“While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Luke 15:20
Hugs are off – for the time being at least. Perhaps it’s a good thing that there’s no professional sport either: in recent years celebrating success on the field or pitch by enthusiastic hugging of every team-mate in sight seems to have become almost compulsory. But any tactile gestures of welcome and joy have been displaced for the present by the new phenomenon of “social distancing”. Hugs have to be virtual, or not at all.
In the story Jesus told about a son demanding from his father an early payment of his expected inheritance and leaving home on what turned out to be a disastrous spending spree, we witness one of the biggest hugs of all time. There is nothing in the least restrained about it.
Utterly disillusioned, broken and desperate, the son trudges back home with his speech all prepared. He has been arrogant, rude, self-opinionated, unloving and reckless. If he is now met with rejection, a thorough telling-off and some kind of payback, surely he deserves everything that is coming to him?
But as with so many of Jesus’ stories, just as we have worked out how it will all end, it takes a twist into the unexpected. From a long way off the father sees his son on the road back. Plenty of time to work out how he is going to read the riot act. But no; his heart is fit to burst with compassion and he sets off at a run. (In the culture of his day, respected gentlemen never ran anywhere; it was far too undignified.) Then that hug says it all. Even though the son begins his prepared speech, he never gets to finish it. Yes, there may yet be things to discuss about how things will be in the future, but for now all that matters is that the broken relationship is healed.
Of course, Jesus told the story to make a bigger point. While we have come to refer to it as “the parable of the prodigal son”, we might just as properly call it “the parable of the compassionate father”, for Jesus wants us to be quite clear about God’s utter joy when, whatever the past loads us with, we make our way back to him saying “I’m sorry. May we start again – together this time?”
Now of course we shall not physically feel God’s arms wrapped tight around us, but we can trust Jesus that the healing and warmth in his hug is far more than virtual. It’s real.
“Saviour, what can be said, what can be sung as a praise of your name for the things you have done?
O my words could not tell, not even in part, of the debt of love that is owed by this thankful heart.”
Matt Redman © 1994 Thankyou Music