“So [the prodigal son] set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
— Luke 15:20 (NRSV [bolding for emphasis])
What sort of person was Jesus?
We can only gain when we ponder such a question in the midst of a gospel story such as the father with his two lost sons in Luke 15:11-32. Jesus, of course, had two audiences he was speaking to—as he typically spoke. Most of Jesus’ teaching would have started predictably so far as context is concerned. But then the story would always get turned on its head. The traditional response the Pharisees and religious rulers of the day expected never came; in the case of the story of the prodigal son, the father is not a harsh disciplinarian—as the Jewish tradition dictated; instead, the father’s compassion subsumes all of the son’s prior sin, by a mode of care that would vouchsafe his safety.
The son was broken. If the response to the son’s brokenness were to have been chastisement there would have been no healing of the relationship and no healing for either the son or the father—no unification. Punitive action has limited real effectiveness.
But there was healing. There was healing because the father took it upon himself to run to the son and welcome him with open and loving arms, for the son had repented.
The Exercise of Mercy
Those who would easily condemn another person may find themselves condemned within. One cannot love out of themselves if they don’t feel loved within.
Jesus liberates us from condemnation to the point that he wills us to resolve our inner differences first—yes, those things within us that prevent us from accessing our own healing. We cannot love other people as Jesus would have us love them unless we love ourselves as Jesus would have us love ourselves.
In the context of the story, mercy is to be swift upon repentance. But pre-repentance also deserves a good portion of mercy in the way we deal with people. If we have a good sense-of-self because we accept ourselves for who we are, we will love people out of that love that emanates from within us.
How can we be merciful to others if we haven’t already been merciful to ourselves; if we haven’t allowed God’s forgiveness to truly permeate us?
We are all shaped by sin like the Prodigal Son. Our Father stands eternally with arms wide open ready to receive us; to heal us, to restore us, and make us brand-new. When we’re broken by failure, betrayal and loss, we must run without hesitation into the Father’s loving arms; a place where no shred of condemnation exists.
© 2013 S. J. Wickham.
Acknowledgement: to Pastor Dale Stephenson.