To enjoy the Father’s good things, prodigal sons run far away to squander their inheritance, but the Father loves them so much he rushes to forgive and celebrate their repentant homecoming. Give up your sin which will destroy you and come home to your Father.
Introduction – Here we have perhaps the best known and most beloved parable in all the Bible. It touches us deeply because it speaks so profoundly to our fallen human condition. We all have an unquenchable thirst for fulfillment. Everyone has a fundamental need to be happy, to be loved, to be forgiven. Face it, you know deep down that if those you love most knew the darkest secrets of your heart, if you would reveal yourself in total vulnerability to them, then they might reject you. We often fear the same of God. We have little trouble believing God will forgive us of sins we consider small. But when we really blow it by committing sins we consider big, or commit many sins that together seem big, we doubt God could love us anymore, and if he takes us back it would only be as second class children.
I. A Divided Family
A. Jesus with the tax collectors and “sinners” (v. 1)
We must remember the context of this parable. Jesus is being criticized for eating with social outcasts and “sinners.” Tax collectors in Jewish culture were like student employees of Tek Tow in Blacksburg, VA. They were hated, avoided, and considered traitors. “Sinners” were social misfits like the poor, crippled, blind, and lame (Lk 14:21), and also those who lived a sinful lifestyle.
B. A father with two sons (vv. 11-12)
1. The father in the parable is a very wealthy man. Outside the Bible, the word that translates his property refers to a considerable estate. He has two sons, and when the younger, who is probably meant to be a teenager, asks for his share of the inheritance, the father complies and divides his estate between his two sons. According to Jewish law and custom, the younger son would receive half the amount of property allotted to the older son. Thus the younger son inherited one third, while the older son received a two thirds share.
2. Usually sons received their inheritance upon the father’s death. Sometimes a father would give away the capital but retain the income for the purpose of retiring from managing the estate. A son was allowed to sell the capital if it had been given to him, but the buyer could not take possession of the capital until the father’s death. This situation is different. It is scandalous for this young man to demand his share. It is as if he wishes his father dead. Then he liquidates his father’s assets which in essence robs his father of a living. Yet in this parable the father lets his son have his own way, picturing how God the Father permits sinners to go their own way.
II. From Easy Street to Skid Row
A. The prodigal dream (v. 13)
1. He didn’t waste any time to set out on his own. Only a few days later he gathered up his property and set out to a far country. He must have converted all his property (which we are to assume included land and livestock) into money. Such a quick sale suggests he was more interested in converting his assets to cash than in getting fair market value. It seems he is already revealing his foolishness and his prodigal plan to live recklessly. When he got there he squandered all his money in reckless living. Jesus doesn’t give us details, so we are meant to fill in the blanks with the kinds of things that “sinners” were known to do. Everyone hearing the parable knew what this kind of reckless living and prodigal spending of the father’s property looked like (cf. Ezek 16).
If you’ve observed typical high school students in today’s culture, you know that sometime during their last year most are infected with that contagious disease called “senioritis.” On the first day of my senior year of high school, one of my fellow classmates showed up in the parking lot before school dressed for a pep rally and holding a huge sign that read, “Only 183 more days of school!” But the anticipation for liberty, freedom, and parties only grows. First it’s the after graduation party, then Beach Week, then college away from home, and finally the apex of the party mountain: Spring Break, where you can be as reckless and wild as you want to be, with no consequences. At least that’s how the myth goes. The thing to remember is that Spring Breakers are really no different than the typical young person yearning for some faraway place to “have a good time.” Small towns and small churches are full of people like this. Some young people see themselves as here against their will, only biding their time when they can move away and experience some excitement away from the hometown crowd. The fear is getting stuck in an insignificant town with the same boring, unsuccessful, conservative neighbors who never have any fun. There is a sense that such places are like a community “black hole.” If you don’t get out at first chance, you may never get out! And then there are the folks who grow up to put down roots yet long to escape for a little illicit adventure. But they can’t seem to figure out how to pull it off. It seems that people have always been the same. It’s why the saying, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” resonates with so many who want an escape from responsibility, family, and respectable behavior. This young man looked forward to excitement, new people, parties, alcohol, and sex far away from dad, far away from God.
2. Picture the scene as Jesus tells this parable. The “younger brother” types become deathly quiet, lowering their eyes and hanging their heads. They like being with Jesus even though they know he does not approve of their prodigal lifestyle. What will he say next? Will he condemn all “younger brothers”?
B. The prodigal nightmare (vv. 14-16)
1. The prodigal set off with a fortune, yet he managed to spend every last penny. Then a severe famine arose in the country where he lived. Murphy’s Law strikes again! Due to the severity of the famine, the prodigal cannot rely on the generosity of his new friends. Now there is little food to go around. He who was once rich and spendthrift is now needy and hungry.
2. So the prodigal gets a job to pay the bills. He had dreams that sin would set him free, but all it got him was slavery (Jn 8:34). He had set out to find himself but only found himself lost. He hires his services out to a Gentile who promptly sends him into the fields to feed pigs, probably the most degrading, undesirable, ceremonially unclean job imaginable (Lev 11:7; Dt 14:8). By doing so he has compromised his heritage by sinning against his “Jewishness.” The rabbis considered pig breeders to be cursed. He is now a man without a family, without a people.
3. The bottom: but “no one gave him anything.” The prodigal, who had spent his wealth entertaining worldly friends, is completely deserted. He is hungry, longing to eat the carob tree pods that he feeds the pigs. He learned that money can’t buy love or happiness, and that the things money can buy will not satisfy if you ignore the things that money cannot buy. His life at this point tragically illustrates how sin will literally ruin a person.
C. The insanity of sin (v. 17)
Then he realizes that while he is dying of starvation with little hope of things improving, his father’s hired servants are at home with more than enough bread to eat. Finally the prodigal son comes to his senses. The text literally says “he came to himself” as if he was not in his right mind before. This is what sin does to people (Ps 73). One might say he went insane in his sin, ending up as more of beast than a man (cf. Ps 73:21-26; Dan 4:15-16).
“Sin is socially acceptable madness. It cannot and will not ever work.” “Although we were made to have God as the one life-shaping treasure of our hearts, sin turns us in on ourselves. It causes us to forget who we are and that God exists. It turns us into little self-sovereigns, wanting to reign for our own glory. But God, in his grace, invaded our madness in the person of His Son. Jesus did not transgress God’s boundaries. He did not live for his pleasure. He lived a life that was perfect in his Father’s eyes. But he did more, he willing took the penalty of our selfishness on himself. On the cross he was punished for us and purchased our forgiveness. But there is still more. He gave us his righteous. In Jesus, all who believe not only don’t get what they deserve (condemnation), they are given what they have not earned (righteousness). Because of this forgiveness and righteousness, we are accepted into God’s family forever. Psalm 73 reminds us that the greatest crisis of our human existence is not that we are horizontally unfulfilled, but that we are vertically cut off. Grace connects us once again to God, and in so doing, to the one place where our hearts can find rest and we can be given back our senses. Grace not only connects you to God, but delivers you from you and from the madness of you and your propensity to make life about you in the here and now” (Paul Tripp, The Insanity of Sin).
III. An Ending Too Good Not to Be True
A. The humility of repentance (vv. 18-20a, 21)
1. Not only does he come to his senses, but he is spiritually awakened. He realizes what he had done may have been fun for a while, but as sin it gave birth only to misery and death. He knows that he has sinned not only against his father but also against God his heavenly Father. By breaking the tenth commandment (do not covet) and the first (no other gods but the LORD), he proceeded to break the fifth (honor your parents) and all the rest (cf. Ex 20:3-17). So he resolves that he will return home to his father and confess his sin. The picture of the penitent is classic. He is not sorry for what he has lost, but for what he has done and who he has offended.
2. The prodigal demonstrates the genuine character of his repentance by not seeking restoration based on his right as son and heir. No, he resolves to tell his father that he is no longer worthy to be called a son. Instead he will ask his father to treat him as one of the other hired servants. As a hired servant and not a restored son, he would also not impose on his older brother’s inheritance (another genuine sign of his repentance).
3. Notice the prodigal didn’t merely decide or plan to return home. He acted on his guilty conscience and actually repented. He arose from his squalor and came to his father. This was both emotionally difficult (since he was unsure how he would be received by his father) and physically difficult (since the long trip would have been arduous in his weakened condition). But he persevered in the strength God gave and made it home. Now try to hear this parable for the first time with those tax collectors and “sinners.” “But what will happen when his father sees him? Will his father accept an apology and hire him as a servant, or will the father shame him and send him away? Does God really still love me?” The prodigal son and Jesus’ audience must be waiting with bated breath for the father’s response. Everything hangs in the balance!
B. The extravagance of grace (vv. 20b-24)
1. While the prodigal was still a long way off, his father saw him coming home and felt compassion welling up inside him (cf. Jer 30:18; Hos 11:1-9). He must have known what his younger son was feeling—guilt, shame, humiliation, fear. With unbridled (and socially undignified) joy the father ran out to meet his son on the road. Before his son got a word in edge-wise, he embraced and tenderly kissed his son again and again. What a beautiful picture of the extravagant love of God! All doubt of how the father would respond falls away. God does love prodigals after all (Jn 3:16-17)!
2. Then the son begins his “I’m sorry” speech. But the father does not permit his son to finish, cutting him off before the part when the son plans to ask to be a hired servant. Of course the father would never have kept his son on as an employee. Can you imagine? “Welcome to Father and Sons, er, Father and SON Enterprises. You can start tomorrow in the mail room.” No! The running, the embrace, the kiss. The laughter, the smiles, the tears. They all reveal the father’s desire to completely restore his son. So the father calls to one of his servants to bring meaningful provisions for his son: the best robe, a ring, and sandals. The robe signified family status; the ring was a symbol of family authority; sandals are a free man’s privilege since bondservants went barefoot. He is forgiven, full and free.
I remember an instance immediately after a worship service when a prodigal child was restored to the fellowship of the church. A teenage girl had sinned and become pregnant. Sometime later (before giving birth to her child), the girl and her family came privately to the elders of the church. She confessed her sin and showed the fruit of repentance. The elders were convinced her repentance was not merely remorse or regret, so they restored her as a forgiven child of God and received her back with open arms. What happened next left an indelible mark on my memory. That Sunday the elders brought the teenage girl and her family before the church to share pertinent details, and how they had received her back in love and forgiveness, fully restored as a child of God. Then they gently warned the congregation that we also must fully forgive her and celebrate her return to God with the church, and if anyone had a problem with that, then they had a problem with the elders. It was not a threat forcing people to extend forgiveness, but a reminder that to not forgive and celebrate her return put one at odds with God and his church. It was a beautiful demonstration of protection and defense of a vulnerable prodigal child come home.
3. Time for a real party! The father orders the fattened calf—the one that is grain fed; the calf saved for a special occasion (cf. Gen 18:7; Amos 6:4), brought and prepared for food to celebrate. What is the occasion? Not the self-indulgence or mere presence of the prodigal, but for his repentance and return to the family. He announces aloud that from where his son had been compared to now, it is as if he was dead but is now alive again. As if he was lost but is now found again. “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10; cf 15:7). This is what God’s kingdom looks like. It is full of people who were spiritually dead but made alive, fully alive and free, and celebrated in Christ (Jn 5:24; Eph 2:1-10; Lk 19:10).
Conclusion – Are you living as a prodigal? Stop the insanity, repent, and come home. Some of you are torn apart inside for the prodigal in your life who has not come home. This parable should give you great hope. Jesus doesn’t tell us how long the younger son was gone in that faraway country, living the insanity of sin, all the while breaking God’s heart and yours. But God is in the business of seeking and finding the lost, and bringing them home. Hope in the God of the prodigal son, and trust him for extravagant love.
This parable is also helpful for those who struggle with assurance of their salvation. Some of you believe in the doctrine of assurance, that we can be certain that God loves his people and “in spite of everything, no matter what, whatever it cost him—God won’t ever stop loving his children with a wonderful, Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” (Sally Lloyd Jones). But for one reason or another you don’t believe it’s true for you, that somehow you can’t know for sure that God loves you because you’re not sure what you’ll do tomorrow, or next month, or next year to spoil your relationship with God. Others of you who love Jesus have a sensitive conscience, struggling with doubts whether God can love a sinner like you, or whether God will ever stop seeking you, embracing you, loving you. The image of the father having compassion, running with unbridled joy to embrace and kiss prodigal sons who repent is a powerful medicine to soothe your doubts. Having a sensitive and humble conscience is actually evidence that you love God and that God loves you as his very own child! God embraces those who turn to him in repentance, not those who clean themselves up so they might be more embraceable.
Lastly, some of you are a little uneasy with how extravagant God’s love is for undesirables, social outcasts, and flagrant sinners, but would rather keep company with respectable, responsible church people like yourself. Jesus loves you so much that he speaks to you too. His parable continues by becoming multi-layered, unsettling, subversive, challenging, for there is not one son of the father, but two.