The Prodigal Son
“A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.
Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.
But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!’ I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.’
So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.
Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’
But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’
And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’” Luke 15:11-32
Opening Points to Ponder:
Why would the father agree to give his younger son his share of the inheritance early? He must have known what was going to happen; couldn’t he have averted all that waste by just saying no?
Did the prodigal son really repent of his wasteful life or did he only return because he was hungry and desperate?
Does the older son have a point in expecting his brother to experience consequences for his bad decisions?
We always call this the Parable of the Prodigal Son but in truth there are three main characters in the story and in my estimation they have pretty much equal weight in the lessons they teach. Let’s look at each one of them and see if there is a lesson in there for each one of us.
First we have the prodigal himself. The word prodigal isn’t used much anymore except when we are talking about this parable but it means “recklessly extravagant; characterized by wasteful expenditure.” Ah yes, that was him all right. He was wasteful and reckless–but why? What did he think was going to happen when he ran out of his father’s money? He didn’t think things through did he?
No doubt this young man’s rebellious and prideful heart caused him to be rash and foolhardy. He wanted to live life his own way, out of his father’s control. I can hear him now, singing out heartily with Frank Sinatra the line of his famous song, “I did things MY way.” But HIS way eventually crashed and burned. Sin always ends up that way.
Do you see yourself in this young and foolish prodigal? I see myself. In truth, every one of us should see ourselves. “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6)
Ever since the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden we all have rebellious and selfish hearts, capable of just about any evil. It’s pretty easy for me to see how dumb the prodigal was to take off running with an early inheritance soon to run out but ignore all the times I foolishly rushed into sin. Let’s remember that point when we talk about the elder son in this story.
The young man may have been dumb in the beginning but he smartened up fast. In adversity and deep need (sitting in the middle of a pig pen) his pride was overcome and he found his way back to truth. Remember the line, “But when he came to his senses…” I well remember the moment when I came to my senses—do you remember yours?
So did he really repent or did he just want out of his troubles? His sorrow was genuine because repentance means to turn around and go the other way and that’s exactly what he did. He left the pigpen and went back to the one he had sinned against. He humbled himself. He was willing to accept whatever consequences the Father chose. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
What a beautiful picture of reconciliation. For all of us foolish prodigals it is an awesome relief to know there is an antidote for “the sin which so easily entangles us.” (Hebrews 12:1)
The Older Son
Next let’s examine the prodigal’s older brother. He did not rebel, did not foolishly run away with his fortune, and did not shirk his responsibilities. To his credit, he did not grieve his father’s heart. As he enters the parable he is returning from work in the field so we know he was a contributing member of the family—a good son.
But what did he find? A celebration of welcome for his wayward brother. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? He didn’t think so. “But he became angry and was not willing to go in.” Have you ever felt that evil was overlooked or even rewarded by God? Have you ever watched someone sin and secretly looked forward to the day that they would reap what they sowed? Have you ever longed for justice that would finally put your enemies in their place?
If I admit to you that I have some of the older son in me, will you join me and admit it too? We are told in the scriptures not to judge others but isn’t it one of the hardest sins to master? I find it so easy to pass sentence on others. I find it so easy to place myself above those who wallow in pigpens when I stick to the straight and narrow path.
Now think about this: the father was as gracious to the older son as he was to the younger. Rather than harshly reprimand him for not celebrating, the father gently appealed to him to join his joy. His appeal was not on the basis of justice (because justice would indeed have found guilt deserving of judgment) but of mercy. To the father, repentance trumps sin’s consequences—any kind of sin.
“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” Repentance provokes celebration. “’I tell you in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.’” (Luke 15:7)
How do you avoid the pitfalls of the older son? He fell into the trap of comparing himself to his younger brother and judged himself superior. What if he would have examined himself in light of his own sin, his own pigpen? He was not really above his brother but shared the common condition of sin that we all have—if we are honest. He could then be just as joyful as the father knowing that if his brother’s sin was covered through repentance, so could his own.
Finally we turn to the father, the true hero of the story. What an excellent father he was. Of course, he portrays our fabulous heavenly Father. Let’s examine how.
In the opening points to ponder, the question was asked: why didn’t he just say no when the prodigal son came to him and asked for an early payout of his inheritance? In charge of the purse strings, he could have prevented his son’s misadventure. What would that have accomplished? Yes he could have restrained his son from leaving but that would not have stopped the rebellion stewing in his heart. The father let him make his own choice even if the results would be disastrous.
Free will gives us a measure of control over our own life where we might feel overwhelmed by a God who is all knowing and all-powerful. By never violating our free will he levels the playing field (so to speak) with his human creation. He lets us sin if we choose to. But he also continuously looks for our return and hopes that by the same free choice we will love and serve him.
How was it that the father in the parable saw the son before anyone else “while he was still a long way off”? He was watching continuously wasn’t he? The older son was in the field and the servants were about their business working on the property but the father was searching the horizon for his beloved prodigal. Father God is still watching today for the return of every single prodigal out there. I’m so glad he watched for me!
Note: If you are a parent with a wayward child you might like to read some strategies for Praying the Prodigal Home.
Closing Challenge Points
What do you think of God’s decision to grant us free will? Would you have done it? If you were the father in the parable would you have given the inheritance early?
Do you compare yourself to others and find yourself superior? What can you do about that? What pigpens have you wallowed in?