How do you view God? Do you see Him as a stern taskmaster waiting to pounce on us lowly humans the moment we make a mistake? Studies show that our perception of our heavenly Father tends to mirror the way we look at our earthly father. So, if we had a harsh, overly strict dad, we tend to think of God behaving the same way towards us. In stark contrast, Jesus provides a far different perspective for us in the story of the Prodigal Son, a parable with profound insight as to the nature of God’s love for His children.
We read in Luke 15:20: “…And while [the younger son] was still at a great distance, his father saw him and had compassion and ran and fell upon his neck and kissed him.” In picking apart this verse, I see three insights we can glean to find out more about God’s love.
First, God gets “sick to his stomach” when we suffer. Luke writes that once the father saw his son coming down the road, he had compassion for him. We may gloss over the term “compassion” in English, but the Greek word used by Luke in the original text goes far deeper, having as its root “innards”. You see, in Jesus’ day, people thought emotions were based in the abdomen. That notion is certainly understandable, since when I get distressed, I feel it directly in our stomach and abdomen. Even today, when hearing a gut-wrenching story, Kenneth Bailey tells us that idiom in Middle Eastern villages has people commonly saying, “You are cutting up my intestines”. Looking back then at our parable, we see that the father had a deep heart-felt response to his son’s suffering – in effect, his “intestines were all cut up” in compassion for his son. Given the intensity of this emotion, we can understand why the father runs to the son, even though this action had great personal cost.
Second, God has a deeply affectionate love for us. In Luke 15:20, the father did not just walk over and shake his son’s hand or give him a pat on the back. In the parable, Jesus paints a far more vivid portrait of what the father does, unmistakable in the affection expressed. The great 19th century evangelical preacher Charles Spurgeon spoke memorably about this love:
God on the neck of a sinner! What a wonderful picture! Can you conceive it? I do not think you can; but if you cannot imagine it, I hope that you will realize it. When God’s arm is about our neck, and His lips are on our cheek, kissing us much, then we understand more than preachers or books can ever tell us of His…love.
Spurgeon continues, painting an unforgettable picture of the encounter with the father and son:
Let me try to describe the scene. The father has kissed the son, and he bids him sit down; then he comes in front of him, and looks at him, and feels so happy that he says, “I must give you another kiss,” then he walks away a minute; but he is back again before long, saying to himself, “Oh, I must give him another kiss!” He gives him another, for he is so happy. His heart beats fast; he feels very joyful; the old man would like the music to strike up; he wants to be at the dancing; but meanwhile he satisfies himself by a repeated look at his long-lost child. Oh, I believe that God looks at the sinner, and looks at him again, and keeps on looking at him, all the while delighting in the very sight of him, when he is truly repentant, and comes back to his Father’s house.
Seeing the father’s love for his wayward child in this parable renders words like “ruthless” and “harsh” obsolete when talking about God. The next time you are feeling inadequate and unworthy of returning to your Father in heaven, think instead of this wonderful story of a father’s passionate love for his son.