We’re used to calling it the parable of the prodigal son(s). It would be more accurate to refer to Jesus’ story as the parable of the prodigal father.
The word prodigal literally means to be recklessly extravagant. And it’s true that the younger son is recklessly extravagant with his inheritance until it is all gone and he finds himself friendless and broke. But if we look at the sons’ father, we see that he’s even more recklessly extravagant – He is recklessly extravagant with his grace.
Instead of disowning his younger son or demanding him to repay the debt (something the younger son would never have been able to do), the father hugs and kisses him, throws a banquet for him and invites the whole town to celebrate the homecoming. Instead of sending a servant to demand his older son to co-host the celebration with him (as the original listeners likely expected), the father excuses himself from the party and goes out to the older son to plead with him to join the festivities. In short, the father goes out to find his lost sons. In fact, he keeps constant alert to their return: When the younger son is still a long ways off, the father sees him coming and runs out to embrace him.
In Jesus’ day, it was quite disgraceful for a distinguished gentleman to hike up his robes and run. By running, the father expresses his joy at his son’s return. But it’s quite likely that he has to run in order to get to his son on time to protect him: Maybe some of the townsfolk feeling like giving the younger son a piece of their mind about how he treated his father; maybe some of the townsfolk want to give the younger son a piece of their fist to teach the younger son a lesson for dishonouring his father. However, by running out to embrace his younger son, the father says to the townsfolk, Whatever you want to do to my son, you first have to do to me. You have to get through me before you can get to my beloved.
I read somewhere that sin looks pretty puny and boring compared to God’s grace. Like the grace shown by the father of the two sons, God’s grace for his lost sons and daughters is beyond measurement. It is recklessly extravagant. How can I ever sufficiently thank my prodigal God?
”The Prodigal Son” by Edward Riojas; oil on board, 2004. From the “Prodigal Son Collection” at the Calvin College Center Art Gallery. I love how the father is running past a couple people I suspect are pretty bewildered!