The turning point of the story of the prodigal son comes in verse 17 when the son has a repentance moment. He comes to his senses (literally, “to himself,” to who he really is – the son of a kind and wonderful man) and decides to go back to his dad. He’s got it in his head that his dad might just take him back as a slave on the family farm. He even rehearses his speech, hoping he can say just the right thing to blunt his dad’s anger. Once he’s got his speech memorized, he gets up (or arises; the word is routinely used of rising in the resurrection – this boy is coming back from the dead) and starts off toward his father.
The last time we saw the father, his son was rejecting and disrespecting him. But now as the son approaches, our thoughts return to him. Every Pharisee knows exactly what he will do when the young man arrives: he will turn his back on him. He will say, with his back turned, “You are no son of mine! My son died and everyone knows it! We held his funeral. You – whoever you are – go back to the pigs and live among your own kind.”
Now the Pharisee know this is what the father will say because this is what he would say – and feel right in saying it. And he would say this because he knew it is what God would say. God is holy. He is righteous. He despises sinners.
So imagine the Pharisee’s surprise at what Jesus did with this story. This is verse 20: “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.” Jesus has pulled the theological rug out from under the Pharisee’s feet. He tells them, “You guys have got it all wrong. This is what God is really like. He is a finder. He finds lost people, not so he can punish them but so he can throw his divine arms around them and kiss them and welcome them home.”
The son launches into his prepared speech, but his dad doesn’t let him finish. No bargaining. No “I’ll do better this time.” He doesn’t make him sign a contract. He takes him in. Brings him home.
The Pharisees would have thought that was crazy. They believed that accepting people who do bad things takes away any motivation they might have to change. They thought the only leverage they had over people was rejection. It was the only tool in their bag; their only tactic for making people change.
But Jesus knew people don’t get better or holier because you reject them. Only being with God can make that happen. The religious leaders were waiting for people to clean themselves up and become worthy of salvation. God doesn’t wait. He doesn’t withhold his affection and love until people meet a certain standard. He pulls up his robe and runs to them.
In first century Israel (and just about everywhere else), men wore robes. If they needed to run, they would pull their robe up and tie it above their knees. Older men didn’t do that. It was unbecoming – embarrassing, really. But Jesus has the father in his story (who, remember, is meant to show us what God the Father is like) tie up his robe, not caring what anyone thinks, and run to his son. God doesn’t force us into a relationship with him – that would ruin everything he wants for us – but he will help us choose a relationship with him and will come running to us when we take our first step.
God helps us come to him. When the son in this story came to himself and rose from the dead to return to his father, it was because his father was helping him. He helped him with remembered love and blessing, like Louie Zamperini’s father helped him by giving him that money and showing him he was wanted. If God didn’t help us, we would not even think about coming to him.
If you have come to God, it is because he helped you. If you’re inching toward him, it is because he is helping you. He helps you think differently; informs your thoughts. He comes to you, like the father in our story, where you are. He doesn’t demand, as the religious leaders of Jesus’s day did, that you come to where he is first. He is helping you and he will help you. He wants you – his child – with him and with his other children.