Even if you are not a Christian, you may have heard of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A son asked for his portion of the inheritance from his father and disappeared. Then he showed up destitute after years in worn-out clothes and torn shoes and reduced to a skeleton. How must the father have felt seeing his son return like that? ‘Esplanchnisthe’ is a Greek word describing the father’s feelings at the time. Most Bibles, including the Korean version, translate it as ‘feeling sorry for’, but it seems insufficient to describe the intense and impulsive feelings the father must have felt.
According to philosopher Martha Craven Nussbaum, the literal translation of the word is ‘having internal organs pulled out’ or ‘swallowing internal organs,’ which means it involves intense physical reactions as if one’s internal organs are shaken. Whether the son expiates himself or not is not important, nor is the fairness with the kind eldest son. The father is overwhelmed with visceral feelings at the sight of his son and hugs him immediately. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn painted ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son,’ imagining the scene, highlighting the father’s face and the back of the son in shabby clothes.
The key of the parable told by Jesus is the emotions described by the Greek word. It is such intense feelings that shake the core of the father. Excessive feelings, or the excess of feelings, that go beyond the limitations of the language to the point that words like pity, compassion, and love feel secular. They are primitive emotions emerging from somewhere deep in internal organs, rather than your head. The word is used in a different story in the Bible. In the Gospels, the word is used to describe how Jesus felt looking at a widow who lost her son and attends a funeral wailing. It is such a warm, intense, and heart-breaking word. Merry Christmas.