God is no reluctant forgiver. In fact, He is always the one initiating reconciliation. And Christ powerfully portrayed that reality in His parable of the prodigal son.
“But while [the prodigal son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). A major factor at play here is that the father clearly wanted to reach the prodigal before the boy reached the village—apparently to protect him from the outpouring of scorn and invective he would surely receive if he walked through that village unreconciled with his father. Instead, the father himself would bear the shame and take the abuse.
And make no mistake: In the context of that culture, the father’s action of running to the boy and embracing him before he even came all the way home was seen as a shameful breach of decorum. In the jaded perspective of the scribes and Pharisees—Christ’s audience as He told this parable— this was just one more thing that added to the father’s shame. For one thing, noblemen in that culture did not run. Running was for little boys and servants. Grown men did not run—especially men of dignity and importance. They walked magisterially, with a slow gait and deliberate steps. But Jesus says the prodigal’s “father . . . ran" (Luke 15:20, emphasis added). He did not send a servant or a messenger ahead to intercept his son. And it was not merely that he quickened his pace. The text uses a word that speaks of sprinting, as if he were in an athletic competition. The father gathered up the hem of his robe and took off in a manner his contemporaries would have ridiculed.
Kenneth E. Bailey, an evangelical Bible commentator who lived in the Middle East and made careful studies of the language and culture there, wrote;
The reluctance on the part of the Arabic versions to let the father run is amazing. . . . For a thousand years a wide range of such phrases were employed (almost as if there was a conspiracy) to avoid the humiliating truth of the text—the father ran! The explanation for all of this is simple. The tradition identified the father with God, and running in public is too humiliating to attribute to a person who symbolizes God. Not until 1860, with the appearance of the Bustani-Van Dyck Arabic Bible, does the father appear running. The work sheets of the translators are available to me and even in that great version the first rendition of the Greek was “he hurried,” and only in the second round of the translation process does rakada (he ran) appear. The Hebrew of Prov. 19:2 reads, “He that hastens with his feet sins” (my translation). The father represents God. How could he run? He does.  Kenneth E. Bailey, Finding the Lost Cultural Keys to Luke 15 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1992), 110, 164.
The father was humbling himself—even though the prodigal son was the one who should have been doing so.
Most of us today would see this moment when the father ran to embrace his son as the most poignant, tender moment in the parable. The Pharisees certainly did not view it that way. Nor would the typical listener in Jesus’ audience simply take it in stride and admire the father’s compassion. This was a scandal. It was shocking. It was even more offensive to them than the sins of the prodigal.
But the father was nevertheless willing to have the villagers hiss to each other, “What does he think he is doing? This boy took advantage of his father and sinned horribly against him. The boy should be made an outcast. Instead, this man who was dishonored by his own son now dishonors himself even more by embracing the wretched boy!” The father in effect positioned himself between his son and all the scorn, taunting, and abuse people in that culture would naturally have heaped on the boy’s head.
Our version says the father “felt compassion” (Luke 15:20), but the Greek expression is even more emphatic. It uses a word that literally speaks of a sensation in the viscera—or in today’s vernacular, a gut feeling. The father was powerfully moved with compassion, an emotion so deep and so forceful that it made his stomach churn.
The father’s compassion was not merely sorrow over his son’s past sin. Nor was it only a momentary sympathy prompted by the boy’s present filthiness. (Remember, the prodigal was by now in rags and smelled like pigs.) Certainly the father’s feeling toward the son included a deep sense of pity over all the terrible things sin had already done to him. But it seems obvious that something else was amplifying the father’s anguish at that precise moment. His action of running toward the son and intercepting him on the road suggests he had something terribly urgent and immediate on his mind. That’s why I am convinced that what moved the father to run was a deep sense of empathy in anticipation of the contempt that was sure to be poured on the son as he walked through the village. The father took off in a sprint in order to be the first person to reach him, so that he could deflect the abuse he knew the boy would suffer.
This is indeed a fitting picture of Christ, who humbled Himself to seek and to save the lost—and then “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). Like this father, He willingly took upon Himself all the bitter scorn, the contempt, the mockery, and the wrath our sin fully deserves. He even took our guilt upon His own innocent shoulders. He bore everything for our sake and in our stead.
If the truth were known, this father’s behavior, extraordinary as it might have seemed to Jesus’ audience, was actually nothing very remarkable compared to the amazing grace unveiled in the incarnation and death of Christ. As a matter of fact, that was one of the key lessons Jesus was challenging the Pharisees with, through His tale.
(Adapted from The Prodigal Son)