Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Surprising Father

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....

Related Sermon

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.

1 comment:

  1. I see a totally different aspect in this parable and that is the self-righteous attitude of the older brother.

    Thus far in the Saviour's parable there is no discordant note to jar the harmony of the scene of joy; but now Christ introduces another element. When the prodigal came home, the elder son "was in the field; and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in." This elder brother has not been sharing in his father's anxiety and watching for the one that was lost. He shares not, therefore, in the father's joy at the wanderer's return. The sounds of rejoicing kindle no gladness in his heart. He inquires of a servant the reason of the festivity, and the answer excites his jealousy. He will not go in to welcome his lost brother. The favor shown the prodigal he regards as an insult to himself.

    When the father comes out to remonstrate with him, the pride and malignity of his nature are revealed. He dwells upon his own life in his father's house as a round of unrequited service, and then places in mean contrast the favor shown to the son just returned. He makes it plain that his own service has been that of a servant rather than a son. When he should have found an abiding joy in his father's presence, his mind has rested upon the profit to accrue from his circumspect life. His words show that it is for this he has foregone the pleasures of sin. Now if this brother is to share in the father's gifts, the elder son counts that he himself has been wronged. He grudges his brother the favor shown him. He plainly shows that had he been in the father's place, he would not have received the prodigal. He does not even acknowledge him as a brother, but coldly speaks of him as "thy son."

    Yet the father deals tenderly with him. "Son," he says, "thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine." Through all these years of your brother's outcast life, have you not had the privilege of companionship with me?

    One son had for a time cut himself off from the household, not discerning the father's love. But now he has returned, and the tide of joy sweeps away every disturbing thought. "This thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found."

    By the elder son were represented the unrepenting Jews of Christ's day, and also the Pharisees in every age, who look with contempt upon those whom they regard as publicans and sinners. Because they themselves have not gone to great excesses in vice, they are filled with self-righteousness. Christ met these cavilers on their own ground. Like the elder son in the parable, they had enjoyed special privileges from God. They claimed to be sons in God's house, but they had the spirit of the hireling. They were working, not from love, but from hope of reward. In their eyes, God was an exacting taskmaster. They saw Christ inviting publicans and sinners to receive freely the gift of His grace--the gift which the rabbis hoped to secure only by toil and penance--and they were offended. The prodigal's return, which filled the Father's heart with joy, only stirred them to jealousy.



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