During our trip to Israel last year, we went twice to visit the Western Wall. Sometimes, I'm there still--standing among a sea of faithful Jewish women, watching them read and mouth noiseless verses from the small books in their hands and bow to the wall and search for crevices between the stones in which to tuck their secret prayers. I can feel the still-potent heat of the dwindling sun and hear the chants of the men on the other side of the dividing wall. Where the women whisper, the men exclaim. I feel the swing of my body as I step on an empty chair and raise myself to peek over that divider; can feel again the weight of devotion as those kippah-wearing men pray and bob and dance in exuberant, hand-on-shoulder circles.
I love Israel. I left part of myself there.
The heat, at times, was overwhelming to this Pacific Northwest girl. Though I obeyed the strict dress code and draped a shawl over my tank top (no bare arms in the holy places), on one occasion I let the edges slip about two inches to allow the heat from my shoulders to dissipate. In less than a minute, an Israeli policewoman approached me and, in a tone that was polite but unwavering, instructed that I raise my shawl again. I complied ... and baked.
Though we were permitted to wear dresses or capris past our knees, the men were forbidden to show even an inch of their legs. No shorts for them.
That trip broadened my understanding of the Scriptures like nothing else could. Now, when I read, I can see Jesus resting and talking with His disciples in Caesarea Phillipi. I can taste the water Gideon scooped from the stream. I can feel the stones beneath the feet of the onlookers as they wait on the Via Delarosa for a glimpse of the condemned Man and His cross.
But this thing about the Jewish aversion to the bare male leg captured my attention and opened my eyes to the story of the Prodigal son in a vivid, powerful way.
I'm sure you know the story. A son, growing impatient with the crawl of time, tried to hurry the inevitable. "Give me my inheritance now," he insisted to his father. I've actually read that to the Jewish mind, the unmistakeable meaning behind this request was, "I wish you were already dead, Father." The pain began here. Or perhaps it began much earlier, as the father watched his son's growing restlessness and realized he'd soon lose him.
Though he could have denied the request, he didn't. Instead, he gave his child the asked-for portion and then watched as his son disappeared over the hill. He didn't know of the wild living that happened around that blind corner. He didn't know of the speed with which his son spent his inheritance. But his thoughts were never far from his boy, and his eyes kept a vigil on the spot where he last saw his prodigal.
When the boy hit rock bottom and found himself hungry, broke, and salivating over pig slop, he woke from his self-focused trance. "What am I doing here?" he asked himself. His thoughts drifted home. He longed for the security he'd once known and he realized, in a moment of clarity, that his father was a good and loving man. "Even my father's servants live better than I'm living. Maybe ... maybe he'll let me come home and be his servant."
He turned and took that first step. There must always be a first step, but that's the hardest. The next comes easier, and the next, and like the tumbling of a rock down a mountainside, momentum soon takes over. I don't believe the Prodigal stopped running until he mounted that final hill before home. I think he hesitated for a moment there, practicing one last time the plea he'd make to his father: "I know I've lost the right to be your son. Let me serve you instead."
But something happened as he stood on that hill: he was seen. He was seen by the eyes that had watched for him every day since his departure. And when his father saw the one his heart ached for, he did something no decent Jewish man would ever do. He hiked up his robe, tossed dignity to the side, and ran. He ran bare-legged, not caring that the neighbors could see. Not caring that his passion was on display. Not caring that the whole of his world--who all knew the injury he'd suffered at the hands of his uncaring son--could now see forgiveness in motion. He didn't care about anything at all except getting his arms around his lost child. And when he reached his son, and grabbed him and wept on his neck, he ignored the boy's practiced plea. Instead, he raised his head and he raised a cry, "My son, who was dead, is home!" And the feasting began.
I always knew that a big part of the humiliation of crucifixion was that the condemned were naked, or nearly so. But after understanding the story of the Prodigal, I think of those bare legs of Jesus differently. To me, now, those are the legs of my Brother-Savior-Father, who willingly hiked his robe and ran to embrace me. And He runs still. Still today, when I've wandered from home and gone my own way, He watches the hill called repentence, and at the first sign of my head, He hikes those robes again.
My friend just disappeared over that hill. He left everything he'd built with a girl who loves him desperately; left his children, his home, his church family--all for a quest to go out and "be happy."
I can't stop watching the hill. I have no idea what darkness he'll find on the other side. I can't imagine how battle-scarred and soul-weary he'll be when I next see his face, but I do know one thing for certain. When I see him coming, I'm going to run.
Painting, The Prodigal, by Ron DiCianni