8. The point of turning. The Prodigal steels his nerves for his humiliating entrance into the village. He remembers the qetsatsah ceremony and braces himself to endure its shame. The painful interview with his father will not be any easier. His one hope is that his “humble speech” will touch his father’s heart and that he will win his father’s backing for the training he needs to become a wage earner. The Prodigal is expected to return with generous gifts for the family. Not only does the Prodigal return home empty-handed, he returns in failure after insulting his family and the village at departure. This painful road back is endured for one reason: he is hungry. The bottom line is, “I am dying of hunger!”
But what of his father? The father knows his son will fail. He waits day after day, staring down the crowded village street to the road in the distance along which his son disappeared with arrogance and high hopes. The father realizes full well how his son will be welcomed in the village when he returns in failure. Thus, the father also prepares a plan: to reach the boy before the boy reaches the village. The father knows that if he is able to achieve reconciliation with his son in public, no one in the village will treat the Prodigal badly. No one will dare suggest that the qetsatsah ceremony must be enacted.
The father sees him “while he was still far off.” The “great distance” is more spiritual than it is physical. If the Prodigal thinks he can earn money and with it solve the problem of their relationship, he is yet very far away! The language is borrowed from Isaiah 57:19, where God affirms peace to those who are “far off” and peace to those who are “near.” This is precisely what the father sets out to do. Through a great, dramatic action, he will offer peace to the one who is far off and then concentrate on creating peace with the one who is near (the older brother).
And so, for the third time, the father breaks the mold of Middle Eastern patriarchy. He takes the bottom edge of his long robes in his hand and runs to welcome his pig-herding son. He falls on his neck and kisses him before hearing his prepared speech! The father does not demonstrate love in response to his son’s confession. Rather, out of his own compassion he empties himself, assumes the form of a servant, and runs to reconcile his estranged son.
Traditional Middle Easterners, wearing long robes, do not run in public. To do so is deeply humiliating. This father runs. The boy is totally surprised. Overwhelmed, he can only offer the first part of his prepared speech, which now takes on a new meaning. He declares that he has sinned and that he is unworthy to be called a son. He admits (by omitting the third phrase) that he has no bright ideas for mending their relationship. He is no longer “working” his father for additional advantages. The father does not “interrupt” his younger son. Instead, the Prodigal changes his mind, and in a moment of genuine repentance, accepts to be found.