11 And He said, “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. 13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.
We’re at the final of the three parables on God’s heart towards those who are lost. This is probably the most famous of the parables of Christ: The Prodigal Son. Though, I think we should rename it since the Prodigal is only half of the story.
The parable starts out by giving us a picture of a family. A wealthy landowner has two sons. The younger son comes to the father and asks for his inheritance. The inheritance would only be given to a son (or daughter if a household lacked a son) upon the father’s death. So asking for your inheritance while your father was still alive would have been an extremely insulting and petulant demand that would have caused the father great pain. The son wants nothing to do with the family any longer, except their money. His father is dead to him.
So the father divides up the estate. The younger son would have gotten 1/3rd of his father’s wealth, the older 2/3rds It paid to be the firstborn male in those days.
And as soon as the kid gets his money, he leaves his family. He had already left his family long ago in his heart, his body is simply catching up to where his mind has already tread. Away from the constraints of his father, he goes wild. He spends all of his money on the things young men throughout history have spent their money on: alcohol, women, parties. He lives the high life. He’d probably have his own reality show these days.
14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’
And like some young folks, the kid spends without thinking about the future and spends without considering how much money he has left. So he wakes up one morning and finds he has nothing left. Worse, the crops have failed and even the cost of just subsistence living has gone up. The young man with nothing left in his pocket and nothing left in his stomach realizes that he has to grow up. So he gets a job feeding pigs.
Pigs aren’t exactly kosher. They’re probably the number one thing people realize isn’t kosher. So to the Jewish audience, they’re getting a picture of just how far this young man has fallen that he’s willing to work with pigs just to survive another day.
Worse, he’s starting to see pig slop as an appetizing meal. Do yourself a favor. Don’t google pig slop for a picture until an hour or so after you’ve eaten. Point being, the stuff truly looks wretched. This kid was desperate.
And then Jesus says, he came to his senses. He had a place he could go. A place with food. A place with shelter. A place with security. A place where he might be treated with a bit more dignity, or at least a place where he would be pitied sufficiently that he wouldn’t starve or be tempted by pig slop. His home, the place he left with people he considered dead to him, looked pretty inviting now. Desperate enough to consider returning, but cognizant of just how much his past actions had hurt his family, the son begins to practice a speech he’ll give to his dad: I screwed up badly. I hurt you and I offended heaven itself. I’m not worthy of being called your boy anymore. Just have pity and let me be a hired worker for you.
With that speech running over and over again in his head, the son starts the long walk home. Dirty, smelling of pigs, the young man trudges ahead until the road starts to look familiar. People who used to know him maybe see something in him that reminds them of the young man who left, but others can’t see any similarity between the young man in fine attire that left home filled with pride, and the broken, smelly hobo slowly trudging along the road in the opposite direction.
He continues on.
20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
He comes within sight of his old home. For his father, neither time, nor hardship, nor a layer of dirt can hide the son’s identity from him. The old man sees the broken youngster and his heart leaps. It’s his boy. Beaten down by the world and by his own bad decisions, but… it’s his boy.
So he runs. The father throws his arms around his son and kisses him. Doesn’t matter that he smells. Doesn’t matter that he’s dirty. The old man doesn’t care. His son is here!
21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.
The son, perhaps embarrassed and feeling self-conscious about his appearance, his hygiene, and his past gets his speech out to his dad.
His dad ignores it. He calls his servants and orders a change of clothes for the young man. He orders that a feast be prepared. Neighbors and friends will be invited. It will be an amazing party. Because ‘this son of mine’ is home. Though the young man had considered his family dead to him, he was the one who had died. Now he was home again. Alive and well. It was time to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him.
29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”
It was time for most people to celebrate anyway. Here’s the other half of the parable. The older brother hears the celebration, finds out what is going on and he gets angry. He gets resentful. He refuses to go into his father’s house as long as that ‘son of yours’ (he no longer considers him a brother) is there.
This is the Pharisee. This is the religious man. Someone who has spent a lot of time in the house of the Father, but has never had the heart of the Father. Someone who is obeying all the right rules, saying all the right things, tithing their 10%, not watching R-rated movies, never touching alcohol, always sitting with the right folks in church, etc. But they lack the compassion and love of God. They look really good on the outside, but inside… their hearts are just as dead as the prodigal’s hearts they condemn. In fact, that’s part of the reason why they’re resentful towards the prodigals. Because the prodigals are doing openly what they would like to be able to do, but can’t because of their culture, their society, their religion. He’s upset that the father never let him throw a party for his friends. And now, the father is opening up his house to his wayward brother when he came back. It’s too much for the self-righteous son.
His father explains it. His son, the older boy’s brother, was dead to them. He was lost. A part of their family was gone, and now he’s back. He’s alive again. He’s been found. He’s home. The response of the father is to rejoice.
How the story ends would be up to each individual religious man or Pharisee throughout history. Would the older son go in and accept his brother back, setting aside the past? Or would he stay outside of his father’s house angry, bitter, and cold towards the sinner that the father had welcomed home? Would he forego the fellowship, love, warmth, and food within out of spite for his brother?
For many, the answer was obvious. There was no way they were going to start treating these sinners and tax collectors like their brothers. They would stay outside, feeding their resentment until it became so great that the idea of putting the Friend of sinners to death seemed like a good one.
So what’s our takeaway from this series of parables:
- God rejoices when someone returns to the fold.
- God never gives up on us.
- God is always willing to accept us back as sons.
- How our story ends is up to us. We can continue to choose to live in the mire or we can come home. We can continue to choose to let bitterness and anger towards others and towards God keep us from enjoying the fellowship, love, and warmth within His kingdom. Or we can choose to respond to others how God does, with love, compassion, and forgiveness.