So what do we learn about God from this passage?
a) When this parable has been read to people from a Middle Eastern culture like the one in which Jesus lived, the thing that stands out most to those people is that the father runs! The father of the family in that culture never runs; it’s not dignified. Running is for young people. For the father to run like this would be humiliating.
So the first thing we learn about God is that he humbles himself.
The God who created the universe, the Milky Way galaxy, Mount Everest, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, whatever majestic part of creation that makes you go “Wow!” … the God who created that. We’ve all turned away from that magnificent God to our little idols, and said I don’t want you, God, I’d rather just have my music, books, sport, movies, or whatever… That God came to Earth to live as a man, born in a stable to an unmarried woman, so most people probably thought he was an illegitimate child, and grew up, living amongst sinners, ultimately to die a humiliating death on the cross. If God humbles himself like that – the father runs to greet the prodigal son, and Jesus eternal Holy Son of God comes to Earth to live amongst sinners and die for us – why do we worry about our reputations?
I came across a memorable quote from C.H. Spurgeon, via Jeremy Walker’s blog:
“Many of you, good people, try to get as far away as you can from the erring and the fallen. They might infect your innocence! Society claims that we should not be familiar with people who have offended against its laws. We must not be seen associating with them, for it might discredit us. Infamous bosh! Can anything discredit sinners such as we are by nature and by practice? If we know ourselves before God we are degraded enough in and of ourselves. Is there anybody, after all, in the world, who is worse than we are when we see ourselves in the faithful glass of the Word?”
We tend to avoid spending time with sinners in case their sinfulness rubs off on us (as if we’re not sinners ourselves!) but holy God runs to embrace them!
Going back to the woman described on the first page of What’s So Amazing About Grace? who didn’t think she belonged in church because of how bad she was; compare that notion with what we see happening in verse 1 of the chapter we’re looking at: “all the tax collectors and sinners drew near to him”. Jesus was infinitely more righteous than any of us, yet he humbled himself to associate with sinners, and somehow he didn’t make them feel like they couldn’t draw near to him because of how bad they were.
b) Finally, not only does the father humiliate himself, he runs to embrace sinners, and celebrates their return as we also see in the first two parables in this chapter: “Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep which was lost!” “’Rejoice with me for I have found the piece which I lost!’ Likewise, I say to you, there is much joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
On this note, I felt it was appropriate to quote part of what Matt Chandler says here:
Of course, Jesus doesn’t allow us to stay in the same broken state as when we first come to him, but “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” we don’t do anything to make ourselves better so that he’ll accept us, he’s already done it all.
So to summarise, don’t pursue a goat, pursue God himself, don’t try to earn your forgiveness, because you can’t and God doesn’t want you to. The God who humbles himself to embrace sinners saves us so that he might show the exceeding riches of his grace.
Next month, the plan is to look at the following passage, Luke 16:1-13.