17. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!” 18. I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ Luke 15:17-19 ESV
You may recognize these lines from Jesus’ famous “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” For those of you who may be less familiar with the story or who have simply had a long day, the parable involves a father and his two sons the younger of whom demands his share of the inheritance and proceeds to squander it in a far away country. As he begins to be in need a severe famine comes over the land and he finds himself with nothing – no friends, no family, no money, no more share of the inheritance, and no food. Perhaps worse is what he does have; the guilt of sin, the shame of bankruptcy, the degradation inherent for a Hebrew person who is required to work with pigs (an “unclean” animal in Hebraic culture) estranged relationships with his father and his family, and the knowledge that he has made his own bed.
“But when he came to himself,” these words are an important turning point in the parable. I have understood them in the sense that, “And then the young person repented, came home, asked for forgiveness” and on that basis was welcomed home and forgiven. I no longer believe that to be a correct understanding of what Jesus is saying. It is not wrong in every regard – the prodigal does make a confession of sin, he does come home and he is welcomed home and forgiven. However, he does not ask for forgiveness, nor is his confession of sin the basis upon which he is welcomed back.
The prodigal knows he has sinned, but he does not ask for forgiveness. There is no indication that he imagined his father would forgive him. No, the best he is hoping for is employment – to be treated as a hired servant. He is not returning home in order to gain reconciliation; he is going home because he is underpaid and starving.
All this serves to make the actions of the father in this parable all the more stunning. When he sees his son coming he does not wait for him to arrive, prepare a lecture or determine whether he had need of another employee. No, the father runs to his son. He embraces him, kisses him, tells him “all is well.” Notice he does all of this before the prodigal can say even a word. The father, whom the son has sinned against, is the one whose desire it is to be reconciled with the prodigal. The motivating force behind this reconciliation is purely the father’s love for his wayward boy. Yeah, the boy begins his speech and verbally applies to work for his father – after all, maybe he is hiring, but even here the boys desire is more to supply his own needs (food and money) than to accomplish his father’s agricultural work. Meanwhile, the father’s heart is fully displayed in open love and affection for his wayward boy. “Kill the calf” he shouted. “We are going to celebrate. My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
All this is spoken in the presence of tax collectors, sinners, pharisees, and scribes for our good. Why? So that we might know the radical heart of God.