The behaviour of the father points us to the scandal of grace. There was something shocking about the way the father behaved in the story. There was something shocking (at least to the religious sensitivities of the Pharisees) in the way Jesus behaved, sharing his table with “sinners”. There is something shocking about grace. Our hymnody allows us to believe it is amazing, but it also carries an degree of scandal.
There are three parts to the father’s story: the first two correspond to the two parts of the younger son’s story with the third part his interaction with the older brother when he refuses to go into the party. When the younger brother is leaving, the father lets him go; when he comes back, the father welcomes him home. Those two acts throw light on the scandal of grace.
The father let the boy go.
We’ve already observed that the boy’s request for the father to hand over a share of the inheritance while he was still alive was not merely impolite, but was a rejection of the father along the lines of telling him to drop dead.
Hidden within the information that just a few days later the boy left home on his journey to freedom in a faraway place there may be a further insult to the family. Jesus tells us that the boy gathered all that he had, travelled far and then wasted his property. Presumably his inheritance consisted in his share of the family estate. How then did he manage to gather all that he had in preparation for his journey? Did he bring some animals with him to sell along the way in order to finance his fun? Did he sell of his share of the land, translating it into capital? It is unlikely that his father gave him cash instead of property, so this is probably what the boy did. Jewish law was very careful to make every possible provision for a family to keep hold of its land. Did the boy compound his insult by selling off some of the family fields? And given that he dealt with the whole thing quickly, in order to be able to leave home as soon as possible, we can only speculate that he let the property go for a price that was beneath its value.
The fifth commandment (the first that does not deal directly and explicitly with duty towards God) called for children to honour their fathers and mothers. There was even provision in Old Testament law for parents to bring a rebellious son to the court of the community leaders and have him stoned. To dishonour your father was to sin seriously. This boy stands guilty.
Before we allow ourselves to become sentimental about the boy’s eventual homecoming, we need to think about how the father could have responded to his son’s insults. Could he not have refused the boy’s request? Why, in the face of this insult, news of which would soon travel through the village, did he not punish the boy? Could he not have slapped him and disowned him? In practical terms once the boy left home he was as good as dead anyway.
But the father allowed him to go. He allowed him to bring disgrace on the family. He gave him his share and let him go.
Here we have the other side to the picture of sin we thought about in the previous section. Sin is relational. Long before the boy’s reckless behaviour in the faraway country, he has plunged the knife into the heart of his father. The father has absorbed the shame and pain of rejection.
How often have we plunged the knife into God’s heart when we have decided that we want the things that God gives us more than we want God himself? I don’t want to paint a picture of a frail and vulnerable God who goes into depression when people don’t love him, but one of the aspects of sin in the New Testament is that it grieves the Holy Spirit.
Part of the scandal of grace is the ability that God allows people to reject him. It is the story of the human race from the beginning. Adam and Eve preferred their share of the inheritance to a relationship with the God who had made them. Not only did God allow them the ability to take that course of action, but the rest of the Bible story is the story of him waiting – looking in fact – for his sons and daughters to come home.
He welcomed him home.
The scandal of grace becomes clearer in this second phase of the story.
The boy was lost – as good as dead – but the father never gave up hope of seeing him again.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
Some things don’t look right: they lok out of place. One evening my wife and I called at the local hospital where a member of our church was recovering from a nasty traffic accident. When we were leaving the hospital two women were on their way in. They had obviously come from a wedding and were wearing elegant dresses and those little saucer-like attachments that pass for hats nowadays. There is nothing that says that you cannot dress like that in a hospital, but you don’t often see it. Had we been in a hotel or standing outside a church, we would hardly have noticed (except for the hats).
When Jesus tells his audience that the father ran to meet the boy, something doesn’t feel right. In the ancient world, older men did not run in public: it was viewed as undignified. Aristotle said that great men never run in public. (I have a friend who once claimed this as justification for his lack of physical exercise).
Kenneth Bailey, who has spent several decades living in the Middle East, writes about a pastor friend who was turned down by the elders of a particular church. The reason was far from theological: it was that they had seen him walking along the street and in their judgment he walked too quickly.
This father cares nothing for either decorum or the opinions of the neighbours who may well have been quite startled to see him run. At least some of them may have been even more startled to see the direction in which he was running. There, approaching the village, was what appeared to be a disheveled tramp. There, on his way home was the boy who had brought disgrace on his family and had broken his father’s heart. The father is running to meet him.
I think most of us imagine that the reason the father runs is that he is overjoyed to see his son. There is no doubt that he was overjoyed. But there may be more to his running.
What was going to happen when the villagers became aware that the boy had returned? How were they likely to react?
First century custom had a way of dealing with people who lost their inheritance among the Gentiles. The boy could have expected the villagers to carry out a ceremony by which he would be pronounced cut off from his people. He would be a reject among his own people. Add to that the rumours that had made their way back in relation to what the boy had been involved with when he was away. A warm welcome did not await him. There are still people who take a perverse pleasure at the misfortune of someone who has failed badly. By running, the father made sure that none of that would happen.
The father’s response to the son provides us with a simple vignette of grace:
- grace runs
- grace restores
- grace rejoices
There is a robe, probably that father’s robe, perhaps one that he kept for special occasions; there is a ring, probably a signet ring, symbol of authority; and there are shoes, which demonstrates that this boy is not a slave in the house. And then, a party. If the fatted calf was on the menu, the father was probably inviting the neighbours.
As we have seen, the boy never completed his planned speech. Grace sets no conditions. There were no bargains and there were no deals.
Grace like that is risky, and shocking.
In the story it was too shocking for the elder brother (to whom we will come in the final section). In Jesus’ day it was too shocking for the religious leaders who grumbled as they watched him eat with sinners. The welcome of grace will always be scandalous to those who don’t get it.
The scandal of grace is that the father welcomed the boy home.
If this is a story about grace, which it clearly is, and if, therefore, it is a story that takes us to the heart of the gospel, is there anything in the story about the concept of atonement? Some people have read this story and argued that it demonstrates that there is no need for the message of the cross. God is compassionate and all it takes is for someone to be truly sorry in order for God to show them mercy and forgive them. If that is all it takes, what was Paul talking about when he put the death of Christ “for our sins” at the centre of his gospel? Why, indeed, did Jesus have to die?
In recent years some Christians have been increasingly uncomfortable with the view that in his death Jesus bore the wrath of God for our sins. Some have caricatured aspects of atonement doctrine as “cosmic child abuse”, an unpopular idea if we want to make Christianity relevant to the twenty-first century. Does the story of the returning prodigal mean that we no longer need to preach about the death of Jesus for sins?
In addition, Muslims are taught that Jesus never died. Does Luke 15 do away with the need for him to die? Is there atonement-free forgiveness?
The only death in the story is the death of the fattened calf, in preparation for the celebration meal. Some people have suggested that the calf points to the sacrifice of Jesus, noting, for example that the verb used for killing the calf can be translated “to sacrifice.” But the verb is used in other parts of the New Testament without a religious context and besides, the death of the calf was not essential for the son to be able to return.
Another theme in the story which I think leads us to the cross is the theme of shame and honour. The son shamed himself in his rejection of his father and in his subsequent wasteful living. He was restored to a place of honour by behaving in scandalous, shameful ways.
One writer puts it like this:
The father takes away the son’s shame by losing his own honour; he restores the son’s honour by suffering shame himself. In short, he pays the price.
Someone else has suggested that it is the father’s suffering that makes the son’s return possible.
When we step back into the wider context of the gospel story, we have an exchange of shame and honour:
Christ, who knew no sin, was made sin for us, so that we might be made the righteousness of God.
Honour is replaced by disgrace: the Righteous One is made sin; and disgrace is replaced by honour: we become the righteousness of God in him.
This is what happens at the cross.
At the cross Jesus absorbs the shame of younger brothers who have slapped the Father in rejection; and at the cross he runs after them to cover them and pay the price for their restoration.
Unconditional kindness given to an undeserving recipient at an uncomfortable cost.