The story of The Prodigal Son still brings tears to my eyes when I read it. It is a powerful story in and of itself, and I also have so many memories of retreats and camps that retold the story of the Prodigal Son in beautiful ways. It makes sense that we retell the story, because it provides such a clear picture of God’s grace, forgiveness, and enduring love for us.
We find the story in Luke 15:11-32. We first meet a man with two sons, the younger of whom feels dissatisfied so he asks for his portion of his father’s blessing. He leaves his father’s home, spends all of his inheritance, and ultimately hires himself out to a farmer who has him care for his pigs. While the son is estranged and starving, he decides to return to his father, and offer himself as a hired servant. However, when the son is still a long way away, his father sees him, runs to him, embraces and kisses him, and throws a banquet to celebrate his return; “for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 24).
The story is so profound and moving, and for the longest time it seemed to me that we could only find a story with so much grace and forgiveness in the New Testament. But as I continue to learn time and time again, God demonstrated his love for us long before we arrive in Luke.
In Genesis 33 we meet Jacob, whose name recently became Israel after a wrestling match with God (see Gen. 32:24-32; feel free to leave questions about this in the comments section). Jacob knows that Esau is on his way to meet him, and as you can remember from our posts on their early relationship (see The Sacredness of Siblings and Birthrights and Blessings), Jacob fears that Esau will kill him.
Jacob responds two ways: first, he prays to God (Gen. 32:9-12) and he sends gifts ahead of him to meet Esau (Gen. 32:13-21). Jacob’s prayer is especially profound, and I believe it impacts the outcome of his encounter with Esau. He pleads, “I am not worthy of the least of all of the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (Gen. 32:10).
Jacob humbles himself. He admits that he does not deserve the blessings that God has lavished upon him, and then he asks for God to deliver him from the hand of Esau.
So then we arrive in Genesis 33, and Jacob sees Esau coming. I can only imagine that Jacob is shaking in his boots (or sandals), as he watches his brother lead four hundred men into his camp. Jacob approaches and bows to greet his brother, and in a turn of events that Jacob never could have imagined, he watches his brother run toward him and embrace him. Esau falls onto Jacob’s neck, kisses him, and they weep (Gen. 33:1-4). Esau demonstrates the forgiveness and grace that surpasses what Jacob could ever have hoped for.
When we look closely at the language here, we see that it’s the same language of forgiveness and grace in that Jesus uses in the parable of The Prodigal Son. Genesis 33:4 states, “But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Describing the prodigal son, Luke 15:20 states, “And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”
The Greek in the New Testament, and the Greek in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) are very similar here: we watch Esau and the father of the prodigal son, “run” (from the Greek root trecho), “kiss” (from phileo), and “fall on” (pipto) the “neck” (trachselos) of Jacob and the son, respectively. The moment of redemption in The Prodigal Son echoes the same reconciling moment between Jacob and Esau. More specifically, Jesus draws directly from Genesis in order to relate his own parable.
God wanted us to know his grace and forgiveness all along. He wanted us to accept that if we pray to him (as Jacob did), he can release and redeem us from even the most frightening of circumstances. God’s love surpasses our weaknesses and frailties, and God celebrates when we return home to one another, and home to Him. Jesus knew this as he told his story of the Prodigal Son; he recalled what he knew of God’s work through Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau and repackaged it for his own audience.
May we feel refreshed and empowered today by the redemptive love that God offered us first in Genesis and every day since. May we come home to one another, and home to the God who has always wanted us with Him, just as we are. And may we, at the end of the day, know that our identity is found, not in our wandering or fleeing, but safely beside the One who created us and loves us always.