One of the best known of Jesus’ parables is that of the prodigal son. This is the tale of an ungrateful son who takes his inheritance, leaves his family to live a riotous life until he finds himself broke – and left to eat food fed to the pigs. The now penitent son returns home with great apology, the father is waiting for him (even from afar). A feast is set, the faithful older brother is angry. But the father has the last word – welcoming with merriment a son and a brother who was “dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.”
From the father’s perspective, the moral of the story is forgiveness – a slow motion film about not just a fictitious parent but about the never ending love of a heavenly father.
And it’s a story that has real life roots – reaching back to some of the more notable events of the Hebrew scriptures – the accounts of Jacob, Rahab and Jonah. In each, we see the Father’s unique response – tailored to the individual and circumstances at hand. And with each event giving insight into the character of the almighty Creator.
Jacob the Deceiver
The story of Jacob – son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham – is long and full of plot twists, accounting for about one-half of the Genesis narrative. And it’s the tale of one always grasping for what’s not his – even from before birth as Jacob grabs the heel of Esau in the womb (the one who would be first-born).
Much later, Jacob cons his older brother into selling his birth right on the cheap; he cons his father into giving him the blessing planned for Esau. Jacob then flees for his life to the distant land of his mother’s brother, where he now becomes the victim of deception – being married off to the older sister Leah rather than Rachel whom he loves.
Finally, Jacob the prodigal tires of the treatment of his father-in-law, and returns home to face the father and brother he had deceived. Along the way he meets and wrestles with God himself, saying he won’t relent until God blesses him. Jacob’s hip is dislocated in the wrestling match, but Jacob persists and finally receives the blessing of the Almighty. In effect, we are seeing a man whom God blessed even when he did not deserve it.
And what is the blessing? It is that Jacob will no longer be called Jacob but known as Israel. A name that literally means “struggle with God.” For all time, Jacob becomes Israel – the man who struggled with God, birthing the nation Israel that continues to wrestle with God – even today.
Rahab the Prostitute
We encounter our next prodigal just after the Israelites have spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, Moses has died, and Joshua is charged with leading his people into the promised land. The first obstacle is the world’s oldest continuously settled city – Jericho. So Joshua sends out two spies to Jericho – who take up lodging in the “house of a harlot named Rahab.”
The king of Jericho gets wind of the two spies. But in a show of remarkable courage, Rahab hides the spies rather than turn them over to the authorities. Here’s what she says as to why she will hide them on the roof of her house underneath stalks of flax. “And for good reason. She knows “that the Lord has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you.”
Rahab goes on to say that: “… the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.”But she Rahab than makes a request: “…spare my father, my mother, my brothers, my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death.”
The spies agree saying: “Our lives for yours, if none of you tell this business of ours. And it shall be, when the Lord has given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with you.”
So Rahab lets the men down by a rope through the window of her house which was on the city wall. And the spies tell her to put out a scarlet rope and they will save her and her family when the attack comes.
The spies go back to Joshua, the battle plan is finalized, the Israelis march around the city 7 times, the walls fall, and the city is destroyed. But Joshua keeps the promise made by the spies. He spares Rahab as well as all of “her father’s household, and all that she has.”
Unlike our other prodigals who turn on their heavenly and/or earthly fathers, Rahab has turned on the pagan community in which she lives and makes her living, in favor of a God who rules above all.
So, what is the significance of this most very different – this pagan – prodigal We have to turn to the New Testament to the book of Hebrews to find an answer. Chapter 11 has a familiar saying: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
The author of Hebrews goes on to make this point by listing all of the Old Testament stalwarts of faith who made a difference for God’s people: Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses. And this list then ends with one last name … Rahab.
She seals the deal for the victory of faith. As the author of Hebrews explains: “By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace.”
In a separate book of the New Testament, Jesus’ brother James wants to make a different point about the importance of not just faith, but works. James reaches back to make his point with two Old Testament personalities. In chapter 2, James first asks: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?”
And then James concludes his case with the example of … Rahab. “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?”
In the very next sentence, James concludes with his punchline: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
In effect, Rahab has been drafted into the big leagues of the early post-resurrection Christian church; she’s on a par with father Abraham. And she is only one of two people cited as exemplifying what it means to live both by faith – and by works.
If you put what Hebrews has to say together with what James has to say, the message is clear. The real heroes of God’s kingdom are those who act out of faith and with good works. Abraham and Rahab – these are two people who put their money where their mouth is.
Jonah the Runaway
The story of Jonah is well known in one form or another. For a quick refresher, here are the bare facts.
Jonah’s book opens with God telling Jonah to: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.”Jonah is being asked to go into the capital city of Assyria, the greatest power on earth and talk them into repentance. He is either very scared or thinks God is nuts, so he runs away to the port city of Joppa and takes passage on a boat.
A storm comes up and, after some plot twists, the others on the boat throw Jonah overboard at his request. Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish but survives three days and three nights in the belly of this sea creature. He cries out to the Lord and the fish vomits him to dry land.
This time, Jonah goes to Ninevah where he preaches that the people have 40 days to repent of their sins or be overthrown. To his amazement, the people and the king of Ninevah believe God and turn away from their evil ways. So God saves the city from destruction.
Jonah gets extremely angry because God has changed his mind. He complains, saying:
“I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”
God puts a simple question to Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah doesn’t respond but is still unhappy. Rather than turn tail and run, he decides to camp out at the edge of Nineveh, to wait and “see what would become of the city.” Still hoping for destruction.
Now here’s where God decides to have a little fun with his prodigal prophet. God causes a plant to grow up and give shade to Jonah as he waits, then has the tree wither so that Jonah gets exposed to the full heat of the sun. God and Jonah then argue about whether it is ok to be angry about the plant.
And so we get to the end of the story, with God telling Jonah: “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
In his own way, God is telling Jonah: “You think you’re hot stuff.” Well, I’ve got other priorities like the people. Oh and even the cattle of Ninevah. Then, maybe I’ll get around to you. In other words, “get over it, buddy!”
With the exception of the book of Jonah and one verse in II Kings, there is no other reference to Jonah in the Old Testament. So what is his significance. As with Rahab, the answer is found when we look to the New Testament.
We find our answer in Matthew 12. This occurs as the Jesus nemeses, the scribe and Pharisees, are seeking to bait the Savior. So, these leaders of the day tell Jesus: “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” Jesus doesn’t take the bait but retorts:
“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.”
So, what is this mysterious sign of Jonah? For Jesus, Jonah was a symbol – of his descent to the grave followed by miraculous resurrection.
This message of Jonah and resurrection resonates throughout early Christendom. After the death and resurrection, Christianity spreads across the Roman empire – to Rome itself. And so, there are drawings in the catacombs of Rome depicting Jonah being cast back onto land by the fish. And more recently, even some 1st century Jewish ossuaries (albeit highly controversial) have been found that testify to the expectation of resurrection.
Father God’s Response
What lessons can be drawn from these examples? What is God’s response to these wayward souls? For a recap, again briefly consider each of these one-by-one:
So let’s start again with Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal son. What is it we learn about the heavenly Father’s kingdom?
We see a God of forgiveness. A father who is constantly on the lookout for his wayward son. The outrageous conduct of the younger son is forgiven, but it is still the older son who gets the remaining inheritance. The prodigal gets something he would probably get nowhere else – the chance for a do-over.
Now go back to Jacob the grasper, the deceiver and his request for a blessing from God. What do we see?
We see a man who gets the blessing of receiving the name Israel. He and his descendants will always have a unique relationship with God, but it will come only with struggle – both then and now.
What about Rahab the harlot? What is God’s view of a woman who makes a choice to switch sides and serve the one she acknowledges as “the God in heaven above and on earth beneath”?
We see a woman who will be forever remembered as an example of faith and works – the faith to trust the real God, put into action by protecting spies bent on destroying her own earthly community.
And finally we have Jonah, the runaway. How are we to remember a man who in the end served God grudgingly and under duress?
We see a heavenly Father with a sense of humor. More importantly, we see the sign of Jonah – a symbol of resurrection that would extend to God’s son Jesus and eventually to all humankind.
These are some quick answers – not the whole story – but the essence of how God custom tailors each response to the individual and the situation at hand. In a nutshell, the message is about:
- Jesus’ Prodigal Son – forgiveness
- Jacob – blessing
- Rahab – faith & works
- Jonah – resurrection
And one more thing. Of the four responses, that of Jesus is the more encompassing. Forgiveness is the umbrella under which the other more specific responses are found. If God could not have forgiven Jacob, there would have been no blessing. Lack of condemnation for Rahab’s lifestyle – acceptance as she was – proved pivotal to her subsequent acts of faith and works on behalf of the Israeli spies. And if God were to hold a grudge against Jonah, would he have incented the sea creature to cough Jonah up onto the shore?
How Should We Then Live?
How might we apply what we learn from considering the lessons of the prodigal?
Each of us now has or has had some piece of the prodigal – of the wayward son or daughter – in us. And even if you were 100% pure, you undoubtedly still know relatives, friends and acquaintances who have walked away from Yahweh – our heavenly Father?
But despite all our folly and our sins – from these examples – one key message comes through again and again. That message is: God loves the prodigal. He’s offers forgiveness, the chance of a do-over, blessing, support for our faith and our works, and the promise of resurrection. That’s a package no one else can come close to matching.
So, how should we then live?
This is a tougher question to answer, because God’s response may be different for each of us, adapted to our personal struggles and to what He wants to accomplish in and through us.
But, there are a couple of suggestions that may apply to all – wherever we are at:
1) Wherever you are, don’t give up on God.
He is always there, waiting for you. As the book of Hebrews (11:6) says: whoever “comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”
2) Don’t give up on those you know and love who today are running from God.
God is always there, in some cases prodding, in all cases expectantly but patiently waiting a human response. Do your part, like those two Israeli spies, cutting the deal that makes salvation possible for Rahab and family.
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