Jesus portrayed the true God who was good, loving, kind and accessible. The Pharisees portrayed a false god who was harsh, demanding, and easily offended. The sinners and tax collectors drew near to Jesus because He made them feel loved. Because He loved them, they followed Him, and because they followed Him, He changed them!
Unlike any other story in scripture the love of God comes screaming through in the parable of the prodigal son. I want to unpack for you the true meaning of this beautiful story that Jesus told to help his hearers understand just how great, big and loving God really is.
To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So, his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, :Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you,and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’ “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both Heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’ “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So, the party began.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’ “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’ “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’” (Luke 15:11-31 New Living Translation)
What Really is Sin
This story is about a Father who has two sons. It’s often called “the parable of the prodigal son” but it’s really about two prodigal sons. Prodigal means lost or wasteful. Both sons were lost and wasting the life they could have been experiencing as sons of a loving and generous father. The story reveals two types of people. In fact, I would say that every lost person and many believers fit into these two types. They are the law-breaker types and the law-keeper types. Both were equally lost, but lost in radically different places and ways.
You have to understand that sin does not just mean breaking the rules; sin is breaking the Father’s heart or falling short of the goal, which is relationship with the Father. The word for sin used in the majority of instances in the new testament comes from the sport of archery and means “to miss the mark”. What is the bullseye? What is the mark? Nothing less than a meaningful and personal relationship with God. With that in mind, Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” takes on a whole different meaning. The glory of God is God’s perspective and the relationship for which we were created. It is the abundant life that Jesus came to give us and is only experienced through relationship with the Father through Jesus. Sin is not just broken rules, it’s a broken relationship.
The Law Breaker
The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So, his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.13 “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. (Luke 15:12-13 New Living Translation)
In any culture, but especially in a middle-eastern culture, the request of the younger son was unheard-of and unimaginable. The son was calling for his father to die; he wanted his inheritance without any of the family’s responsibility. To meet the son’s request, the father would have to liquidate his funds immediately. In middle-eastern village life, this was the most shameful thing imaginable, not just for the young man but more importantly for the father. The young man was cutting himself off from his roots and from his family.
During all of this, the older son would have known in detail what was going on. As the older son, it would’ve been his responsibility to act as a mediator and try to talk some sense into his younger brother. The older brother refused to do this, even though it was his duty and the culture demanded it.
Choice: God’s Greatest Risk
In the same way that the father granted his son’s request, the Father God grants freedom for us to choose and even to reject his love. This is the age-old story of Adam and Eve in the garden. Love requires choice and choice always carries risk. God was willing to take that risk for the sake of a relationship of love. So, the young man separated himself from his father. Notice,
however, that the father never separated himself from his son. The Bible tells us that the son went to a far country where he could live his life his way, and had to answer to no one.
About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything. (Luke 15:14-16 New Living Translation)
The young man squandered all his inheritance. In desperation, he took the lowest form of employment a Jew could take, feeding pigs. Broken relationship or sin will always take you farther than you want to go and deeper than you want to be, then when you’re all used up, it will discard you as trash.
“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you,19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.” (Luke 15:17-19 New Living Translation)
A Misguided Plan
The young man came to himself; in other words, he got smart. This was not repentance, as many suppose; it was a desire for a hot meal. His idea was simple, “I’ll go home and I’ll offer my services to my father as a servant in the family business.” This was the plan: he would go home, work hard, pay back the money, and maybe someday the father would believe that he had changed and bring him back into the family. He still did not understand the depth of his sin and how he had broken his father’s heart. He still was self-centered, self-reliant and self-serving. This is a picture-perfect example of the dead works of religion and our empty attempts to earn forgiveness.
Even on the edge of the village, as the son neared his father’s house, he was still lost. Wallowing in self-pity, he judged himself to be of no value and not measuring up to his self-imposed standard of what he believed his father required. Possibly he had looked to his older brother as the standard of what it meant to be a member of the family. Out of this pit of shame he created his own ‘plan of salvation.’
An Unexpected Response
“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’” (Luke 15:20-21New Living Translation)
I’m sure the son had anticipated a cold reception. I’m sure he had prepared himself for the worst. He probably expected to be ordered to sit outside the gate until being summoned to appear before his father. I’m sure he had prepared, even rehearsed, his speech. He was convinced that if he appeared sincere enough, he would be able to persuade his father to take him back as a servant.
On the edge of the village, the father saw the son. He had been watching every day since his son left home months, even years before. The father was watching and anticipating the day that the son would come back into his life. The moment the boy appeared on the horizon, the father literally raced to him. Breaking all cultural barriers and moved with compassion, the father rolled up his robe and sprinted towards the boy. Bible language tells us that he fell upon the boy, kissing him repeatedly. I can imagine that the young man still had the smell and slop of the pig farm upon his body. The fact that the son was broken, hurting, and stinking of filth would not and could not keep the father from giving his son his affectionate embrace.
The Romance of Redemption
This, my friends, is a picture of the Gospel: For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:19New Living Translation)
God the Son left the comfort and safety of His home. Bearing the scorn, the shame, and the humiliation, He embraced us before we ever embraced Him. He loved us before we ever loved Him. He sought for us, before we ever sought Him
At the site of such reckless and unconditional love and when confronted with the self- sacrificial and costly love of his father, love melted the prodigal’s heart and drew him to true repentance. In that moment of pure bliss, he forgpt his planned speech and blurted out; “Father, I have sinned against Heaven. I’m not worthy. Take me home even as only a servant.” He repented, changed his mind and accepted being found by the love of his father. As the Bible says of God the Father, His “goodness leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4).
“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So, the party began. ( Luke 15:22-24 New Living Translation)
Restoration to Sonship
Notice in Luke 15, only the father can restore, and it’s by grace alone. The only thing the son brings to the table is his filthy rags as the father orders the servants to bring out the best robe. What was the best robe? Traditionally it was the father’s party robe; it was the father’s prize clothing for special occasions. While still on the road, still covered in the world’s filth, the father clothed the son in his Sunday’s best. In the same way, as soon as we believe upon Jesus, the Father declares us righteous and then proceeds to clothe us in His very own righteousness.
The father in the parable then puts a ring on the boy’s finger to signify the responsibility and privilege to influence and make decisions in the father’s name. This is nothing less than a reinstatement to sonship with all its rights and privileges. The boy had yet to prove himself faithful; this was a gift of pure grace. The father qualified him while still on the road to be a true son, giving him the privilege of a son and assignment to further the father’s business. Along with the ring, sandals are put on the young man’s feet. In Jewish culture sons wore sandals, while servants went barefoot.
What follows is a party to end all parties. The fattened calf is killed and the celebration begins. This is more than just forgiveness of sins. This is an illustration of our Heavenly Father’s heart towards His lost sons and daughters. This is what the Father offers to each one of us regardless of our mistakes and our past. This is Jesus and His Gospel! This is amazing grace!