The Parable of the Prodigal Son is the story of God and His chosen people. It is the story of mankind and our Creator. It is the story of the Gospel and it is our story.
In Luke 15:11-13 Jesus said:
A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.” So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.
For all intents and purposes, the younger son said to his father, “You’re taking too long to die. I wish you were already dead because the only thing left for me in this family is the check I’ll get when you finally kick the bucket. Why don’t you go ahead and write that check so I can leave?” The original listeners would have been amazed at such a request.¹
His request was rude and quite possibly, the most horrible thing a son could ask of his father. He didn’t want to be in the family any longer and he didn’t trust his father or his older brother. His attitude regarding inheritance was entirely inappropriate. From the earliest days of Israel, the laws governing the passage of family estates from generation to generation were among the most important and distinctive cultural principles found in the Law of Moses.²
Perhaps he thought his father was too strict or life in that family unfair. We really don’t know why he asked. We can assume it was his selfishness and lack of etiquette, but realistically even those are guesses. Regardless of the motivation, in the end, He saw only one satisfactory resolution to this problem: walking away. In a culture where honor was so important and the fifth commandment (“honor your father and mother” as found in Exodus 20:12) was a governing law, his impertinence was worse than merely scandalous. Any son who made such a breathtakingly inappropriate request from a healthy father would have been regarded as the lowest form of miscreant.³
We began this lesson by saying the Parable of the Prodigal Son is our story. Right now, you may be ready to argue with us. You may say proudly, “I’d never do or say anything like that!” Maybe you never have and maybe you never will. You may be thinking, who are we to call you a prodigal? Well, quite frankly, we’re you. We’re normal, everyday people trying to do what’s right. We also get caught in moments of pettiness, ungratefulness, and sin. We’re prodigals and we believe you are too.
If you’ll give us the benefit of the doubt, we’ll show you something extraordinary. When we take a peek behind the spiritual curtain that separates what we see with our eyes from what we are, we just might see a picture that makes us uncomfortable. When we closely inspect who we truly are, will we see some similarities with the prodigal we never saw before? Do our actions say something our heart never would?
As human beings afraid of the truth, we categorize sins as big and small. Generally, we divide them based on the impact they have on our lives and those around us. Many people believe big sins hurt more than little sins. Unfortunately, we know that all sin separates us from God (see Isaiah 59:2), but we like to keep that to ourselves. We know our sins are tearing us down. We know they’re destroying our faith, our confidence in God, and our purity. It’s just too easy to admit your sins are big and mine are small than face the obvious. Every time we choose to sin we tell God, “I don’t want to be a part of your family anymore.” We tell Him, “your rules are too hard to live with, your expectations are unfair and I want to go my own way!” Does that sound familiar?
You see, every one of us is guilty of self-indulgence and unrestrained lust. We have all been heedless to the consequences of sin and reckless in the pursuit of evil. Apart from God’s grace, every one of us would have long ago sold our birthright, wasted our lives, and squandered every blessing God has given us. We would have traded away his bountiful, daily goodness in exchange for a brief moment of self-gratification.4 His story is our story.
In the Garden of Eden God gave Adam and Eve access to everything but one tree. He withheld it from them for their own good. Satan came along and told Eve “God is not trustworthy” and she believed him. Instead of looking at all God gave her, Satan encouraged her to look at the one thing God withheld. He told Eve that God wasn’t fair. He convinced her to find out for herself if the fruit was good or bad. He told her to take matters into her own hands. Eve stood in the garden, surrounded by the blessings of God and said, “Lord, I want the stuff, but let’s not mess with the relationship. Just give me the blessings and stay out of my life.” That foolishness, lack of propriety, and selfishness were behind the impetuous request of that young boy and it’s behind our sins as well. Nothing has changed. We still want what we shouldn’t have.
It was King Solomon who said,
If you insult your father or mother, your light will be snuffed out in total darkness. An inheritance obtained too early in life is not a blessing in the end.
Most people feel they have things figured out. They feel their purpose is valuable and whatever conditions it takes to reach that goal acceptable. They live with a singular drive to be the best them. At what price are those wants cost-prohibitive? When do you give up too much? The young boy probably felt he had things figured out, but insulting his father showed his blindness to all the things God had given him through his father. Obtaining his inheritance prematurely meant he didn’t spend enough time with the guiding presence of his parents. It meant he didn’t know what to do with it.
By asking as he did, the prodigal son insulted his father and his family in the deepest way possible. It was an even greater shame that he took the incredible windfall and wasted every bit of it. Luke 15:13 described his new lifestyle as prodigal living. Prodigal is not a word we use often today. The word itself is a very old English word that speaks of reckless wastefulness or lavish extravagance. It has virtually fallen out of usage in modern English, except in reference to this parable. The Greek word (asotos) is much stronger than simple wastefulness though, it conveys strong overtones of licentiousness, promiscuity, and moral debauchery.5
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t very long before the appropriate reckoning knocked on his door. Luke 15:14-16 says:
But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
His prodigal living in a foreign land wasted his inheritance. This was yet another detail that surely evoked a sense of horror in the minds of those listening to the parable. It was unthinkable that any Jewish young person would journey by choice into Gentile lands and willingly take up permanent residence there in order to indulge in licentious living.6
In his desperation and poverty, he took a job but never got paid. How awful would you have to be to abandon that young boy like that? Of course, he’d made mistakes but who would employ a young man during a time of famine and then refuse to pay him? Only a deliberately selfish person devoid of common decency would stoop to those levels of sin. Seems fitting that the boy who abandoned his family would be abandoned by his pseudo-family as well.
If everyone in the story represents someone, then we should ask who this farmer is. If the father represents God and the prodigal represents man, the farmer in the strange land is the devil himself. Don’t forget, this son left the safety of his homeland and traveled to a far country. In that land, he was a stranger with no rights, no protection, and no one to value him. His life had become a nightmarish horror. He had made numerous bad decisions for himself, but now the hand of divine providence had made his troubles more severe than he could have imagined. This was life at it’s very lowest.7
When you leave the land of the Lord, whose land are you in? In the world, it is Satan who offers freely what he can never deliver. Unfortunately, the only wages of sin are death (see Romans 6:23). It is truly the one thing he always makes good on. If you leave God you are in a world of wickedness and sin.
Our world believes there is a middle ground between godliness and evil – a place where you can just be a “good person.” The world champions a place where there are rational people who live morally good lives without having to be weirdly religious, but Scripture says that place doesn’t exist. Jesus said you are either with Him or against Him. Paul said in Romans 6:16 that you can either be a slave to sin or a slave to obedience, with no middle ground. In those moments amongst the pigs, the young son realized he had gained his independence, but he didn’t find freedom. Instead, he found out what real bondage looks like. He was a slave and (almost) hopeless.
In a not so ironic twist of fate, those principles are true of sin as well. All sin involves precisely this kind of irrational rebellion against a loving Heavenly Father. Sin’s greatest evil lies not in the fact that it is a transgression of the law – the wickedness of sin stems from its nature as a personal affront to a good and gracious Lawgiver. Our sin is a calculated, deliberate violation of the relationship we have with our Creator.8
When sin is your master, instead of God, you’ll do things you never imagined were possible. An addict will steal from his family to support his habit. A person addicted to pornography will let someone in their home through a computer screen they’d never let through the front door. An alcoholic or drug addict will let something other than God tell them how valuable they are. A sinner will lie to cover their sin and then lie again to cover up the first lie. In the grasp of sin, you will live a life that is constantly filled with dread and shame. At his lowest point, surrounded by the shame of a pig pen, he hatched a plan. When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself in Luke 15:17:
How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father and will say to him, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”
In his despair, He hoped his father would forget about family and turn their reunion into a business deal. He hoped to sort out his problems by working off his debt. We shouldn’t overlook the fact that his return contained some element of risk. First-century Jewish custom dictated that if a Jewish boy lost the family inheritance among the Gentiles and dared to return home, his community would break a large pot in front of him and cry out “so-in-so is cut off from his people.” After that ceremony was performed, the community would have nothing to do with the wayward person.9
As he approached his home, speech in hand, he was interrupted. When his father saw him from a great way off he ran to him, embraced him, and immediately restored him to his rightful place. Surely, it was the last reaction he would’ve expected. He tried to start his speech but never got a chance to finish it. Maybe he got interrupted or perhaps he was so overwhelmed by his father’s grace that he realized how futile it was to offer the deal he had conjured up in his desperation. He learned that genuine repentance doesn’t allow us to dictate the terms. The father told him, “you weren’t just gone, you were dead.” When that boy arrived home, (his father’s reaction) was an unexpected and costly demonstration of his father’s love. That love was always there, but the boy never saw it. At the moment his father ran to him, that love became visible and for the first time, the Prodigal was able to understand it.10
When we travel to the far country of sin, we also fail to appreciate just how bad our sin really is, and upon returning, we often miss how great our Father’s love is. That connection to this young man is truly why this is our story as well. We are him, foolish enough to leave home, humble enough to return, and overwhelmed by the grace bestowed upon those who do not deserve it.
Over and over again, the Bible tells of God’s love and the seriousness of our sins. In Ephesians 2:1-9, Paul shows us how the prodigal’s story really is our story.
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins (2:1),
That’s the story of the prodigal – you were dead but now you’re alive.
in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others (2:2-3).
We’ve been to the pig farm of sin and slopped the hogs. We’ve been surrounded by the guilt and shame of sinful living.
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (2:4-6)
God made us family! It’s only when we understand how serious our sin is that we realize how amazing God’s grace is. The Father loves us deeply and shows it with forgiveness and restoration.
that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (2:7-9).
Once again, notice that we don’t get to negotiate terms with God when we want to repent. Salvation is not found in our works because we can’t earn what He wants to give us. Our pride is our problem. People will die and go to hell because they refused to accept an offer of free salvation. It sounds pious and holy, but to think I can contribute to my salvation is just as insulting as the son’s plan to work off his debt for his dad. He didn’t understand the father’s love or the nature of family. If we think we can earn God’s grace then we don’t understand Him either.
In the end, that line of thinking really means I want all the blessings without having to make the commitment and obligation. Pride is what makes us prodigal sons and daughters. We will always be a prodigal until we find the humility to admit we need what we will never earn. It’s only when we reach that point that we can turn our hearts back toward him and truly find our loving father waiting for us.
Until then, we’ll be the prodigal feeding the pigs, scheming our return without any real understanding of what we left behind or what lies ahead if we can somehow find the courage to go home again.
¹ Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 20.
² John MacArthur, The Prodigal Son (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 44.
³ MacArthur, The Prodigal Son, 46.
4 MacArthur, The Prodigal Son, 79.
5 MacArthur, The Prodigal Son, 42-43.
6 MacArthur, The Prodigal Son, 57.
7 MacArthur, The Prodigal Son, 67.
8 MacArthur, The Prodigal Son, 78.
9 Kenneth E. Bailey, The Cross & The Prodigal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 52-53.
10 Bailey, The Cross & The Prodigal, 68-69.
All Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.
Originally published on December 14, 2017. Written by Neal Mathis and David Salisbury.