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. . . . The older brother became angry and refused to go in. . . . “My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” — Luke 15:20, 28; Luke 15:31-32
The Hebrew Scriptures normally depict God, not as the Father of individuals but as Father to His people, Israel. Pious Jews, aware of the gap between a holy God and sinful human beings, would never have dared address God as Ab (Hebrew) or Abba, the Aramaic word for “Daddy,” which gradually came to mean “dear father.”
Jesus shocked many of His contemporaries by referring to God as His Father and by inviting His followers to call God “Father.” Rather than depicting God as a typical Middle Eastern patriarch who wielded considerable power within the family, He depicted Him primarily as a tender and compassionate father, who extends grace to both the sinner and the self-righteous.
The most frequent term for “father” in the New Testament was the Greek word pater. The first recorded words of Jesus, spoken to His earthly parents, are these:
Didn’t you know I had to be in My Father’s house? — Luke 2:49
In John’s gospel, Jesus calls God His Father 156 times. The expression “Abba, Pater” (AB-ba pa-TAIR) is found three times in the New Testament, all in prayer. It is the form Jesus used in His anguished cry in Gethsemane:
Abba, Father, everything is possible for You. Take this cup from Me. Yet not what I will, but what You will. — Mark 14:36
If you want to perceive who God the Father is, earthly models will fail you. Far better to read the parable Jesus told an audience composed of both sinners and self-righteous religious leaders, two groups that had much in common though they would not have thought so. Jesus offers both a stunning portrait of a father who responds to the appalling behavior of two sons in ways no Middle Eastern patriarch would have.
In Jesus’ time the Jewish community had a way of punishing sons who lost the family inheritance, squandering it among Gentiles. Angry villagers would gather together to conduct what was known as a qetsatsah ceremony, a ritual that consisted of filling a large pot with burned nuts and burned corn and then breaking it in front of the guilty party. As the earthenware pot shattered, the villagers would shout: “So-and-so is cut off from his people.” That would be the cue for the errant son to get out of town for good.
Remarkably, the father in Jesus’ story failed to act as His listeners expected. Instead of waiting at home for his profligate son to come crawling back, as any dignified Middle Eastern father would have done, the father in Jesus’ story keeps a lookout for him. As soon as he spots him, he runs out and throws his arms around his wayward son, showering him with kisses. By acting quickly and with so much tenderness, the father effectively prevents his neighbors from organizing a qetsatsah ceremony to cut off his son.
Kenneth Bailey, a theologian who has lived most of his life in the Middle East, explains how astonishing such a sight would have been:
Traditional Middle Easterners, wearing long robes, do not run in public. They never have. To do so would be deeply humiliating. The father runs knowing that in so doing he will deflect the attention of the community away from his ragged son to himself. People will focus on the extraordinary sight of a distinguished, self-respecting landowner humiliating himself in public by running down the road revealing his legs.
But what of the older son, angered by his father’s acceptance of his foolish younger brother? Once again, Jesus depicts the father in a way that would have surprised His listeners. Instead of slapping his son and publicly rebuking him for refusing to attend the celebration, the father humbles himself by leaving the feast in order to reach out to his angry son.
Both sons, one a law breaker and the other a law keeper, had publicly offended their father by their selfish behavior. Both were offered not what they deserved but what they needed — extraordinary grace from the father who loved them.
Ask yourself today whether you are more like the older or the younger of these sons. Then thank God for treating you not as you deserve to be treated but as a child worthy of His faithful, fatherly love.
Father, thank you for loving me even when I was “still a long way off.” You showed Your gracious, fatherly love even when I bore little resemblance to You. Strengthen my identity as Your child and help me to glorify Your name by reflecting Your character. Amen.
Excerpted with permission from Praying the Names of God by Ann Spangler, copyright Ann Spangler.
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What about you? Which brother are you most like? Or maybe you identify with both in certain ways. How does the image of the Middle Eastern father hiking up his robe to run towards his child that Jesus depicted speak to you about the Father’s heart toward you? We would love to hear from you! Please share your comments on our blog. ~ Devotionals Daily