Two pertinent ‘why’ questions help us understand the nature of Biblical compassion portrayed by the ‘prodigal Father’ who lavished love on his wayward son. (Lk.15:17-24). There is a definite progression, logic and climax in this story. One out of 100 sheep is lost. What does the shepherd do? He leaves the 99 to search until the one is found and then has a party! One of 10 silver coins is lost and the woman makes similar painstaking efforts and then the celebration! Now, one of the Jewish Father’s two sons is lost, the elder son seemed to know his whereabouts, so (1) Why didn’t this loving father go looking for, send a search party or rescue mission to get his boy back? (2) When the prodigal eventually appears, why does this elderly father go running to meet him?
NB: The father did not have to give this son his part of the inheritance that was his only after his dad died. In Ancient Near Eastern, shame-honor culture, in effect the boy was saying to his dad: “I wish you were dead!”. For this he would be disowned by family members and excommunicated from the community. Found again in the vicinity, the vindictive society could spit on or throw stones at this disgraceful boy. This is why on seeing the son’s faint steps the father takes giant strides toward him. Now, have you seen a dignified, rich, head of a house, run on a public road? Never! Who did this kind of thing? The household slave! This explains why the boy doesn’t complete his confession, asking the father to make him one of his hired servants (cf: v.19, 21). His father had already taken on this role of a slave in order to reclaim this reprobate son. Further the father envelops him and keeps kissing him, so if someone spat or threw a stone, guess who it will have to first hit? – the forgiving, reconciling Father of all grace and mercy, so full of compassion.
Compassion is that intense emotion which beyond feeling, shares in and sacrificially ‘suffers with’ (Latin com=with, passio=to suffer) and on behalf of the one in pain. Such love is divine. It refers (Hebrew rachamim) to the womb of Yahweh, and (Greek, splanchma) denotes the intestines or what we would call, guts. I am convinced there can be no mission without compassion and the father’s actions teach us what this implies: without giving up on his boy lived with burden and expectant hope. He publicly unleashed his emotions for him and throws the grandest party inviting others to share in His joy! Moreover he went out to his elder son to get him also to reconcile with this son. This story is really about three slaves: a wasteful prodigal who set out to find his freedom and was enslaved feeding swine; a father becoming a slave in order to win his son back and a self-righteous older brother working with the mentality of a slave in his own house!
So, why didn’t the father go searching for the lost son? The answer is in recognizing who is telling this parable and to whom? Again the clue lies in that this is also a story about three sons: the prodigal son representing lost sinners, the pouting son characteristic of the critical ‘lost’ Pharisee and the perfect Son– Jesus the narrator, who the heavenly Father did send to seek and save the lost (Lk.19:10). Christ is the concrete embodiment of divine compassion. His compassion is depicted on the cross and ‘in Christ’ we can face our sinful selves and return to the Father’s love and house. Did you know that Jesus’ Spirit of compassion is shed in our hearts (Rom 5:5) so then we can win the lost at any cost!