In his book The Cross and the Prodigal, Kenneth Bailey references a tradition carried out in ancient Palestine whenever a family member who leaves the community, wastes their inheritance among outsiders (Gentiles), and dares to come home. It was called the kezazah ceremony. The patriarch leaders of the community would bring a large pot and smash it in front of the wayward relative to represent the broken relationship and either send him on his way never to return or, if the offense was bad enough, stone him to death.
Knowing about the kezazah ceremony brings new light to one of the most famous teachings of Jesus, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. If you are familiar with the story, you’ll remember the youngest of two sons tells his father he doesn’t want to remain at home, demands his inheritance, and then wastes it extravagantly (thus the term “prodigal”) until he had nothing left. When he hits rock bottom, he realizes everything he was hoping to find on his own was what he abandoned when he left home. So he practices a speech hoping it will convince his father to not go through with the kezazah ceremony and maybe even allow him to finish out his days on earth as one of his servants.
The great twist is what the father does instead. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20b, ESV). Men were not supposed to run. Ever. Servants? Sure. Mothers? Maybe, if she was going to greet her son and kiss her before the men in town performed the kezazah ceremony. Bailey describes how shameful it would have been for a patriarch, a wealthy community leader, to hike up his tunic, expose his legs, and run towards the disgraced individual.
Jesus’s version of the story, with the Jewish father running to meet his lost Jewish son who is still covered in the muck and mire from sleeping with pigs, would have shocked the audience. But it would help drive home the point Jesus wanted the audience to get. The father in this parable is a picture of God the Father, who, while we were stilled covered in muck and mire, came to us and proved his love on the cross (Romans 5:8). The father in the parable ran out to meet his son before anyone else could grab a giant pot and perform a kezazah ceremony. In fact, by hugging and kissing his boy, it would have shown anyone ready to cast shame and ridicule on his child, was going to have to cast it on him first.
What a beautiful picture of the kind of love God has for us. How great it is to know is more about grace and mercy than he is about cultural norms. If it ever feels like you are alone or unwanted, remember God has already shown and proven how much he wants to have a relationship with you. The question now is what kind of relationship do you want to have with him?