“I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”
– Luke 15:18-20 ESV
This is the 高潮 (climax, high point) of the story of the Prodigal Son. It is the bit in the movie where the string quartet will play a moving melody as the father runs along the dirt path, slippers flip-flapping, to embrace his son. And as we read this, almost all of us, religious or not, can see some of ourselves in the son, the wayward son, the black sheep of the family who has finally come home.
But the story doesn’t begin this way. It begins in Luke chapter 15, verse 11, with a man. Jesus was talking to the Pharisees (a group of religious leaders and scholars) because they were getting all grumbly about Jesus spending so much time with sinners. WHY, they asked Jesus, why bother wasting time on useless, immoral people??
And Jesus told them a story about a man.
“There was a man who had two sons.”
Not a bad deal, because sons were more valued than daughters then, and could continue the family line and be the man’s heirs.
But the younger son said to his dad:
“dad, give me the share of property that is my due”.
In those times, as it is now, children would only get their inheritance upon the passing of their parents. And in Jewish culture, this request would have been a grave insult tantamount to a slap to the face – the younger son might as well have said to his dad:
“dad, how i wish you were dead, because i want your money now”
But his dad relented, and so the younger son took his share of the property, and went far off, and spent all the riches that his dad had given to him.
And in that far country, a severe famine arose, and the runaway son ended up feeding pigs to make a living. He grew so hungry that he longed to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate.
And in his misery the son resolved in his heart to just return home, and beg his father for mercy. He would say to his dad:
“Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”
Here we are, right at the bit where the story swells. We know how it ends. But I want to point out two things.
In the first half of verse 20, which is the verse quoted above, the son arose and “came to his father”. But in the same verse and in that same breath, we are told that his father, the distinguished landowner, the father whose son wished him dead to his face, saw him ‘while he was still a long way off’. Imagine that. A father who was waiting and waiting and looking and searching and yearning, not for vengeance or for some comeuppance, but simply for his son who had scorned him to return home.
Imagine the faces of the Pharisees as Jesus told them this story. What a scandalous story – the respectable head of the household who had been disrespected saw the son that had treated him so poorly, and ran to his son who had just come from a pig sty, and embraced him and kissed him. Jesus’ message must have rung so loudly in their ears – do you really want to know how I feel about sinners, those who bring nothing to commend themselves with? I am looking for them. I am searching high and low and I am waiting for them. I am waiting for every last one of them who will come to come home, and I will run to them while they are far off, and I will embrace them and bring them in.
But there is one more son in the story, and one more group that is still in need of a hug.
Right at the end of the story we meet the obedient older son who saw the celebrations, and was “angry and refused to go in“. He was angry because all his life he had labored (unlike his prodigal brother) and obeyed (instead of running away) and been good and proper and now they were throwing a feast for his brother? The one who had messed everything up and lived in a pig sty only to return home empty handed?
And his father comes out of the house, one more time. And he entreats him – he asks him earnestly – to set aside his bitterness, and judgment, and to come in, come and join the celebrations. The father’s arms are open even to the self-righteous who are trapped by their own morality and virtue.
Christmas, in eight words, is this:
“though rich, for your sake He became poor“
Christmas is about giving. But it is not about us giving from our abundance in a grand gesture, or from our virtue. Christmas is about God giving us Jesus. He’s the prodigal father in the story, the dad who is okay with being undignified and with our mess and with giving grace to those who cannot hope to deserve it.
Jesus is the dad who stands at the door and says:
“I am looking for them. I am searching high and low and I am waiting for them. I am waiting for every last one of them who will come to come home, and I will run to them while they are far off, and I will embrace them and bring them in.”
That’s Jesus’ work on the cross. That’s the story of Christmas – that in your mess and hopelessness, He says to you with love – it is finished. Come, and have rest.
Have a lovely Christmas 🙂