READ : Luke 15:11-24
Jesus’ best known parable was a story about a young man who demanded his
inheritance, left home and lost everything, including himself. But in the end, he was found again.
Even if you do not know very much about Jesus you probably know that he was a great teacher, and that he often used stories or parables to illustrate themes about God and his kingdom. A parable takes a familiar experience from nature or everyday life and uses it to illuminate some spiritual truth and drive that truth home. Just as a parable makes the truth more clear, so it also makes it unforgettable. We might forget a sermon about grace or a lesson on God’s forgiveness, but who could forget the story of a rebellious boy who comes back home from a far country and is welcomed by his loving father?
That is the story, of course, of the prodigal son. It’s the most famous of all Jesus’ parables, and this is how he told it.
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
Luke 15:1-2, 11-24
What was the truth that Jesus wanted to illuminate in his story about the prodigal son? In the first place, it’s a truth about humanity about us. Consider what this reckless, rebellious young man this lost son represents. He’s actually a picture of the human condition, of the alienated human race living far away from God. With masterful artistry Jesus sketches in a few telling phrases the estrangement, hopelessness and tragedy of people who are on the run from God. Look at the boy there in the middle of the story. Notice where he was in “a distant country,” a long way from home, having abandoned his father’s house. In a word, he’s lost!
Second, observe what the prodigal did there. Jesus said he “squandered his wealth in wild living” (v. 13). The young man had a great time so he thought for a while, but the morning after dawned with a vengeance. Soon his money was used up, wasted in a feverish attempt to enjoy “the good life.” Then, as we say, there was hell to pay. When the man’s money was gone his friends soon disappeared as well. Then a famine broke out in the land, and he began to be in want. He suffered. He felt the pinch of hunger in his belly; he found himself with nowhere to live, no one to turn to. At last, this boy who had been a son of the Master finally hired himself to be the servant of a pig farmer (and remember how Jews felt about pigs!) This was the most degrading position imaginable. The young man had sunk as low as he could possibly go.
Sooner or later the exciting taste of sin turns to bitterness in our mouths. It always leads to disaster. One of the greatest lies we entertain is the idea that evil is fun and exciting, while good is dull and boring. A life of freedom from God and his troublesome rules and restrictions, a life given over to the single-minded pursuit of pleasure looks so appealing. But such a life turns out to be slavery, and those who devote themselves to it end up alone, ruined, miserable, slumped in the mud of a pig pen somewhere far from God and home.
Finally, remember how the prodigal son got to that place. This was not a young man who suffered from a deprived childhood or abusive parents. He was not a victim of a bad environment. He had only himself to blame for the mess he ended up in. Remember how this boy demanded his inheritance so he could pursue his desires with complete freedom. He insisted on having his own way. “Give me what’s mine!” was his cry (cf. verse 12). Home was dull and life should sparkle; he had a right to some fun, didn’t he? So why should he stay under his father’s care? It was a scene that was first played out in the Garden of Eden, and has been repeated countless times since; as many times, in fact, as there have been human actors to fill the role.
So there the boy was, suffering because of his own stupidity and selfishness; helpless now, unhappy and alone. When we look at him, we must think of how we once may have been, of how all people who don’t know Christ still are. Everyone is born “in a distant country.” The first humans, our parents Adam and Eve, were made by God in his image and for his glory. They were given a perfect home in God’s new world. They enjoyed an intimate relationship with God. But they threw all of that away, preferring instead to have their “freedom,” convinced that they could do better on their own. And now everyone suffers in an exile that is all the more painful because of our longing, a longing which whether we realize it or not is for our Father’s home.
The boy in the pigpen reminds us that we are lost. The prodigal son represents us, at least those of us who are living apart from Jesus Christ. “Lost” is a word we don’t use as much as we used to in Christian circles. It sounds rather crude and embarrassing. But even as the word becomes more rare, the condition becomes more and more obvious in our world.
John Stott has written that the tragedy of modern people is that so many who were made by God, like God, and for God, are nevertheless living without God in the world. This is the fate of those who have rebelled against God and want to live on their own terms. Look around and you can see the signs of lostness everywhere. You see them in the faces of modern men and women who are desperately searching for love and intimacy, even as they divorce one another at a dizzying rate.
Lostness describes a society where people remember game show trivia but have forgotten God; where polls measure everything but no one cares about truth; where goodness is laughed at and lawlessness and brutality are celebrated. A society that displays an indifference to the value of every human life, and an unwillingness to protect the lives of the most weak and defenseless of all the unborn, the aged, the handicapped that society can only be described as lost. Meanwhile look at people all around and see their increasing moral and especially sexual confusion, together with a sense of purposelessness, emptiness, despair. That is what being lost looks like today.
If the first part of the story of the prodigal son is a picture of human lostness, the second half is one of human conversion. The turning point comes in one brief sentence: “He came to his senses.” Isn’t that a marvelous phrase? It means that the boy recognized where he was. He looked around and suddenly his eyes were opened so he saw things as they really were. “This is pleasure?” he thought to himself. “This is glamorous and exciting, sitting here in the mud? This is the good life the devil promised and my selfishness craved? No, this is slavery!”
If you are lost, the first, all-important step is to recognize it, admit it to yourself and to others, especially to God. We need to have our eyes opened to reality, to understand our true condition apart from God, to see how miserable we are without Christ.
So the first step in conversion is to come to our senses and see the truth about our need for the Lord. The second step is to turn for home. As he sat with the pigs the young man remembered his father’s house. He looked out at his depressing surroundings and said to himself, “I don’t belong here. I’ve made a terrible mess of my life. But I’m still a child of my father. I’ll go home and see if he will have me back, perhaps as one of his servants.” So that’s what the boy did. This prodigal son turned for home with repentance in his heart and confession on his lips no boasting, no claims of merit, no insistence on getting what was coming to him, not any more. Now just an acknowledgment of sin and a plea for mercy was on his lips.
The Waiting Father
What comes next takes us to the point of the story and into the very heart of God. What Jesus really wanted to show in this parable wasn’t just a truth about people and our lostness, but a truth about God and his amazing grace. Despite its familiar name, this isn’t really the parable of the prodigal son. In the phrase of the fine German preacher and theologian Helmut Thielecke, this is the parable of “The Waiting Father.” God is actually the main character. When the boy came to his senses and was able to see things clearly at last there in the distant country, he didn’t really find himself. He didn’t make his own way home. He was found. As we sing: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
What the story of the prodigal son tells us is not just how to find our way home, but what we find when we get there. We find that our heavenly Father has been waiting all along to welcome us, that he rushes out to greet us. And then we understand: it was really he who came to find us when we were in the far country.
How does God feel about us? He feels the way the father in Jesus’ story did he longs for us with deepest love. How does God treat returning sinners? With amazing grace. He doesn’t rebuff them, not even an “I told you so.” He doesn’t place them on probation. He doesn’t meet them with conditional acceptance. He doesn’t say, “Let’s put you in with the servants for a while and let you prove whether or not you mean it when you say you’re sorry. I want to see if you’ve learned your lesson.” No the father throws a party. “Bring me a robe, kill the calf, rejoice and make merry with me.” When even one sinner is brought back home there is a party in heaven. Who can resist a God like that?