 4, Intervarsity Press.