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).
There has been some debate over this aspect of the parable of the prodigal son. What do you think? How important is it that we search for the Gospel in the parables?
Editor’s Note: This article was first published by Biola Magazine. It is used by permission. The artwork above is from “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Pompeo Batoni (1773).