Summer 2010

The Prodigal Son’s Father Shouldn’t Have Run!

Putting Luke 15:11-32 in context

By Matt Williams

Note: It is so important to read the New Testament with first-century eyes. This lesson on the Parable of the Prodigal Son is taken from The Forgiveness of Jesus, one of 36 DVD Bible studies on the life of Jesus in a six-DVD series called “Deeper Connections,” edited by Talbot School of Theology professor Matt Williams. These studies, which have been used by nearly 200,000 people, explain Jesus’ life and teachings from the first-century context in order to help us understand their deeper meaning and how to apply it to our modern context. Each of the video lessons is introduced from Israel and taught by different New Testament scholars from diverse locations such as the Chicago skyline, the Rocky Mountains, the beach, etc.

One afternoon, when my son was 3 years old, he was upset with me. He decided that it was time to run away from home. He'd had enough of dad. He was going to go it alone — at 3 years old! So, he walked out the garage, walked down the driveway and started walking down the sidewalk. He got three houses down the street before I ran to him — as fast as I could — to hug him and bring him home.

I ran! Of course I ran. That makes perfect sense to us.

In the first century, however, a Middle Eastern man never — never — ran. If he were to run, he would have to hitch up his tunic so he would not trip. If he did this, it would show his bare legs. In that culture, it was humiliating and shameful for a man to show his bare legs.

So, here’s the question: If it was shameful for a man to run in that culture, why did the father run when his son returned to him? What motivated him to shame himself? Before we answer that question, we have to understand an important first-century Jewish custom.

Kenneth Bailey, author of The Cross & the Prodigal, explains that if a Jewish son lost his inheritance among Gentiles, and then returned home, the community would perform a ceremony, called the kezazah. They would break a large pot in front of him and yell, “You are now cut off from your people!” The community would totally reject him.

So, why did the father run? He probably ran in order to get to his son before he entered the village. The father runs — and shames himself — in an effort to get to his son before the community gets to him, so that his son does not experience the shame and humiliation of their taunting and rejection. The village would have followed the running father, would have witnessed what took place at the edge of the village between father and son. After this emotional reuniting of the prodigal son with his father, it was clear that their would be no kezazah ceremony; there would be no rejecting this son — despite what he has done. The son had repented and returned to the father. The father had taken the full shame that should have fallen upon his son and clearly shown to the entire community that his son was welcome back home.

The amazing application for our own lives is crystal clear. Our heavenly Father has taken our shame through his Son, Jesus, who willingly endured the cross on our behalf. He took our sins’ shame so that we would not have to. As a result, we can be forgiven, restored — accepted. We do not have to fear going home to our Father and confessing our sins, no matter what we have done, or how many times we have done it (remember, Jesus taught his followers to forgive 70 times seven).

In the parable, only the father could restore the son to full sonship in the family. In our case, we are sinners, and there is nothing that we can do to restore our lost relationship with the Holy God of the Universe. He calls us and waits — a single repentant step in his direction, and he is off and running to welcome us back home! 

Not only does God forgive us, but he takes upon himself our shame. He lifts off that weight that we carry on our shoulders for our past mistakes, and willingly wipes the slate clean once more. May we experience what the prodigal son encountered upon returning to the Father: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

Matt Williams is an associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology. He holds a Ph.D. from Trinity International University.

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  • Ivan December 14, 2010 at 10:11 AM

    Good word, Matt! Thank you!!

  • Patrick Ward December 3, 2012 at 5:53 PM

    I have heard that the story of the Prodigal Son was well known in Jesus' time, but the ending in the traditional Jewish story was that the lost son remained lost, or even died a horrible and shameful death. This story would be used to reinforce upholding traditional Jewish values and discourage assimilation to the cultures around them.

    Jesus took this story and turned it into a story that shows God's love and mercy on the repentant.

  • Rich emanuel April 18, 2013 at 7:28 AM

    Great commentary. I've often wondered why Jesus allowed himself to experience so much more than the blood sacrifice required by old testament law. Why the desertion/betrayal of friends? Why the beatings, humiliation, shame of nakedness, unfair trials, unbelievable pain of crucifixion ? Why did the prodigals father allow for the shame of showing bare legs and accepting his sinful son back? The crucifixion is about so much more than "fulfilling prophecy ". It shows the passion of God who not only bought our salvation but identified with all our sins and pain .

  • Jose Xavier July 19, 2013 at 2:13 PM

    Thank you so much for this article .It made such wonderful reading .I am told this is the only time in the Bible where God is portrayed as 'running' ! Isn't it wonderful that he did this to welcome his repentant son and save him from shame .It sure gives me a better understanding of the expression 'Amazing Grace' !!!

    prayers

    Jose Xavier

    Germany

  • Paul McCarthy August 30, 2013 at 10:10 PM

    Blown away by Our Heavenly Father's Great & Awesome Love to us.

  • juliet September 20, 2013 at 11:56 PM

    thank you so much.i am really blessed and touch by the treasures you have shared.

  • S. Pusha October 23, 2013 at 1:57 PM

    Thank you for sharing this! This adds a whole new meaning to the story! Thanks for the pointers!

  • Dee October 30, 2013 at 10:57 PM

    Can only say Amen to Rich's comments as it reiterates my heart. One can only be so humbled and be so extremely grateful for Gods love for his children. It hits you right in the core of your being and of late I often thought how on earth could I have wasted so much precious time... A real "oh duh" feeling. Gosh how often have I drank from the wells of the sewer, when the fountain of life given water was right in front of me but I was to blind to see. Thank you Abba Father for your unconditional love.

  • carolyn January 19, 2014 at 7:22 AM

    Great article! If you look carefully at the painting you will see that one of the fathers hands looks like a female hand....a representation of th maternal love of a mother? The gentle love of a mother? Fascinating.

  • kevin January 28, 2014 at 4:46 PM

    It IS amazing love isn't it? Also amazing when the father runs, too. The father does not run after the son when the son leaves does he? In the same way, God did not create us as automatons, but instead created us with the ability to make choices. The motivation of the son is his desire to live the way he would choose to live, which is not the plans of the father. He rebels against the plans of the father (Garden of Eden). When the son recognizes his need to be saved, only when he is broken, did he heed the Spirit's call to be reunited with his father.

    So amazing, too, is that the father did not require the son to pay back his inheritance in order to restore fellowship with his father. Grace and mercy come together.

    To reconcile means to unite (conciliare) again (re). This means it is a 3 stage process - at one time we were in fellowship with God (before the fall). Something had to have happened (the imputation of Christ's righteousness upon us) for us to be reconciled with the Father.

    Good discussion - what life applications can WE learn from this? Knowing that we have been reconciled, what do we do (not meaning works based salvation) now?

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  • Okorokt October 29, 2014 at 3:35 PM

    wow, awesome article post.Much thanks again. Will read on...

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