Text: Luke 15:11-32
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them, saying…
We are in the middle of a short series on the parable of the Prodigal Son, and today we will be focusing on the Prodigal himself. As we said last week, he really isn’t the most important character in this parable. It would be a great mistake to assume that Jesus’ intention was to teach us all about the Prodigal, why he did what he did, or what was going through his mind along the way. It would also be a mistake to hold the Prodigal Son up as some kind of exemplary character. We do not want every Christian to have to go through the experiences that the Prodigal goes through. But, having said that, I think that so many of us do focus on him because we have gone through periods in our lives which are very similar. We have all sinned, and many of us have experienced periods of separation from our friends and family, even from our God. There’s something powerful to the Prodigal’s story, and it is a picture of salvation. On the spiritual level, it is a picture of every salvation. While we may not all wander away and experience a dramatic turn-around in our own experience, it is still true that each of us were born sinners, born as prodigals, and it was only because God loved us unconditionally that we are saved.
This morning we will walk through the story of the Prodigal Son, observing some of the big ideas along the way. We will highlight the nature of his sin, the way in which he was able to turn from his sin, and then the love of the father which confounded his expectations. After that we will apply these observations to redemptive history, especially the 1st century in which Jesus was teaching. Finally, we will apply them to our own lives, seeing the ways in which we might have some of the same temptations as the Prodigal and some of the ways in which God also confounds our assumptions to love us despite ourselves.
Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.” (vs. 11-12)
This is the beginning of the Prodigal’s sin, and it really is an outrageous thing. He basically asks for his inheritance early. This would be like asking your parents today to go ahead and give you the things which they are planning on leaving to you in their will. It’s pretty scandalous. The implication is that you don’t really care about your parents and their lives. You just want your stuff. This reflects the arrogance and selfishness of youth, and while the Prodigal gets what he asks for, he’s also going to get what he’s got coming to him.
And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. (vs. 13-16)
Predictably as these things go for young men, the Prodigal Son goes off to a far country and wastes it all. In fact, the word “prodigal” means wasteful, and so he is named after his lifestyle. We see also that once his money ran out, his friends also deserted him. Notice how it says “no one gave him anything.” That’s how it goes, isn’t it? Friends are easy to come by as long as you are able to hand out favors. But once you lose everything, then only the true friends stick around. And the Prodigal had no true friends.
Now when we hear that he went off to a “far country,” we might think of going somewhere exciting or exotic, like moving to California or even to Europe. There’s something to that. But we should also think about this from a Jewish perspective. Above all this description means “Gentile country.” The fact that the son has to go to work for a swineherder highlights this fact. This was an extreme low-point, a degrading job associated with both physical dirtiness and religious uncleanness. And to top it all off, Jesus tells us that the Prodigal got to the point where he was envious of the pig food. Slop for breakfast would have been a blessing compared to what he was getting!
What we see is that God chastises us to teach us the folly of our sin. He brings judgment and periods of hardship upon us to teach us a lesson. The law breaks us so that the gospel can rebuild us aright. We must always remember that it is when we are most broken that God most reveals Himself. This brokenness is very often due to our own sin, its natural consequence, and yet God has a plan even for that. This low-point in the Prodigal’s life was, in a way, necessary for him to turn around.
The Turn Around
But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’ (vs. 17-19)
That expression “When he came to himself…” is a wonderful phrase. It is an idiom which means “he came back to his senses.” I think that it is the case that the Prodigal was thinking straight for the first time, maybe in his whole life. You see, sin makes you do dumb things, and the more you sin, the harder it is for you to think straight and to stop doing those dumb things. You become irrational, and you cannot see clearly until God brings you to a confrontation point. This is an important lesson to learn. No one ever just “gets better,” spiritually speaking. God has to open their eyes, and He very often does this through His judgment.
We do need to ask whether this is a conversion point. It might surprise you to know that I am not at all sure that it is. Oh in some ways, I suppose, it certainly is a conversion. The son sees that he has been wrong. “He comes to himself,” as we said, and he decides that he needs to change. He compares his situation to that of even the lowest in his father’s house, and he decides that he’d better make a change.
But in other ways, this is not a true conversion, at least not yet. Notice the Prodigal’s plan. “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him… I am no longer worthy to be called your son… make me like on of your hired servants.” Did you catch that, “not worthy.” The Prodigal still doesn’t understand the nature of his father’s love. He wants to “make it up” to the father by working as a slave. He doesn’t believe that he will be accepted back as a son, certainly not simply on the basis of his repentance and returning home, and so he devises a plan. He believes that if he lowers himself and does some act of servitude that perhaps then the father will help him out. This is what we might call works righteousness by self-deprecation. Even though he appears to be repenting and lowering himself, he’s still trying to make it up. In a way, he has a very similar point of few as the older brother. It isn’t grace.
Now, this sort of thing is pretty common. We see it in children when one hits the other and the other begins to cry or threatens to tell mom and dad. What will the kid usually do in this situation? “Oh, it’s ok. It’s ok. Hit me back. Then we’ll be even.” And so we can see that this self-deprecation is also a sort of self-justification. The Prodigal still hasn’t understood his father’s love. He thinks he will need to earn his way back to some sort of standing, and so he offers to become a slave. Maybe once he has proven that he’s good, he can be accepted. But as we said, this is all wrong, and Jesus is explicitly rejecting this false notion of grace by telling the rest of the parable.
Restoration to Sonship
The Prodigal’s plan doesn’t work because the father doesn’t even give him a chance to make the offer before he rushes to embrace him:
“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”
“But the father said to his servants, ‘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 fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.” (vs. 20-24)
Notice how the father takes the initiative. We will say more about this next week, but it is very important that the father rushes out and meets the Prodigal before he gets home. The father chooses to reconcile first, then, amazingly, he goes on to give him more blessings! The son does not have a chance to work his way back before this encounter, and the father shows absolutely no interest in accepting any sort of servitude as payment. I think we should remember that the Prodigal had truly been brought to a point of sorrow for his sin, and he was no longer continuing in that sin. So the father is not endorsing or subsidizing the earlier sinfulness of the son. But still, the father does not require the son to make things right or prove himself before he can love him again. Instead, his love is expressed freely and generously.
The son is given back his status as son, and then he is given more. The robe and ring are signs not just of sonship but of rule. The son is treated as one who is still an heir, one who has authority. And then on top of that, we see the celebration with the fatted calf. The father expresses his love with a celebration, and he wants everyone to join in. This is the final conversion point, when the son truly sees what the father’s love is and what it means to be a son. This is reconciliation.
As we said last week, Jesus told his parable in order to teach the Pharisees a lesson about how they were reacting to the Gentiles and “sinners” who were coming to him. He wanted the Pharisees to see that they were acting like the older brother and thus missing the grace of God. But, in another way, the Jews ought to have seen themselves in the Prodigal. After all, they were supposed to remind themselves constantly where they came from. From reading the Old Testament, they could see that Israel had often lived under bondage and abuse from Gentiles. More than that, however, they should have remembered those times in Exodus, and then again in the times of the Kings, when the children of Israel had gone after false gods and degraded themselves. And yet the Lord had mercy upon them and loved them anyway. The Prodigal Son is small beans compared to all of that, and so the 1st century Jews should have seen a little bit of themselves in him.
I do think it is appropriate for each of us to see some of ourselves in the Prodigal, as well. We are certainly all sinners like him, but we have also shown ingratitude towards our heavenly Father. He have even asked for our blessing early. We tell God that we don’t care that much about Him but rather only the good things He can give us. We may not think about it that way, but I would venture to say that all of us have done that from time to time. And perhaps we have even literally wandered away, leaving mother, father, home, and church, in order to chase our sins. If so, we should remember the dark power of that sin. We shouldn’t reminisce and long for those old days as if they were good, but instead we ought to be sad and regretful over them. The point of remembering is so that we don’t forget the lesson we learned, the wrongness and evilness of our sin, and the greatness of God’s forgiveness.
When we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son, we should remember who we are and where we came from. Remember that amazing love that God showed us. But don’t be trapped by this back-story. You are not to remain that person, the wayward prodigal who constantly makes mistakes. And you don’t have to prove to us how much better you’ve gotten. Don’t carry that weight. No, put the past in the past. Repent from your sins, believe that God really does forgive you, and then get on with it. Be set free by the knowledge that grace is free and that grace really changes things. Just like the father did to the Prodigal Son, God receives you back into His fellowship and clothes you with honor and glory. You are not just the Prodigal, but instead the son who has come back and is worth celebrating!
The Prodigal was a wasteful son. It’s true. And we are all prodigals when we follow after our sin. Yet, the Father loves us anyway and does not require us to pay Him back. This gospel will make us cease to be prodigal. Being loved by God will change you and turn you into a new person. But you don’t have to be the new person first. That’s what we see in Jesus’ parable. We offended God. We wasted what we were given. We ran away from Him and lived with the pigs. And yet He loved us anyway, took us back, and clothed us in the riches of glory. Amazing!
This point reminds me of the lines from Charles Wesley in the great hymn “And Can It Be?” I think it is my wife’s absolute favorite hymn, and the lyrics get right to the point:
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
The answer is yes, it can be. You prodigals found an interest in the Savior’s blood because God had an interest in you all along. He loved you and gave Himself for you that you might be children of God.
Let us pray.