19. Hugs and Kisses

19 – Hugs and Kisses

“But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion;

he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”


In verse 20, as the son makes his way home, rehearsing what he might say, the story rushes ahead of him to bring the father back into the picture. Upon our re-meeting the father, we get the best set of photographs of this father and our Father that the scriptures contain.

Did you notice the father’s initial responses upon seeing his son from a distance? Five verbs are narrated in tumbling haste.  He saw, he was moved, he ran, he embraced and he kissed.

He saw him

While the young man was still far from home, his father saw him.  Recognized him immediately. Had he been staring day after day down the road that led away from his front door? Did he become alert whenever any shape crossed the brow of the hill, hoping it was his boy? Did he die a thousand deaths whenever it was something or someone else?  But hope dies hard in some, and so  the suspicion is that the father would return to that vantage point and look again and again, just in case. Then on this day, as he gazed and prayed he saw a shape that he thought he recognized!  He rubbed his eyes and looked again.  Did he recognize him first because of his gait, or his shape, or was it because deep speaks to deep and he just knew.  Within moments he knows, “it is my son!”

He was moved with compassion

To say the least, this father is moved. But to say he was “glad” to see his son approaching, is too weak a word. The NRSV uses the phrase “he was filled with compassion.”  The original Greek word is literally “his bowels were moved.” This phrasing, obviously, no longer serves us well, but it is legitimate in our idiom to say “His heart was moved” or “His inner being was deeply stirred.”  Most translations will use a phrase like “he was moved or filled with compassion.” (See Luke 7:13. 10:33 and Matthew 13:32,  20:34 for the same  word.)

This father was deeply moved by the appearance of his son with the conflicting emotions of joy and sadness. So glad to see him! So sad to see him in that condition!  But compassion inevitable moves us to do something, unless it be only maudlin sentiment. The father is inwardly moved and externally moved  as he ran to meet the returning son.

He ran

Can you imagine it?  The father is so moved by strong feelings, that he sacrifices all decorum, and runs from the house, through the front gate, down the road towards the young man.

I suspect that the son’s steps are slow as he crests the hill and gets sight of his old familiar home.  He has no idea what his reception will be. Will he see a hundred yellow ribbons round the old oak tree? Will he come to the front door, and knock to see if he is allowed back into the house? Will he meet his older brother first, and find himself re-engaged in an old argument? Will he find his father forgiving?  He has no idea. Filled with hope: filled with fear.

But if the son’s steps are slow, the father’s steps are swift.  The word for “run” that Luke uses is “dramion.” It is a technical word for foot races in the stadium (I Cor. 9:24-26, Gal. 2:2, 5.7,
II Thess. 3:1, Heb. 12:1). The inference is that the father ran as fast as he could, as though he were in a foot race trying to get to the goal first. Maybe he wanted to get there before the older brother did, or before any of the servants or neighbours. He wanted to be first!

Other writers remind us that in the Near East it is not appropriate for adult males to run.  One must keep up appearances of cool collectedness. But this father is not cool, he is overwhelmed, and as he runs we suspect he picks up the hem of his long robe so it does not slow him down. Imagine the bare legs of the father exposed to public view! But he cares so deeply for this young man that he doesn’t care what others might think of him.

He fell on his neck!

But the intensity of the father’s response only increases.  He reaches his son, who must have been stunned by the flailing figure running towards him, and he “fell on his neck.”

Strange phrase. But Luke likes it! It occurs later in Luke’s writing of the book of Acts. When Paul is meeting for the last time with the Christians of Ephesus on the shoreline of Miletus, Luke writes, “When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed.  There was much weeping among them all; they fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him,  grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again.”  (Acts 20:36-38) What a passionate response in the moment of parting.

But neither Jesus nor Luke originated the phrase.  It occurs only once more in all of scripture, in Genesis 33:1-4. “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids.  He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all.  He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.  But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”

Wow!  Jacob comes in fear, expecting the worst of receptions from the brother he had defrauded, and like the father of the returning son, Esau too “ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him.” It is too wonderful a line for Luke not to use to show how anxiety and fear turned to joy for both father and son.

Recent translations change the words “fell on his neck” to variations of “threw his arms around his neck”, “embraced him”, “hugged him”  but none are quite as dramatic as falling on his neck as though hanging on to his son for dear life. Here is no hand shake or arms length embrace. This is intimate embrace of two that love each other. 

He Kissed him 

But the drama is far from ended. This running father grabs his son and holds him in tight embrace, and then kissed him.  But again the word choice of Jesus & Luke is stunning.  There is a word for “kiss” it is “phileo” as in “greet one another with a holy kiss.” But the word in this story is “katephileisen”, and is to be translated as “kissed tenderly”, or “kissed fervently”, or “kissed repeatedly.”  This word is used only six times in the New Testament and Luke uses it four of those times. It occurs in the passage about Paul at Miletus, but twice Luke uses it speak of the “woman who was a sinner.” Here is part of that story:  (Luke 7:37-38) And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment.  She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.”

When Simon is critical of her overly demonstrative behaviour, Jesus turns to him: (Luke 7:44-45), “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.”

Such were the kisses of this father. He could not stop kissing his son for sheer joy. And I would guess that those kisses were contagious, with the son soon returning kiss for kiss. Kissing him who first kissed him! Loving the father, perhaps, for the very first time in his life, as he experienced kisses that healed that which had been so broken in him for so long.


What is the father up to?  He runs in haste, he embraces passionately, he kisses repeatedly, all to one end: to declare beyond all doubting that this his son is loved with all the father’s heart.

What is Jesus up to in noting these details?  He is giving us a picture of His own Father who looks on us all in love, whose heart goes out towards us in infinite compassion, who will run with divine speed towards any who will take one small step towards home, and will embrace us and kiss us repeatedly, and all to one purpose: to let us know that we too are beloved!


Theological Reflection

There is a Biblical text that has generated voluminous discussion for most of the last two millennia. It is one of those passages that directs the church to consider Jesus as both divine and human at the very same time.  It seems to be a hymn of the early church that Paul incorporates into his letter to the Philippian Church. Here it is in full: Philippians 2:5-11 NRSV

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death –

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

The phrase that has come under considerable discussion is the line, “He emptied Himself.” The word “emptied” is a fairly literal translation of the Greek word “Kenosis”.  Other translators are a bit leery of what that might infer, and so choose to translate this single word as follows: “made himself of no reputation” (KJV), or “made himself nothing” (NIV)

But if the word is best translated “emptied,” then the question arises, of what did he empty himself?  If Jesus was still God, but had surrendered some/many/all of the attributes of God, what was left that was still essentially divine?   Did he put aside the glory he had before the incarnation? Did he surrender omnipresence? Omniscience? Omnipotence? Immutability? Immortality? We suspect all of the above.  But what did he retain that enabled him still to be God while being at the same time fully human?  Dr. Gary R. Walsh[i] has suggested this is a mystery, but he did “empty himself of whatever would have prevented him from becoming fully human.” I like that. But I want to probe into the specifics a bit more.

I am attracted to the lines of Charles Wesley in the hymn “And Can It Be” where he interprets the passage in Philippians.

He left his Father’s throne above,

(So free, so infinite his grace!)

Emptied himself of all but love,

And bled for Adam’s helpless race:

‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,

For, O my God, it found out me!


“Emptied himself of all but love.” A daring response.  But does that infer that the one who became very man of very man remained very God of very God?  Charles Wesley leaves us another hymn, “Wrestling Jacob” where he probed the question of what is essential in God’s nature.  Hear his words in verse 9:

‘Tis Love! ’tis Love! thou diedst for me!

I hear thy whisper in my heart;

The morning breaks, the shadows flee,

Pure, universal love thou art;

To me, to all, thy mercies move;

Thy nature and thy name is Love.

Thy name is love!


Other voices have affirmed that Jesus in the very incarnation of the love of God. And though Jesus may not have retained any other attribute, of what he had been throughout the eternal ages, he does retain that which was most basic and essential in God: God is love! And this story of the father who loves two sons tells us that God who sees us as we truly are, is nonetheless moved by compassion enough to run to us, embrace us, kiss us, and loves us enough to die for us.


[i] Gary R. Walsh of the Free Methodist Church in Canada in a theological conversation with the author.

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