The Return of the Prodigal Son

BY BARKOTEL ZEMENU

This piece is part of syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. You can read the original piece at https://www.yalelogos.com/home/the-return-of-the-prodigal-son.

During winter break, I was in a book group for first years at Yale Students for Christ (YSC). It was the only major YSC activity I was doing, yet it ended up being the most rewarding experience of my entire break. The book we read, The Return of the Prodigal Son [1], was based on Jesus’ famous parable. [2]

Here is a condensed retelling of the parable: There is a father with two sons. One day, the younger son demands his share of property, receives what he asks for, and then abruptly leaves for a distant country. There, he indulges in a reckless lifestyle, squandering everything with prostitutes. Not long after, this younger son becomes completely broke and hungry, so hungry that he yearns to eat pigs’ feed. His extreme state of desolation eventually prompts him to return to his father’s house, where he hopes to be accepted as nothing more than a mere servant. But as he nears home, his father spots him from a long distance, runs to embrace him and is overjoyed that his son is back. He not only treats the returning prodigal as his beloved son, but prepares a splendid feast for him because, “this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” [3]

During one of our weekly group meetings, our book group leader asked us to think of a word that came to mind as we read the story. I chose to say, “Incomprehensible.”

“Why on earth should the father welcome the prodigal son back home?” Does it really make sense? I mean, let’s face the facts: The son first disrespects his father terribly. In that Jewish context, demanding a share of inheritance while the father is alive was akin to saying, “Dad, I can’t wait till you’re dead!” Here is how Kenneth Bailey, a professor who has taught the Bible for over 40 years in the Middle East, put the son’s request against the backdrop of the Middle Eastern culture:

“For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same . . . the conversation runs as follows:
Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?
Never!
Could anyone ever make such a request?
Impossible!
If anyone ever did, what would happen?
His father would beat him, of course!
Why?
The request means—he wants his father to die.” [4]

But it gets even messier: the younger son is not leaving to establish a family of his own or do some charity work. He’s out there to gratify all the naughty within him. Engaged in riotous living, wasting all his fortune with prostitutes, intentionally breaking sabbaths, ignoring synagogue, participating in idol feasts. Oh, you name it! [5]

When he’s finally broke, the young lad feels his stomach rumbling day and night. This prompts him to contemplate going back to his father, and he ultimately does so. But here’s the kicker: his main reason for returning is not a repentant heart but an empty tummy. Even his motivation to “sort things right” is not right!

And yet (this is the humanly incomprehensible part!) his father—who apparently knows all this!—awaits this prodigal son day and night, rejoices when he sees him return, runs to embrace him with his warm fatherly hug, and welcomes him back home in the most stupendous way possible.

I just keep asking: Why? Why? Why?

And since Jesus was establishing a parallel between the father and God [6], the actual question I ask is: Why does God forgive us when we’ve blatantly offended Him? Why does He accept us back whenever we return from our wayward lifestyle?

At least in my life, I have a hard time comprehending why He accepts my plea of repentance after I have turned my back on Him. It just seems difficult to understand why He is still ready to start all over again once I have abandoned Him in my heart.

I think the following anecdote in one of Philip Yancey’s book indirectly yet effectively responds to my question:

During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. "What's the rumpus about?" he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity's unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, "Oh, that's easy. It's grace." 
After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God's love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law—each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God's love unconditional. [7] 

It’s comforting that I’m not the only one who thinks this notion of grace “seems to go against every instinct of humanity.” Especially when its core message is that a blood-drenched, nail-pierced, asphyxiated Nazarene called Jesus, who is crucified with criminals on Calvary Hill, is God Himself in the flesh, atoning for the sins of every person. Why would God ever choose to atone for our sins by suffering that way? If we are sinners, shouldn’t we bear the consequence of our own actions—even if that means being forever separated from Him?

The God of mercy, who is equally just and holy, does not want us separated from Him, so He stoops down to offer a choice. Either we pay the price or He does. Our way separates us from Him; His path merges us back to Him. Some decry this as foolish, as the Apostle Paul observes. And he agrees: it is foolish…to those who choose to pay their own price. But he calls it “the power of God” to those who accept Jesus’ sacrifice. [8]

Oh, the very answer to my question (“Why do you forgive this prodigal?”) is loudly proclaimed at Calvary! While it’s true this prodigal is as unholy and rebellious as he could be, it’s truer that this Father is as holy and unconditionally merciful as one could EVER be. Thanks to Him, all who look unto His Son are cleansed from every sin. . . and can start anew.

Like it or not, the answer terminates there. Part of me stubbornly presses on: “But I can’t comprehend this kind of unconditional love! I just can’t.”

But a deeper part of me realizes that, from this point onward, my task is not to comprehend His love. It is to accept it and be eternally transformed by it. 

Barkotel is a first year student studying Physics at Yale.


[1] Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, 1994.

[2] Luke 15:11-32.

[3] Luke 15:24

[4] Bailey, Kenneth. Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1983), pp. 161-162.

[5] Ellicott, Charles John. “Commentary on Luke 15:13”. “Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/luke-15.html. 1905

[6] Luke 15:1-2; 11

[7] Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), pp. 45 (emphasis added).

[8] 1 Corinthians 1:18

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