The God Who Runs to Us

At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees considered themselves to be the People of the Law.  They saw themselves as the ones who read the law devotedly and kept the law zealously.  They looked upon those who did not follow the law so zealously as people who were lost.  They referred to such people as People of the Land rather than being People of the Law.  According to William Barclay, Pharisaic regulations stipulated, “When a man is one of the People of the Land, entrust no money to him, take no testimony from him, trust him with no secret, do not appoint him guardian of an orphan, do not make him the custodian of charitable funds, do not accompany him on a journey.”  No wonder the Pharisees grumbled about Jesus spending time with such people (Luke 15:2). 

In response to their complaint, Jesus tells a series of three parables about people seeking and finding and rejoicing over what had been lost but is now found.  In the third parable, Jesus actually makes use of the framework of a story the Pharisees told about a rebellious son who left home to squander his life on wild living.  Eventually that rebellious son comes to his senses, sees the error of his ways, and comes back home.  According to the Pharisee’s story, when they boy knocked on the door of his father’s home, seeking to be taken back, the good, holy, strict, unbending father demonstrated his goodness by slamming the door on the rebellious son.  The story was told by the Pharisees to emphasize the unbending nature of God’s holiness and as a warning to children not to rebel against their parents or against God.

People in general tend to go along with Pharisaical thinking that harsh judgment should be exacted on the rebellious son.  Pope Francis shares, “A few years ago, in a school in northern Italy, a teacher of religion explained the parable of the Prodigal Son to her students, then asked them to write freely about it and reflect on the story they had just heard.  The large majority of the students interpreted the ending in the following way: the father received the prodigal son, punished him severely, and then forced him to live with the servants so that he would learn not to squander the family’s wealth.” (The Name of God is Mercy, p. 49)

Everyone expected the story to conclude with the rebellious son getting his comeuppance.  But Jesus tells the story differently.  As Jesus tells the story, the father is keeping a constant look toward the horizon, hoping for his son’s return.  When he catches sight of the long-lost son while he is “still far off,” the father runs to meet him.  To pull up his robe and run toward his son would have been highly unexpected and, frankly, shameful in that culture.  Philip Yancey remarks, “In the Middle East, a man of stature walks with slow and stately dignity; never does he run” (What’s So Amazing About Grace,p. 80).  But Jesus portrays a father—a God—who runs to embrace his long-lost child! 

Jesus then has the father call for a robe, a ring, sandals, and a fatted calf.  Every gift given was a declaration that the father was welcoming the prodigal home as a fully restored member of the family.

Like the Scottish plaid, identifying what family a person belongs to, the robe would identify this young man as a member of the family again. 

The ring, bearing the family insignia, would be placed upon the young man’s finger, identifying this young man as a member of the family.

Servants were expected to go barefoot in their master’s home.  Only a member of the family could wear shoes inside the house.  Sandals for his feet was a clear message that the young man was coming into the home not as a servant but as a member of the family.

The fatted calf is to be slaughtered for a feast to celebrate that “this son of mine was dead and is alive again.” 

The message Jesus communicates in this parable is that God delights in welcoming into his family anyone who had previously wandered away—indeed, God runs to welcome us home! 

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