“But while he (the prodigal son) was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
The father was looking for him to return. Or was his father the sort of old guy who sits on his porch and chews the fat with whoever passes by and keeps an eye out for strangers? Imagine that he catches a glimpse of a thin starved tattered dirty barefoot man, walking slowly toward town an suddenly his heart starts thumping in his chest. Is it him? Is it my lost son? Oh my poor boy, my poor little boy look at you, what have you done to yourself?
Of course he runs. Even if it isn’t his son, if he got close and realized this scarecrow figure was a stranger, after that burst of compassion he would still have taken some care of the approaching boy, I think. But the closer he gets, the more certain he is — this is him.
If then or now it is not “done” for a middle eastern man to run — I think in these circumstances then or now that sort of thought would fly out of one’s head. I think for some reason people read into the story how “shocking” the behavior of the father is for his society — running, lifting his robe to reveal his ankles, generosity to a reprobate — they make more of this than is reasonable in my opinion. Anyone would help a stranger who was half-dead — right? We hope? Even a Samaritan would? So how much more for a son? Would you give your hungry son snakes instead of bread? No way! You love your son, now and 2000 years ago. That’s what I’m saying.
What might be shocking is that the father’s compassion — instant, lavish, generous, prodigal compassion — cuts off the son’s little rehearsed speech. The son doesn’t get to say that he will be a hired hand now. The father immediately makes it clear that he is a son still, a beloved son. There are robes, ring, sandals, and a feast. (One hopes there was also a bath in there somewhere!) There is a healed, restored, found relationship that had been lost. There is a healed, restored, found relationship that had been lost. How much better than a sheep or a coin!
But the father also sees the older son not come in to join the celebration. Did the child who the older son questions come and find him and tell? Was he on look-out duty? Or did the father, who looked for strangers everyday and found a son, keep looking in the midst of a celebration for those who are missing, to invite them to join in? Did he get worried, this older son was working so late what’s wrong? Or did he worry that his older son went away somewhere and not yet know the wonderful news about his brother? Did the father start to pace about maybe, or did his ears prick up when the older brother questioned the boy and he recognized his voice?
The bible doesn’t say. But makes clear that the father goes out to the older brother too: “His father came out and began to plead with him.” The father saw the older brother as well, and loved him too. Perhaps the older brother wasn’t as far away as the younger one had been, and instead of squandering his property perhaps he was working overtime, but he was not yet in relationship, not joining into the celebration. So he, too, is lost.
And we don’t know if he’ll be found or come to himself.