Home » The Parable of the Prodigal Sinner and His Forgiving God

The Parable of the Prodigal Sinner and His Forgiving God

by Dr. Eitan Bar
7 minutes read

Father? In today’s world, the concept of a father figure can elicit diverse connotations. Some people may think of a father who is loving, caring, and always present for their children, providing unconditional love and support. In contrast, others may have experienced a father who is abusive, emotionally distant or demanding, making their children feel like they need to constantly prove their worth in order to receive love and acceptance.

In the scriptures, God is portrayed as a father, a mother, a spouse, a lover, and a bridegroom.[1] The point of all these images is to say the same thing using human language: God doesn’t hate but loves us. Without a doubt, the most robust image of God in the Bible is that of a father. God is portrayed as the perfect and ultimate father of all. Have you ever wondered what God would be like if he was an earthly father just like you and me? If earlier we discussed what the father of Divine Abuse looks like, let’s see what our Father in heaven looks like according to Jesus.

My all-time favorite from the parables of Jesus is the one known as “the Parable of the Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32). However, if you asked me, a more appropriate title might be “The Father’s loves for sinners.”[2] In this parable, we learn what kind of a father God is. It is a parable Jesus told here in Israel back in the day when many Jewish Pharisees believed and taught that God is a legalistic, harsh God. But then, Jesus was about to prove them wrong…

Gathered around Jesus were two types of people from two extremes: Religious men and sinners (verses 1-2). The religious men seemed arrogant, legalistic, and condescending. They believed that through the laws, traditions, and customs they devoutly abide in, they could impress God and be saved. On the other hand, the sinners had little to no interest in God whatsoever. They often heard how much God hates them and came to believe it. All they have left is enjoying life’s pleasures, even if it comes at the expense of others.

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. (Luke 15:11-12)

An inheritance is something you get once your parent dies. So, asking the father for the inheritance while he still lives is humiliating, degrading, and offensive. It is as if he would have said to his father: “as far as I’m concerned, you can go ahead and die. I don’t care for you, but only about your possessions.” This is much like those today who know how to best enjoy God’s creation but deny God’s existence.

Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. (Luke 15:13-16)

The younger son chose to draw away from his father’s blessings and protection. And he quickly learned it wasn’t worth it. I am not sure how common it is, but I have some friends in the great state of Texas that have a pig as a pet in their home, so maybe a gentile won’t understand how humiliating it is. But this parable was told to Jews. If you have Jewish friends, you might know that the pigs and us do not get along. So, for a Jew to live with pigs, let alone wish for their food? You couldn’t get any lower than that.

When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20)

The motivation of the young son was not the realization that he had offended his father. His motivation was his stomach being hungry for food. Regardless, we do not know if his planned apology was sincere. However, he acknowledges that he has been sinful and rebellious and feels he’s not worthy of his father’s love anymore. Unfortunately, many Christians today believe (and teach) the same. If his father let him get anywhere near his estate again, he would beg to be allowed in as a simple servant, and maybe one day, he will be able to repay his debt to his father. The hired help is not part of the family and lives separately or away.

But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and was filled with much anger. Taken by his wrath and “holy hatred,” the father ran to him, flogged and bruised him for his wicked sins.
(Luke 15:20, DAV)

Oh, wait, the wrong version. Let’s try this one:

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)

His father saw him from far away. This must mean the father was waiting outside for his son, desperately longing for the day he might return. But wait a minute! “His father saw him?” How could this be? How could a perfect father look at such a wicked sinner?

Not only that, but in the middle eastern culture of these days, it was way beneath the honor of a patriarch to be running like a small child. Kids run and play; fathers do not. They sit and wait as you come to show them respect. But here, the father is the one running to the one who has humiliated and sinned against him. That’s unheard of! But this father was like no other. He loves his children despite their sins. His heart is broken for them.

Now, while the father had every right to be angry, without anyone blaming him if he decided to “pour his wrath” on his son by stoning him to death as the Law permits, he did not. Against all odds, against any logic, and against what must have “felt right” for Jesus’s audience, not only was the father not upset with his son, but he also ran, kissed, and hugged his young son. The son did not shake his dad’s hand (western culture) or bow in respect (eastern culture). Instead, the father kissed and hugged him as if to say, “You are family. Welcome back home. I missed you.”

The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. (Luke 15:21-22)

People who heard this parable probably expected the father to at least say something like, “Young man, you stink from pigs. You know what we feel about pigs in this Jewish house. Go, clean yourself up, and then come back so we can discuss your dummy apology and the actions you must take to earn back the status you have lost because of your bad behavior. And, if I see that you got your act together, I might consider you son again. Servants, quick! Bring a Bible and put it in his hands!

However, that wasn’t the case with this father, who could not bear to see his son barefoot and in filth for one more second. Not only did the father refuse to let his young son become a servant, but he would barely even let him finish his apology! It’s much easier to ask for forgiveness from someone once they have hugged and kissed you, proving they love you regardless of your sins.

The father demanded his servants to fetch and bring “the best robe.” The best robe belongs to whom? The father himself, of course. That robe was to be put over the filth and sludge of his young son. Respected estate owners wore robes. Kings wore robes. Robes represent the honor and majesty of those who wear them. In other words, the father chose to cloak the sins of his son with his own glory. The sins of the son were covered with the father’s luxurious robe. Do you remember who else did exactly that in the past? God, when he cloaked Adam and Eve’s sins with a tunic he had made for them. The father was the highest authority. No one could undermine the father’s decision or complain about it.

The beautiful parable continues. The son gets a robe, a ring, and sandals, which carry many symbolic meanings in that age and culture. Then, he receives a fattened wagyu calf slaughtered in his honor at a big party. This only happens in unusual events such as weddings.

I would not use the fact that no penalty was described in the parable to disqualify Penal Substitution (that would be an argument from silence fallacy[3]). However, the reason I am using this parable is because the father’s character represents God’s. Every time Jesus describes his father (loving and pursuing sinners), it is in such contrast to the way the preaches of “Divine Abuse” describes God (furious, violent, hateful, vengeful). Farther more, it is only due to his sinful acts that the prodigal son got to learn and experience what true grace, forgiveness, and love essentially are. His ‘goodie two shoes’ older brother, however, while maybe winning the “best behavior” certificate, only turned legalistic. The older son was upset his father loved a sinner. He was much like today’s legalists who say God hates sinners. He did not understand grace, which drove him further away from his Father: “The older brother became angry and refused to go in” (Luke 15:28). The parable ends with the older legalistic son whining outside the party, complaining that the father accepts sinners. Sounds familiar?

What an oxymoron: it is due to his sins that the prodigal son got to learn and experience how deep forgiveness, grace, and love can reach. While his older “righteous” brother, who did not sin (outwardly), became religiously legalistic. So much so that he wasn’t even willing to join the party. A legalist doesn’t understand he was saved by grace, the grace he’s supposed to show others in return. Christianity should be about how my faith motivates me to ask difficult questions about myself and a motivation to cover for sinners’ mistakes, not about “my faith gives me the right to judge others.”

But lucky for the legalist son, the father went outside to pursue him as well. God loves sinners and legalists alike. Often in life, we come to witness people who, due to their mistakes and suffering, became gracious, compassionate, and loving people. Those who were always “perfect,” however, often turn prideful and condescending, much like the older brother did.   The gospel is not a reminder that we are sinners (we all have consciousness and are well aware of that already). The gospel is a reminder that God loves us despite our imperfections.

This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
free sample is available here.

[1] For example: Isaiah 49:15, 54:5, 62:5, 66:13; Matthew 6:9; Luke 13:34; Ephesians 5:25; Revelation 19:7-8.

[2] I know it won’t fit with the previous two parables, but this title makes the Father the main character, rather than his sons. The father is also the first character to be presented.

[3] Actually, we can say the Father did pay for the sins of his son by absorbing the cost unto himself. Somebody did pay for it all – the father.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist