People regularly ask about the meaning of the parable of the prodigal son that is recorded in Luke 15. Although it has become well-known by this title, it would be better described as the parable of the forgiving father. He is whom Jesus emphasizes in the parable.
The father’s forgiveness is remarkable in light of the disrespect the younger son had shown him. It was the height of disrespect in that society for a son to even hint at wanting his inheritance before his father had died. But if that wasn’t enough, this son leaves home. That too was unheard of in a society where the father reigned supreme. In other words, Jesus was describing an extreme example of disrespect. Such a son would have been disowned, not only by the father but by the entire society.
That makes the father’s reaction to the son’s return even more remarkable. The father patiently looks for the son and sees him when he is still far off. Then the father does something unheard of. Instead of refusing to see the son, which would have been the practice of the day, he takes the initiative and runs to greet his son! And how does he greet him! He “fell on his neck and kissed him”. And while his son is still pouring out his confession, he is planning a huge welcome party. Again this goes against everything that would have been expected in that society.
The older son represents that society. He becomes angry at his father’s actions. He is jealous of the attention his younger brother is getting. He stays outside and pouts. But again the father surprises us. He doesn’t read his older son the riot act. Again he takes the initiative and goes out to him trying to also reach him.
This wonderful forgiving father represents God. By telling this story Jesus is emphasizing how eager God is to forgive us. He doesn’t demand a pound of flesh from us. He doesn’t make the way to forgiveness a long and painful process. He simply forgives! He forgives because, in an act of tremendous love, he punished Jesus for our sins instead of punishing us. “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.” (Ephesians 1:7)
What is the point of the parable of the prodigal son? It is a wonderful illustration of the amazing forgiveness we have in Christ. (Timothy Keller does an excellent job bringing out the nuances of this parable in his book, The Prodigal God.)
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