Part 2 – The Parable of the Prodigal Son
(There is a further podcast set lower in the text)
Luke Chapter 15 English Standard Version*
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable . . .
. . . And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”
*The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Part 2 – The Parable of the Prodigal Son © Parva Press
In Part 1, we looked at the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, this time we look at the first part of the parable of the prodigal son and his elder brother.
The temptation to live in God’s world as if there were no God . . . is always with us. It is the constant inclination to ignore the Lord God, his commandments and his holy ways and so be free to do as we will and be the master of our own destiny. The Lord Jesus portrays this so vividly with the parable of the younger son saying, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will fall to me.’ What was he asking for? Like so many of us when young , he longed for independence; the ‘freedom’ and the ‘happiness’ that he believed was being denied him – and would be his, if he could escape home, do what he wanted, and have what he wanted when he wanted it, and had the money to pay for it.
By far the greater share of the inheritance would fall to the elder brother, and the younger son would be expected to stay and, with his elder brother, build-up the whole estate. Clearly, it is most honouring to the Lord God when family members can live and work in harmony. But was the younger son unwilling to do this? Or, could he see that once his father had died life would become impossible with such an elder brother? Why wait? He might as well ask his father to settle the inheritance now, escape home and so avoid the risk of being trapped as the unpaid slave of his elder brother. With the inheritance settled, he would be free and have wealth to do whatever he wished – and do so now.
John Calvin comments that young men, once they are determined to follow their desires and passions, are extremely head-strong. No matter how clearly destructive of themselves or of others, neither reason nor threats, neither fear nor shame will restrain them. Yet, what an affront; how offensive! ‘Father, could you break up your estate and regard yourself as dead – so that I can turn my back on you, leave home and please myself’ . . . but, of course, this is exactly how we treat Almighty God, our heavenly Father – in whose hand is our breath and all our circumstances.
Mirroring the Lord God’s treatment of us, with great patience and wisdom, the father did not refuse, confine or punish his son. Perhaps with great sorrow, he raised his share and let him go.
The younger son took the share and moved far away where he spent freely, not necessarily immorally as many commentators assume, but just carelessly; following the desires of the moment. He was a spend-thrift, a waster – a prodigal. However, the younger son’s share was a definite amount, not an income stream, and so, of course, after a while it ran out.
It takes effort, discipline and restraint to build-up and maintain a living, and none whatsoever to waste it. The turn of a card, a throw of dice and another round of drinks will do it. Anyone can waste money – and you can give such a person as much as you like and they will still run out. Unfortunately for the younger son, his wealth completely gave out just at the beginning of a severe famine.
The young man found himself in a desperate situation. Without money, no one cared about him. The new companions and admirers that his wealth had bought him had all melted away. He was friendless and penniless in a foreign country; no cousins, aunts or other relatives who might take pity on him; just on his own and in dire need of both food and shelter. He took what action he could to save himself and to save face. He took a job, but found himself exploited by a man who sent him to feed pigs. (As an aside, should we, or a member of our family, fall into that kind of situation we are wide open to exploitation, financial or moral – slave-labour or prostitution – and can easily find ourselves trapped inescapably – beware!)
As the murmuring scribes and Pharisees would well understand, for a Hebrew person to fall so low as to be feeding pigs was a terrible fate. But worse still was the gnawing hunger that made even the husks, probably wild carob pods, that the pigs were eating look desirable. And perhaps worst of all, that little phrase ‘nobody gave him anything’. He was quite dispensable. If he died it would matter to no-one; just one less hungry mouth in a time of severe famine.
The younger son had grasped at freedom – and found himself in slavery. He had grasped at wealth, and found himself in poverty. Far from securing happiness, he was in a desperate plight . . . . as, ultimately, we will find ourselves if we try to live in God’s world without reference to him.
A shaft of light; a glimmer of hope
John Calvin comments that we will not change our way of life until we come to see that we absolutely have to do so. Under the hand of God, as he compared life at home with his present situation, the younger son’s desperate hunger drove him to that point.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father.”
Facing inevitable death, ‘he came to himself’ – or, as we might say, he came to his senses. It was a dazzlingly clear moment of truth. He had escaped home and pursued his own desires but now it had all gone terribly wrong. Painfully clearly, he sees that he must turn his back on all that he had so desperately tried to gain by leaving home. Far from being the road to freedom, success and happiness, it had proved to be the road to his total ruin. There was only one option left to him; he must ‘lose face’, ‘eat humble pie’ and creep home. He had no other option but to throw himself on the totally underserved kindness and pity of his father.
I would have loved to have read, “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘I have wronged my father terribly, I will arise and go to him, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy . . .”’” That would have been a clear and noble statement of his genuine repentance. However, at this point, his priority does not seem to be, to humbly do all he could to put things right with his father – that will come later – but to escape starvation and fill his belly with bread. So we read, “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to him, and will say to him . . .’” How clearly our Lord sees and understands our self-centred ways!
The younger son’s resolve to return home with carefully chosen words of confession may have been his plan of action to escape death. Do note, however, that our Lord is portraying repentance from a human point of view. No matter how mixed our motives, once we have been given clear insight into our true and frightening situation before Almighty God, to take action – by throwing ourselves on his mercy – is our responsibility and the essential first step in true, biblical repentance.
The place of desperate times in the purposes of God
Surrounded by pigs and husks, the younger son’s eyes were opened and he resolved to change. It took his desperate hunger to bring him to this point but, now, he plainly sees that he must go home and plead for mercy. Can it be like that for us? On occasion, the Lord God does graciously use terrible times to open our eyes to see our mistakes and to open our ears to hear his voice. He uses disappointment, tragedy, even prison, to soften our hardened hearts to see the emptiness of our godless pursuit of the pleasures or the possessions of this world – despite all their enticing promises. Pain itself can be, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, God’s megaphone to call us to turn to him. How many of us have cause to thank God for such times. Perhaps we had an awareness of the Lord God in the background but, like the prodigal son, turned our back on him and on godly ways to ‘plough our own furrow’, to do ‘do our own thing’. It is not until we have some desperate wake-up call or find ourselves ‘floundering about,’ utterly lost, that we are enabled to see our need to get right with our heavenly Father; that with him, and with him alone, is life and without him we perish.
Sadly, we often want to be right with God and yet want to be so without being willing to leave the far country; without being willing to turn our back on godless ways. But the younger son was willing; he acted on his moment of solemn insight. He did not delay or linger in the far country. Ragged and penniless, starved and stinking of pigs he began to make his way home.
Certainly, I know of one young drug addict who was granted just such a God-given, life-changing insight. In an equally clear and dazzling moment, he saw his life, what he was doing, where it must lead and what he must do – and he did it. By God’s grace he totally turned his back on that lifestyle, cast himself on the mercy of God in the name of the one who told this parable and is now a radiant Christian, gladly working as a servant in his heavenly Father’s household.
Christians in the days of great preachers like Whitfield and Wesley had a word for this. They called it ‘awakening’. It is when, by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit of God, we ‘wake-up’ – or are ‘woken up’ – to our desperate situation before Almighty God, our need to be right with him, and are moved to take action; to flee to him for mercy.
(Exploring & Applying the Parables, Parva Press The Parable of the Prodigal Son continued)
The home-coming; a repentance that became deep and real
Initially, the younger son’s resolve to return home may have been due to his desperate need to secure bread, but there are clear signs that his repentance grew to be far deeper than that. In the far country, the younger son was pursuing his vision of a new life, free from any restraint whatsoever. All was going according to his wildest dreams . . . until the money ran out and the famine struck. But now everything had changed.
Faced with a famine, and with no one to help him, did he come to see that the apparent freedom of the far country was an illusion, a dazzling but empty mirage? That everything he had so taken for granted and turned his back on for his longed for ‘freedom’ was actually of great value? At home, as the family and the hired servants worked together as a team, even in a famine there was bread enough and to spare. Here, in his chosen far country, there was absolutely nothing. As a total outsider in a country faced with severe famine, ‘no one gave him anything’. He had made a terrible mistake and his only chance of survival was to return home and to cling to the one remaining thread of hope. Destitute and totally unworthy as he now was, he was still his father’s son. Maybe, his father would let him return, perhaps as a servant.
The justice he deserved? . . . . Or amazing grace, which he most certainly did not?
For the prodigal son of the parable there was still an insuperable barrier about which he could do nothing. There was only the slimmest of chances that his father would accept him, even as a hired servant. He had brought such public dishonour on his father as he damaged the family’s prosperity and totally wasted the family wealth. Would his father, let alone his elder brother and the men about him, ever let him return? Justice demanded that with rocks and stones, dogs and sticks, they would be determined to drive him away and make sure that he would never darken their doors again.
With the same thinking, the murmuring scribes and Pharisees would have kept these tax-gatherers and sinners from the kingdom of God. The people with whom the Lord Jesus was mixing and even eating had brought shame on the nation. Some had greedily devoured their fellow countrymen’s wealth; fattening themselves as they collected taxes for the Romans. Some of them, the ‘sinners’, had soiled everything the Pharisees professed to stand for. Far from welcoming their rescue and forgiveness, the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees would have loved to have been able to drive these tax-gatherers and sinners far from God’s Israel.
For these reasons, the scribes and Pharisees listening to the parable would naturally expect the father to make a ‘principled’ and ‘righteous’ response to the younger son’s attempt to return home. Although he was a son, they would be eager to see textbook justice applied impartially, and such a wayward son banished forever. But, to their horror, the parable takes a shocking twist. The father’s intention is very different from the strict course of justice that they were expecting. It mirrors the wonderful patience and mercy of the Lord God. Maybe the father been waiting and watching for this moment, for he saw his ragged, returning son while he was still a great way off. Eastern fathers rarely run, it is a matter of dignity and position. However, deeply moved with love and compassion and a determination to get there first, he ran to rescue, restore and forgive his precious, starving son.
Here is the vital heart of the parable; the tempering, even replacement, of ‘the demands of strict justice’ with mercy, with compassion. The scribes and Pharisees knew nothing of such compassion; of being moved to the depth of their being as the original has it. For the underlying word for ‘filled with pity’ or ‘moved with compassion’ is ‘moved to the depth of his being; to his bowels’. It is a key word, often used by the Lord as he illustrated what he was doing, and by the gospel writers as they record how the Lord Jesus was deeply moved by the lostness, pain and suffering of those before him. It was out of compassion that he taught the great crowds, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and set captives free. It was out of compassion that he was taking the trouble to help and rescue these tax collectors and sinners.
Such compassion had no place in the thinking of the scribes and Pharisees. How could you ‘perfectly keep the Law’ if, out of compassion, you were constantly breaking it? By healing on the Sabbath and, as now, eating with sinners, this is exactly what the Lord Jesus was doing – and it caused the scribes and Pharisees great offence. However, compassion was the hallmark of our Lord’s ministry and has been the hallmark of his true followers ever since.
A repentance that became deep and true
In love and pity for his son, the father’s greeting was not a well-deserved ‘get out and never come back’ nor even ‘go and wash and I’ll see you later’ but there and then, publicly, he restored and honoured his son. Filthy and stinking as he was, his father fell on his neck, embraced and welcomed him.
Matthew Henry notes that as the younger son actually comes to confess his failure and unworthiness to be regarded as a son, he did so not before – in order to win his father’s favour – but after his father had embraced and welcomed him. So, clearly, by this time his sorrow for his blindness and error had become both real and deep. This was a genuine repentance, with a longing to be right with his father.
Receiving such totally undeserved and overwhelming forgiveness, the younger son poured out his confession. It was ‘against heaven’, against the Lord God, that he had sinned as well as before his father. He had turned his back on his father and on his duties as a son. He had pampered himself and fulfilled his desires at his father’s expense and ultimately had wasted everything. He freely acknowledged that he had sinned against heaven, failed to ‘honour his father’, and had justly forfeited the privileges of being a son.
The younger son offered no explanations, excuses, extenuating circumstances or defences. He just said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ Not, says Joseph Parker, till we both feel and own our utter unworthiness, our nothingness, will he, our heavenly Father, put all heaven into our hearts. For us to come to that point can be as long a spiritual journey, as it was a physical one for the younger son. A real and deep outpouring of the heart, in tear-stained repentance, faith and gratitude, may well be brought about as it seems to have been in this parable, by an overwhelming awareness of the greatness of our heavenly Father’s mercy and love toward us.
The joy of heaven over one sinner who repents
With fine clothes, the father restored his son, not to slavery but to son-ship. With sandals and a ring, he gave him not a position of servant-hood but of authority in the household. Finally, to seal the welcome and forgiveness of his son and leave no room for doubt, he ordered a lavish, public celebration.
Just as in the parables of the rescued sheep and recovered coin, there is great joy over the young man who was dead and is alive – family, friends and neighbours rejoicing together over the son who was lost and is found. As in those parables, the music and feasting is a picture of the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
What a beautiful picture of true repentance. It begins with the Holy Spirit opening our eyes to see our true and desperate situation before God and where it must lead. Such an awakening stirs us to turn our back on God-ignoring ways, and, with feeble trust, put our hopeless case before him and plead for his forgiveness. As with the younger son, such a genuine turning and seeking his forgiveness is met by the overwhelming mercy and generosity of our heavenly Father. Totally unworthy as we are, he clothes us with the ‘robe of his righteousness’, restores, forgives and adopts us as the sons and daughters of his household and calls all heaven to rejoice.
However, until we are ‘awakened’, we will comfortably go on in our blindness, living in this world as if we were not accountable to God and, like the young son, doing as we please. Or else, like the religious leaders to whom Jesus was speaking, presuming that we are fine before the Lord God and again doing as we please, but this time doing it wearing a cloak of law-abiding respectability and religion.
As ‘sinners’ or as ‘Pharisees’, we desperately do need to be enabled to see our true plight before Almighty God, the judge of all the earth, and our need to be right with him. Not until we do, will we turn to him in genuine repentance and plead for forgiveness. Not until we do will we be given, freely given, that which is of greater value than anything this world can offer – the precious ‘jewel’ of mercy, forgiveness and adoption as a child of God in and through his Son, the Lord Jesus, who told these searching parables.
The kingdom of God is filled with totally undeserving sinners who have come home to the Lord God; who have cried to him for mercy and have been given far more than any of us could ever hope for, let alone deserve. The true sons and daughters of God are made so by the totally unmerited favour of God; rescued, restored, forgiven and brought into the family by grace alone – just like the prodigal son.
‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’
Can you sing with John Newton?
‘Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.’
Or, like the scribes and Pharisees, does the very thought of being found a wretch before Almighty God appal you; do you regard yourself as just fine and in need of no repentance?
Heavenly Father, have mercy upon us, show us with great clarity where we really stand before you. By your grace enable us to turn our back on our deeply ingrained, self-seeking ways and run to you knowing that our only hope lies in your unmerited, undeserved mercy and favour offered to us in and through your Son.
(Exploring & Applying the Parables, Parva Press The Parable of the Prodigal Son continued)
The great danger of ritual without reality
It is reasonable to ask, was the younger son’s decision to return home with carefully chosen words true repentance or was it his final attempt to save himself? Although he had in mind very suitable words of confession, the usual word for repentance is not used here as it is in the first two parables. With his words, was he hoping to win back a place in the family? Kenneth Bailey, noting, in the young man’s intended speech to his father, the provision to live independently as a hired servant, calls it, ‘the repentance of a man who thinks he can save himself’; the ‘repentance’, of a man who sees this one last chance of rescuing himself from disaster. As a hired servant he might even hope to repay his father, regain respect and keep safely independent of his brother.
The younger son was clearly right to see that it was essential take action and that he must throw himself on the mercy of his father. However, although well-chosen words may secure a great deal in human relationships, they do not impress the One who looks on the heart. John the Baptist had very strong things to say those who thought that mere words or ritual would win God’s favour. Seeing the religious leaders and great crowds of people coming to him for a baptism of repentance, John said, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’
In the power of God, John was calling the people of Israel to repent and prepare for the coming Messiah; proclaiming the truth that the anger of God rests on those who live in his world but, in practice, ignore both him and his commandments. Therefore it was essential for his hearers to take action. Like the prodigal son, it was a clear choice of life or death. However, it was not just a matter of going through the outward ritual of baptism; but of being convicted by God and moved to turn from ungodly ways of living and moved to beg for his mercy and forgiveness. Only then would it be right to be baptised by John.
On the Day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter warned his hearers to ‘save themselves’ from a generation under the judgement of God. Again, for the devout Jewish people gathered before him, to take action was essential if they were not to perish. Full of the Holy Spirit of God, Peter urged them to cast themselves on the mercy of God, to repent of their rejection of their true Messiah, Yeshua, the Lord Jesus, and to be baptised in his name. Three thousand men were moved by God to do just that.
Our own schemes and devices, our parents and friends or our church can put impressive words of repentance on our lips and wonderful songs of worship in our mouths. However, as this parable shows, genuine repentance and deeply felt gratitude are a work of God. They are drawn from the depths of our hearts as in total unworthiness we turn to Almighty God for mercy and personally experience his amazing love and forgiveness.
God in whose hand is our breath, Daniel 5:23
Failed to honour his father, Exodus 20:12
Robe of righteousness, Isaiah 61:10
Came to seek and to save the lost, Luke 19:10
Who warned you? Luke 3:7
Warned them to save themselves, Acts 2:40
Questions for reflection or discussion
- How natural is it for us to want to break free from the ‘restrictions’ of godly ways and follow our own desires? Where does it ultimately lead?
- Why is it so hard for us to turn our backs on a godless way that we have chosen?
- How dangerous was it for the younger son, and can it be for us, to run out of money far from friends and family?
- Although terrible at the time, why might the younger son come to bless God for the famine and for his desperate hunger?
- Has the Lord God used particularly difficult times to open your eyes, draw you to himself or to speak to you?
- Have you a story of the amazing mercy and forgiveness of our heavenly Father?
- Does justice demand that we should be driven far from the presence of the Almighty and All-Holy God?
- How aware are you of facing the ‘wrath to come’; the judgement of Almighty God? The modern church may not make it plain but does the Bible?
- How easy is for us to presume on the forgiveness of the Lord without turning from our ungodly ways?
- How hard is it for us to humble ourselves before our heavenly Father and acknowledge our total unworthiness of his mercy and favour?