While this parable is commonly named for "The Prodigal Son" who is presumed to be the star of the story, what really stands out in Jesus' telling of the story is the surprising Father. As I understand the Prodigal represents you and me, running off and trying to live without God. Sometimes preachers have focused on how repentant the Prodigal becomes and how clear the confession he makes when he has returned to his father. The problem with this interpretation is that it completely ignores Jesus' Middle Eastern culture and how his first hearers would have understood the parable.
Sons rebel and run off. That's a terrible thing, but it happens. We all know that. In the culture of Jesus' day, such a prodigal son as in this parable would be cut off from the family. The father would never speak to such a son again. It would be as if he was no longer part of the family. This helps us to understand the reaction of the older brother; he lives within the cultural norms. But the father acts in a totally surprising way. No self-respecting father in Jesus' day would do what this father does.
When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech.... (Luke 15:20, 21; The Message)
The focus should not be on the son's speech or even on his repentance, for the Father runs out to him, filled with compassion, his heart pounding, and embraces the son before he can even speak a word. God's grace, mercy, love and compassion precede our acts of repentance. The prodigal is forgiven and restored to the family. And to everyone who has tried to forge a life without God, this is what Jesus offers: a place in his family.
P.S. I was actually studying a different passage of Scripture and was in the midst of doing a word study on the verb splagchnizomai (to have compassion for) when I wrote this blog entry. I find the typical translation of this verb ("he was filled with compassion," NIV & most) to be a bit bland, the Greek is quite dramatic, like being overcome with emotion ("his heart pounding," The Message which often translates the verb along the lines of a person's heart being broken). I'm really interested in any comments on this verb and how it was translated above, "his heart pounding," versus the more common "he was filled with compassion." More to come on this....
The Surprising Father
You've heard the story of the Prodigal Son. You may have even lived it: been there, done that and got the t-shirt. In this fresh look at Luke 15:11-32, I will guide the congregation into Jesus' story to experience anew the amazing love of God for all people with wayward hearts.