10. Christology. As the father comes down and out to reconcile his son, he becomes a symbol of God in Christ. “Father,” a symbol for God, ever so quietly evolves into a symbol for Jesus. The same shift occurs in the story of the Good Shepherd. At three points in the Old Testament, God is a good shepherd who goes after his lost sheep (Ps. 23:3; Jer. 23:1-8; Ezek. 34). Jesus retells that classical story and introduces himself into it as its hero.
The Pharisees complain, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus replies with this story, which in effect says, “Indeed, I do eat with sinners. But it is much worse than you imagine! I not only eat with them, I run down the road, shower them with kisses, and drag them in that I might eat with them!” Jesus is clearly talking about himself. By the end of the story, the father does what Jesus does. A famous eleventh-century Syriac scholar in Baghdad, Abdallah Ibn al-Tayyib, identified the father in his self-giving love on the road as a symbol for Jesus.
The great New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias made the same identification this century. I call this “hermeneutical Christology.” That is, Jesus takes a known symbol for God and quietly transforms it into a symbol for himself.