When reading through 2 Samuel, I was struck by how vastly different Absalom’s return to David is in 2 Samuel 14ff, compared to the return of the younger brother in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, and I couldn’t help but wonder which story most closely reflects how we tend to think about God as Father, and His offer of forgiveness.
Both sons left their fathers’ houses on negative terms. Absalom had ordered the murder of his brother and was fleeing for his life. He took up residence in a distant land, wanting to make a fresh start on his own terms.
Absalom didn’t exactly return to David’s house through his own choice. He wasn’t throwing himself on the mercy of his father. Instead, he was brought back from the distant country against his will and at the instruction of his father.
Even then, Absalom’s father David had to be encouraged – even manipulated – into bringing his son back! And when Absalom returned, the father wasn’t watching and waiting for him. He didn’t run to him. Instead, he refused to allow his son into his presence.
Absalom’s life was spared, but he was neither forgiven nor restored. There was a limit to the father’s mercy. There was no celebratory meal. No killing of the fattened calf. No giving of a robe or ring. The son wasn’t welcomed back into the family home, not even with the status of a servant.
For two years the father kept his son at a distance. No doubt he mourned, and his heart went out to the son he loved, but his love was ineffective. It didn’t go the extra mile towards full restoration.
This lack of true forgiveness left the son in an agonising limbo. He lived just outside his father’s presence, neither far enough away to make a new start in a foreign land, nor close enough to make a restart in his father’s home. He must have puzzled over his identity. Was he forgiven, or merely tolerated? Did his father love him as a son, or view him as a criminal? The uncertainty was so intolerable that the son felt he would rather die. His return was not life-giving; it felt like a death-sentence.
When the son wanted an audience with his father, he couldn’t just walk in and see him. He had to beg for it, through an intermediary. And when Joab wouldn’t answer his requests, Absalom had to resort to trickery and vandalism to force his hand!
Then and only then did the son finally get an audience with his father. He approached him with kneeling and grovelling. And yes, he received the kiss of his father. Finally. Forgiveness. Restoration into the royal household.
But the tragedy is that the kiss of the father didn’t truly change the son, for in the very next chapter, the son ‘kissed’ others to win their favour and steal their hearts away from allegiance to the king. The ‘restored’ son conspired against his father.
2 Samuel 14 depicts how we can be tempted to view both God and His forgiveness. Some imagine that God forces us to return to him, perhaps through laws and threats of punishment; keeps us at a distance, wanting us to remain in a state of guilt and contrition; tolerates rather than loves us; and only offers forgiveness reluctantly, after we have suffered enough. Until the next time, when it will all begin again.
If we view God like that, the result will be the same as it was for Absalom. Faith will feel like a death-sentence, it will leave us uncertain over our identity and status, and it will not truly change our hearts. We won’t love this God, but fear him, despise him, and rebel against him.
By contrast, Luke 15 tells us that God longs for us before we even consider returning to Him. He waits for us, pursues us, welcomes us, celebrates us, clothes us, throws a party for us. He doesn’t merely bring us back onto His estate, but into His house. God’s love isn’t reluctant but abundant. We don’t have to beg for an audience with Him. He leaves us in no doubt about our identity and He won’t allow us to settle for the identity we expect. When we return to Him, we may think “perhaps He’ll allow me back as a slave”, but God says: “No, you’re coming back as a son!”
The potent mixture of genuine repentance and genuine forgiveness in Luke 15 means that the kiss of the Father – freely given, and gratefully received – is powerful and effective in a way that David and Absalom’s reconciliation wasn’t.
In 2 Samuel 14, the woman of Tekoa used a parable to coerce a father into pursuing his son. In Luke 15, Jesus used a parable to encourage lost sons to return to their Father.
The gospel really is amazing. Don’t settle for a lesser version of God than the one revealed in Jesus Christ.
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