Where is the Cross in the Prodigal Son Parable?
Christians agree that Jesus needed to die for our sins. Yet there seems to be no hint of the cross in Jesus’ most famous parable of the prodigal son. Doesn’t the prodigal simply repent in the far country then return to his father’s accepting embrace and assured restoration? On the surface, it looks like only his repentance is needed. However, by looking more closely at this parable, the need for the cross begins to emerge.
In the beginning, the prodigal says to his father, “Give me my inheritance” which Jesus’ audience would translates as “I wish you were dead” according Dr. Kenneth Bailey. Further, the audience would expect, the father in response, to angrily slap the son with the backside of his hand. Yet what did the father actually do? With a word, God spoke the universe in to existence; yet, the father knew no word that would change his son’s heart. The text says that the father divided his life, not just his property, between his sons. This image depicts the devastating effect on the father.
Later, in the far country, the prodigal faces starvation. With his money gone and in the midst of a famine, he finds himself in a pig pen. The text says, “…and no one gave him anything.” He experiences two types of starvation: body and soul. As his body starves, he is driven to find food. But, in contrast, as he experiences his friends’ rejection, his soul becomes crippled. Life has lost its meaning.
Driven to eat, the prodigal remembers that his father has more than enough food. So the prodigal formulates a plan. He will confess to his father that he has sinned and that he’ll become a hired hand in order to pay back his debt. Deep down he senses, however, that his plan only addresses his bodily hunger, not his soul’s hunger for never-failing acceptance. Having experienced rejection first hand, he now knows the cavernous pain it causes. And, as a result, he is now more aware of the pain that he’s caused his father. But to this his crippled soul has no answer.
As the prodigal approaches his village, he knows that he’ll face the Kezazah, a Jewish tradition that permanently rejects (or shuns) a villager who loses his money among foreigners. He must reach his father before the villagers reach him. Unexpectedly, he sees his father sprinting toward him past on-looking villagers—not with anger on this face but joy. Before the prodigal utters a word of his confession, the father hugs and repeatedly kisses him.
Overwhelmed, the prodigal spontaneously utters “I’m not worthy” having experienced the bread of life, grace in its truest form. The prodigal’s planned words of repentance transformed into an experience of accepting his father’s love. Joyfully, the father proclaims that his son is alive—perhaps for the first time.
The father, aware that his son is starving seeing his tattered clothes and wasted frame, chooses to first address his son’s starving soul. The father provides three inedible things for his son’s soul: Shoes signifying that he accepts him as a son, not as a hired servant as the prodigal planned; a robe indicating how special he is to him; and a signet ring empowering him to transact business within the village. There will be no kezazah. The father will surely protect his son.
Throughout this parable and reflected in Jesus’ life, the father chooses to suffer himself rather than cause soul pain to others. This ‘substitutional’ suffering can be seen as Jesus protects the woman caught in adultery. The crowd wants to stone the woman but Jesus redirects their anger—and perhaps the woman’s anger toward herself—toward himself. As a result, rather than the woman being stoned, Jesus becomes a marked man—his teaching and actions sending him to the cross.
So what does the cross provide that our repentance can’t? Repentance, much like will-power, can’t change the heart/mind long-term. According to Dr. Kenneth Bailey who lived and taught in the Middle East for over 40 years, Jesus’ costly demonstration of unexpected love has the power to change the heart/mind (metanoia) long-term. The transformed person better appreciates God’s love and increasingly desires God’s shalom. Shalom, as a Jewish term, means deep and lasting reconciliation with one another and with the earth.