In Alfred Edersheim’s masterpiece, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, he offers some insights to the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.
Nor would he go back with the hope of being reinstated in his position as son, seeing he had already received, and wasted in sin, his portion of the patrimony. All he sought was to be made as one of the hired servants. And . . . he would preface his request by the confession, that he had sinned ‘against heaven’ – a frequent Hebraism for ‘against God’ – and in the sight of his father, and hence could no longer lay claim to the name of son. The provision of the son he had, as stated, already spent, the name he no longer deserved. This favour only would he seek, to be as a hired servant in his father’s house, instead of in that terrible, strange land of famine and harshness.
But the result was far other than he could have expected. When we read that, ‘while he was yet afar off, his father saw him,’ we must evidently understand it in the sense, that his father had been always on the outlook for him, an impression which is strengthened by the later command to the servants to ‘bring the calf, the fatted one,’ as if it had been specially fattened against his return. As he now saw him, ‘he was moved with compassion, and he ran, and he fell on his neck, and covered him with kisses.’ Such a reception rendered the purposed request, to be made as one of the hired servants, impossible – and its spurious insertion in the text of some important manuscripts affords sad evidence of the want of spiritual tact and insight of early copyists. The father’s love had anticipated his confession, and rendered its self-spoken sentence of condemnation impossible. ‘Perfect love casteth out fear,’ and the hard thoughts concerning himself and his deserts on the part of the returning sinner were banished by the love of the father. And so he only made confession of his sin and wrong – not now as preface to the request to be taken in as a servant, but as the outgoing of a humbled, grateful, truly penitent heart. Him whom want had humbled, thought had brought to himself, and mingled need and hope led a suppliant servant – the love of a father, which anticipated his confession, and did not even speak the words of pardon, conquered, and so morally begat him a second time as his son. (Chapter 17 of Book IV of Edersheim – emphasis mine)
I was especially touched by the insight that the father must have been on the lookout for the son to have spotted him “afar off.” And it seems that he had been constantly prepared for the feast upon the son’s return, having kept a fatted calf ready.
This reminds me of some great parents I know who have a child who wandered. They have been patient and loving, always waiting and watching for the time when the child might return, ready to celebrate and forgive and help heal at the first opportunity. And of course, it is how our Heavenly Father is toward us, always waiting for the first sign of our desire to return to Him, ready to receive and forgive and rejoice over the lost son or daughter who may come to their senses and desire to repent and return.