OK, we’ve come to it. This is undoubtedly Jesus’ most famous parable, repeatedly told over the last 2000 years. It’s a beautiful story, and God has certainly used it to bring countless lost souls to himself. The only reason why I wouldn’t like it is because it’s so familiar. There’s not a whole lot I could say about it that you haven’t heard before, assuming you’re familiar with it at all. For all that you’re about to read that you’ve heard before, I apologize.
First, the very fact that the son is asking for his “share” of the estate would've been totally shocking to Jesus’ first audience. It’s hard to overestimate just how blatantly disrespectful this would've been seen. He was basically wishing his father was dead. And as soon as he got his inheritance, he turned it into cash and left home, effectively saying to his entire family “You’re dead to me now.”
He went off to a “far country” and used up all his money in “wild living.” There’s some debate as to whether or not his brother was exaggerating when he accused him of using it on “prostitutes.” I tend to think that it's a fairly reasonable assumption that he did.
I know I said this last year when we discussed the Fall of humanity, but it bears repeating: Sin will take you further than you want to go and end up costing you more than you’re willing to pay. The Enemy of our souls will always present his “package” as a great deal, and it starts out sweet and ends up with the most bitter of aftertastes. The writer of Hebrews put it best when he called it “the passing pleasures of sin.” The pleasures soon go away and leave behind the bad consequences.
Once the money ran out, he sank to what he thought was the bottom, then sank a little more. Just remember this is a supposedly Jewish kid, and this was a Jewish audience listening. For the boy to get to the point of feeding pigs would be the lowest of the low. That is, until you realize that he was in such bad shape that the “food” that the pigs were eating was starting to look pretty good. That’s where you end up when you step outside of the Father’s house.
I love the phrase “when he came to his senses,” don’t you? It took him reaching rock bottom to realize just how good he had it back in the father’s house. Even the lowest servants in that house had it better than he had it now. So he rehearsed his little speech, got up, and walked back home.
Notice that the father noticed him “a long way off,” which seems to indicate he was looking for his boy. Day after day he was working outside, scanning the horizon for the son he had lost. When he saw him, he ran out to meet his son. What better image could Jesus present as to how God responds to sinners who have come to their senses?
Here’s where I have a couple of questions. This story has had several titles, including “The Prodigal Son” or “The Lost Son.” These aren’t necessarily wrong, but I have a slight quibble with both of them. The word prodigal can mean “wasteful” or have other bad connotations. But it could also mean “lavish” or “yielding abundantly.” In that case, you could also call this the story about “The Prodigal Father.” When we come home, he spares absolutely no expense to demonstrate how happy he is about that. Each of these three stories has a celebration when what was lost was found. His heart is to forgive, to restore, and to redeem. In the end, all of his enemies will be destroyed. But his preferred method of destroying his enemies is to turn them into his adopted children and co-heirs.
The trivial objection I have to the other title is that this is not a story of one lost son. I might call it “The Story of Two Lost Sons.” Look carefully at the mind-set presented by the elder son. The entire household is having a lavish party to celebrate the return, and he refuses to participate. The father comes out to plead with him, and the son displays an incredibly self-righteous, disrespectful attitude. Please notice that the returnee is called “this son of yours,” not “my brother.” This is meant to unerringly mirror the thoughts of the Pharisees.
So are the portrayals of either son hitting home to you? Have you been “feeding the pigs,” trying to tell yourself that you’re really not that bad off? If you have questions about that, see here. Or is the picture of the elder brother a little closer to the truth than is comfortable? What do you think?
And finally, here's a video of my favorite song about this story...
Lord Jesus, once again I’m reminded that apart from you there’s nothing good inside me. I need your mercy just as much now as I ever have. Whenever the spirit of the elder brother starts to come back up, please squelch it as only your grace can.