Everyone in this world has a father. Many have fathers who truly live up to the word. Those men protect, teach, and love their children unconditionally. For those of us with fathers who care, the word itself brings up feelings of respect, gratitude, and devotion.
Unfortunately, some people have fathers who are worthless, who neglect them or abandon them altogether. Those men don’t deserve the children they brought into this world; they deserve to be flogged publicly and ridiculed excessively.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father figure stands above the crowd. He was a good father who willingly forgave his wayward sons. He reached out to them, even when they didn’t deserve it and offered compassion, understanding, and love. He saw his children as something inherently valuable. He was a father made in the image of God. He was a father who invested in the wellbeing of his children without forcing upon them devotion in return. He didn’t ask what they might be willing to give back, he merely gave them freely what was possible. If he were a real person, he would be the human embodiment of our Heavenly Father.
We have no doubt whatsoever that Jesus Christ modeled the father in this story after His Father. They bear far too many similarities for this to be coincidental. They are teachers, counselors, providers, and even enablers when it’s necessary. They see the potential for good and bad in every situation. They see past the prejudices that hold others back. They are fathers wholeheartedly in love with their children.
What we must ask is this, how does that love manifest itself? For the younger son, the father’s love is found in his forgiveness. When that boy asked for his inheritance in Luke 15:11, he insulted his father in an unimaginable way. He literally told his father he was worthless as a dad but valuable as a corpse. We find it hard to believe there is any greater insult in Scripture. Unbeknownst to them, people insult our Heavenly Father by saying the same thing today. By their choice of priorities, they deem His blessings important but not a relationship. They want only what God provides financially and see no value in what He provides spiritually. Perhaps they should remember the words of Jesus Christ from the Sermon on the Mount.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
After he came to his senses and returned home to beg for his father’s forgiveness, the younger son was met by a man unrestrained by societal standards.
When he (the son) was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.
To our modern eyes, nothing about that encounter seems out-of-the-ordinary. When you study their world and their expectations, however, you see something truly unique. The father ran to the son. That is highly uncommon. In the Middle East, a man of his age and position would always walk in a slow, dignified fashion. To run, he must take the front edge of his robes in his hand like a teenager. As this happens, his legs show in what was considered a humiliating posture. All of this was painfully shameful for him.¹
The father hugged his boy even though he insulted him and dishonored their family. The father forgave him and restored him to his previous position. Once again, unheard of. The boy had done nothing whatsoever to atone for his sin, and yet the father’s forgiveness was full and lavish anyway, with nothing held back.²
Are you noticing a pattern? Nothing about the father’s response to these circumstances is ordinary. The original listeners and readers would have been appalled at the behavior of the father. He was breaking all societal expectations to forgive someone who had done the unforgivable. Most of us see this moment as the most poignant, tender moment in the parable. However, those in Jesus’ audience would not admire the father’s compassion. This was scandalous. A violation of Deuteronomy 21:21 and even more offensive to them than the sins of the Prodigal.³
Do the actions of the father seem familiar? They should. God chose to forgive us when we didn’t deserve it. He chose to forgive when we did the unthinkable. He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked but is eager, willing, even delighted to save sinners.4 He chose to forgive us when we embarrassed Him, forgot Him, abandoned Him, and even told Him He was useless. He forgave His prodigal sons. We are those sons. Psalm 32:5 best represents the truth of that boy’s relationship with his father and our relationship with our Father.
I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.
For the older brother, the Father’s love is found in his patience. His father clearly demonstrated his love for this prodigal by giving him time to vent. After declaring his intentions to remain outside, he complained out loud in Luke 15:29-30.
Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.
At that moment, the father overlooked the bitterness, the arrogance, the distortion of fact and the accusation of favoritism. There was no judgment, no criticism, and no rejection.5 How many fathers would face a head-on challenge from their son with that much grace and understanding? How many would be “slow to speak and slow to wrath” (James 1:19)? Honestly, not many.
It’s far to easy to dismiss that boy as someone whose pettiness and lack of gratitude was justified. His brother came home and he should have joined the celebration. Weary and tired from another long day of work, and frustrated by his father’s impetuous decision, he wanted nothing to do with that celebration. While we do have some compassion for his feelings, he erred by taking this perceived insult personally, when it actually had nothing to do with him. In the gall of his own bitterness, he attacked the virtue, the integrity, and the character of his own loving father. It was as if every embittered thought he had ever locked away in his heart over all those years suddenly exploded out of him.6
We then see clearly. His cover is blown. His obedience and faithfulness to his father were commendable, but the reasoning behind his devotion was totally backward. He stayed out of obligation, not love. That brought about intense feelings of jealousy and resentment. It’s obvious he wanted to leave like his younger brother but couldn’t work up the gumption to do it until his father made the mistake of forgiving that no-good brother of his. Now he’s ready to leave.
Much like the Hebrews and their shallow view of the Law, he believed obedience was only an outward act. He missed the point of obedience. It is to come from our respect and gratitude. It is to be our natural response to what we’ve been given. Not what is coming. He believed the only value he had to their father was in the work of his hands. He couldn’t have been more misguided. He wasn’t valuable because he stayed and worked while the other brother partied his inheritance away. He was valuable because he was his father’s son. He was valuable for merely being born.
We too are children made in the image of our Father. When we see how well that man represents God and we see how he loved his sons, we realize something true about God as well. He loves us because we are His. That doesn’t keep Him from being disappointed in us. That doesn’t mean He’ll always be proud of us or like what we’re doing. What it means is we’re always His. If we embarrass Him or make Him proud, we’re still His children.
To the father of our story, working alongside his son on the family farm was an added bonus. Every day, he saw the son who stayed. He loved him, provided for him (despite the boy’s thoughts to the contrary), and gave him everything he ever needed. His statement in Luke 15:31 speaks of this:
Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.
The scene at the party was a test of his father’s devotion. He wondered, will he leave the party to confront me? Will he answer my questions? Will he right the wrongdoings he has brought into my life? Will he give me what I want?
In the end, both of these boys asked their father for something impossible. They asked him to give them what they wanted, not what they needed. Those requests were unfair but ultimately life-changing. By enabling the younger boy to run away, the father taught him the value of what he already had. By answering the frustrations of the older brother, the father gave him an opportunity to vent, albeit foolishly, and feel heard. The father knew his sons and what made them tick. He knew they were foolish, hot-headed, and in need of some real-life experience that would kick them square in the behind. He gave them what they needed.
As fathers, we must admit that it’s too easy to give our children what they want. Fast food is quicker than vegetables at the dinner table. A screen requires less interaction than a game or an activity. Sleeping in is easier than rising early to worship or fellowship. The way of the world is easier than God’s way (see Matthew 7:13-14), but it’s not the right way. Two verses, in particular, seem to highlight the need for fathers to give their children what they need, not necessarily what they want.
And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.
As fathers, we must learn from the father in this story. Your children will test you. They will challenge you and ask the impossible from you. You can’t give them everything, but you must give them what they need. They need a father better than you. A father who will never let them down. A father who can ensure their eternal salvation and protect them from the worse of this world and the world to come. They need their Heavenly Father more than their earthly father. They need you to know that.
While we certainly hope you never encounter sons like the ones in this story, there’s a good chance you might. If (or more likely, when) that day comes, learn from the father in our story. Patience, forgiveness, and understanding are the hallmarks of our Heavenly Father. He gives them to those who least deserve it and doesn’t begrudge their weakness. Be a father made in His image and you’ll (more-than-likely) raise imperfect children who thankfully know “how many of my father’s hired servants have bread and enough to spare” (Luke 15:17). You’ll raise sons who need you to be their guide, their confidant, and their teacher. They’ll need you to be the one who shows them they’re important not because of what they do, they’re important because of who they are. They are yours.
We sincerely hope you’ve loved this study of the Parable of the Prodigal Sons. Someone once described parables as a house in which the reader or listener is invited to take up residence.7 We’ve lived this story with you and feel eternally grateful for the time that was required. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and our relationship with God. We hope you feel the same way. As it all comes to a close, we want to challenge you. We’re all prodigals, of that much, I’m certain. Be the prodigal who knew it, repented, and ran to his father with humility. Don’t be the prodigal who rejected his father. Don’t be the prodigal who bottled up all his sin. Don’t be the one who lashed out at his father for being gracious, kind, and egoless. Be better than he was.
¹ Kenneth E. Bailey, The Cross & the Prodigal, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005), 67.
² John MacArthur, The Prodigal Son, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2008), 118.
³ MacArthur, The Prodigal Son, 114.
4 MacArthur, The Prodigal Son, 113.
5 Bailey, The Cross & the Prodigal, 86.
6 MacArthur, The Prodigal Son, 184.
7 Bailey, The Cross & the Prodigal, 87.
All Scripture is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash
Originally published on January 10, 2018. Written by Neal Mathis.