READ : Luke 15:11-24
Parables help the truth to hit its mark. They drive it deeper into our hearts. We might forget a sermon on grace or a lesson about God’s forgiveness, but who can forget the story of a rebellious boy who runs off to a distant place until he realizes what a terrible mistake he’s made and decides to go home, only to be welcomed with open arms by his loving father?
Today we begin a new series of studies entitled “Stories Jesus Told.” “And he taught them many things in parables,” says Matthew in his Gospel (Matthew 13:3), speaking of the teaching ministry of the Lord Jesus. We can picture him sitting in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, or on a nearby hillside, with the listening crowd gathered around, or walking down a dusty country road, trailing disciples like a kite with a tail, or reclining at table at a Pharisee’s dinner party. Everywhere we see him in the Gospels, it seems, Jesus is teaching, using parables or stories. Even people who have little knowledge of the Bible know something about Jesus’ parables. Everyone knows what “a good Samaritan” is or who the prodigal son was.
What is a parable? Many of us might recall a definition from our childhood Sunday school days: a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” That is essentially right. The word parable comes from a Greek word meaning a comparison; a parable takes something familiar from nature or everyday life and uses it to illuminate the truth and drive it home.
Abraham Lincoln, no mean storyteller himself, once said that God used parables “because they are easier for the common folks to understand and recollect.” The great English preacher Charles Spurgeon once published a book of stories and illustrations that he called Feathers for Arrows. That’s how parables work; in fact, the book’s title itself is a sort of parable. Parables help the truth to hit its mark. They drive it deeper into our hearts.
We might forget a sermon on grace or a Sunday school lesson about God’s forgiveness, but who can forget the story of a rebellious boy who selfishly takes his inheritance and runs off to a distant place, where he lives it up for awhile, until, all his money wasted and all his supposed friends gone, he realizes what a terrible mistake he’s made. So he decides to go back home again, hoping that he might just be allowed back as a hired hand only to find that his father welcomes him with open arms and a joyful celebration.
That, of course, is the most famous of all Jesus’ stories. It’s an outline of the parable of the prodigal son. You probably know the details of the story, but think with me about what those details teach us.
First of all what the particulars teach us about ourselves. Consider that young prodigal son he is really a picture of us, of humanity in its lostness rebelling against God, living without God and without hope in the world (as the apostle Paul puts it). With masterful artistry in a few telling phrases Jesus sketches all the selfishness, estrangement and hopelessness of humanity on the run from God. Look at the boy in the middle of the story. Jesus says he was living in “a distant country.” In other words, he was a long way from home, away from his father’s house.
Someone has said that the greatest tragedy of modern people is that so many who were made by God (for he is our Creator) and made like God (for we are made in his image and likeness) and made for God (for we were meant to know God and to glorify and enjoy him forever) are nevertheless living so far from God in the world. That’s the prodigal son.
And then, observe what the boy did there in the far country. Jesus said he “squandered his wealth in wild living” (v. 13). In other words, he had a great time for awhile. Or at least he thought he was having a great time. But the morning after dawned with a vengeance. A famine arose, and he began to be in need. His friends all left him. He had no more money. He felt the pinch of hunger in his belly. He sank lower and lower until this boy who had been the son of the master finally sold himself to be the slave of a pig farmer.
Sooner or later the champagne of sin turns to ashes in our mouth. A life of freedom from God and rules, a life with the license to do whatever feels like fun, a life that looks so exciting and enjoyable, turns out to be nothing but slavery and suffering. And we end up all alone, ruined, miserable, slumped in the mud of a pig pen.
Finally, remember how this son of privilege got there. This was not a young man who suffered from a deprived childhood, or who had abusive parents. He was not the victim of a bad environment. There was only himself and his own choices to blame. He had demanded his inheritance, his freedom. He insisted on having his own way. “Give me mine!” was his cry (cf. v. 12). Home was dull and life should sparkle. He had a right to some fun, so why should he stay under his father’s rule? I know what I want and I want it now!
It was a scene first played out in the Garden of Eden by God’s original children. That same scene 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, rebellious and suffering for it, unhappy and alone, lost.
When you and I look at him, we must see ourselves and all people in their natural state. We are living “in a distant country.” We were made by God in his image and for his glory. We were given a home in his creation, but we willfully threw it all away preferring instead to have our “freedom,” convinced what we could make it on our own. Now we suffer in an exile that is all the more painful because we have only ourselves to blame.
If the first part of Jesus’ story is a picture of the sinful human condition, the second half is a wonderful portrayal of human conversion. The turning point comes in this marvelous phrase: “He came to his senses.” Isn’t that wonderful? It means the prodigal son recognized where he was. He looked around and his eyes were opened so that he saw things as they really were. “This is pleasure? This is glamorous and exciting, sitting here in this slime? This is the good life the devil promised and my selfishness craved? No, this is slavery. This is misery!”
The first, all-important step is to see sin for what it is, to understand your true condition apart from God, and to recognize where you really are. Paul said that the reason people don’t believe in God and turn to Christ is because “the god of this world has blinded their minds, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Satan is blinding people to the reality of their situation. He convinces them that they’re happy living in sin. But God can open the eyes of the blind.
The first step in conversion is to come to your senses, to open your eyes and to see the truth. The second step is to turn back toward home. The young man remembered his father’s house; he looked about him and he said, “I don’t belong here. This is all a lie. I’m a child of my father I’m going home again.” So he did. He went back with repentance in his heart and confession on his lips, no swaggering, no claims, no insistence any longer on getting what was coming to him, just a plea for mercy.
What comes next takes us to the real point of the story and into the very heart of God. Here’s the conclusion of Jesus’ parable.
While the boy 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.”
In the most significant sense this parable isn’t really the story of the prodigal son. As the great German preacher Helmut Thielecke titled it, it’s really the story of “The Waiting Father.” As in the other two parables recorded in Luke 15, the parable of the Lost Sheep and of the Lost Coin, it is God himself who is the main character. To remember that is to realize just how it was that the boy came to his senses and was able to see things clearly at last, sitting there in the pigpen way off in the distant country. He didn’t find himself. He was found. He didn’t just decide on his own to go back home. He was drawn there by his father’s invincible love.
So here is the point, the “heavenly meaning” of this earthly story. This is how God feels about you and me. He feels the way the father in Jesus’ story did deeply longing for us to come to him, loving us with a love too great for words. How does God treat us when we repent and return home once more? With amazing grace. He doesn’t scold us, not even an “I told you so.” He doesn’t put us on probation. He doesn’t meet us with a conditional acceptance or a cautious reception: “Let’s put you in with the servants for a while until you prove yourself. After all, I need to see if you really mean it, if you’ve learned your lesson.” No that’s not God. God throws a party. “Bring me a robe, kill the calf, rejoice and make merry with me for my child who was dead is alive. The one who was lost is found.”
Can you resist a father like that? I know I can’t.