By Adrienne Crist
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one that we are all familiar with. It touches us in different ways depending upon the circumstances of our lives. Jesus spoke this parable, with the intention of reaching a specific audience: the Pharisees. Yet its message is so complex because it is both instruction and encouragement to many people who are in various stages in their relationship with Him.
The parable is the last of many that is shared on an evening that begins with a Sabbath meal held at the home of a ruler of the Pharisees.
Now it happened, as He went into the house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath, that they (the Pharisees) watched Him closely.
The Pharisees were looking to trip Jesus up. Jesus proceeds to call them out by questioning if it is lawful to heal a man on the Sabbath and then actually performs a healing in their presence! The first two teachings are for the Pharisee’s, they are stories about a wedding feast, one on the earth where humility brings honor and the second is the Parable of the Great Feast, where the first people to be invited have many excuses to refuse the invitation, and the invitation is then extended to the masses. He is setting them up so that they may understand his final teaching.
In the course of the evening Jesus moves from the exclusivity of the house outside to the inclusivity of the broader audience; those who were seeking Jesus with open hearts, those who were already following Him, His disciples, and the multitude who followed Jesus. His message to them is about the cost of being His disciple. The multitude followed him, because they believed He was the Conquering Messiah, freeing them from the captivity of the Romans, they would not listen with their spirit, they could not or would not understand that He was the Conqueror of Death. He did not pedal the cheap Gospel that we have seen where people choose God because they think the prize is rainbows and sunshine all the time. The people followed Him because they hoped they could get something from Him. Jesus’s words are meant to winnow the wheat from the chaff.
Following Jesus means more than what the crowd was doing, it means there is a relationship, and where there is a relationship there are sacrifices.
We now come to Chapter 15 and in verse 2 we see tensions arise in the crowd.
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. 2 And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man [ a ]receives sinners and eats with them
This is a complaint that the Pharisee’s cry over and over. This reveals their judgmental hearts. They don’t even have the decency to stay silent. Their disdain for the sinner is palpable.
In Chapter 15 Jesus tells the whole crowd a trio of stories about things that are lost. We have a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son. The value of each increased with each story. The ratio decreased 1 in 100, 1 in 10, to 1 in 2. All 3 stories share the message that there was something very valuable that was lost: a sheep, a coin, a relationship and at their conclusion; when someone is lost and they are found, there’s rejoicing in heaven. In the first two parables we can easily put ourselves in the shoes of the shepherd or the woman.
Have you ever lost your dog? When our dogs are loose, we leave the house unlocked, often we are barefoot, we call and search and sometimes hop in the car. Finding the dog or dogs is our only concern at that moment. We leave our possessions with laser focus to find the animal that we love and cherish.
Or how about the valued object? The piece of jewelry or money you thought you stashed away. Whenever an object goes missing in my house my first impulse after the initial look around is to clean. I run on the cluttered side so if my house is in tip-top order and I am missing something I feel a bit helpless!
Jesus saved this story for last. Because His people, and His relationship with His people are of the highest priority to Him. And when relationships are broken, specifically relationships with God we can learn a lot about our own relationship with our Heavenly Father and how we honor Him, please Him and draw closer to Him.
In the story of the lost son, we have three main characters:
The Firstborn Son
The Prodigal Son
Each represents someone in the crowd. The Father is God, the Firstborn is the Religious Leaders, and the Prodigal is the sinners who are lost.
Let's read the Parable:
11 Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. 12 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.
It was the tradition in those days for a father to divide his inheritance not 50/50 but one third and two thirds. The father may even distribute their shares before his own death.
13 And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with [ d ]prodigal living.
The word prodigal means characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure; lavish, recklessly spendthrift or luxuriant. Basically, the son just did what he wanted, with no regard to his future. Notice that the father did not withhold from the son. Rather he let him go and gave him the choice. So too does God give us a choice. We have freedom but there are consequences for our choices.
14 But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. The son did all the things that he wanted to do, he pushed his freedom to his limits, and it caught up with him. When we do what we want, disregarding God, we will eventually encounter famine. But that’s not what the world says. The world says you will find extraordinary joy in unlimited freedom. You will find happiness and self acceptance in limitless liberty. The problem is the laws of Physics. Every action has an opposite reaction. To put it biblically we reap what we sow.
15 Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the [ e ]pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
In his desperation, he seeks any work he can find and winds up feeding the swine. Pigs were declared unclean in the Old Testament. The world is unclean. The son has become a cog in the wheel of an unclean world. And he is feeding the machine, and yet he receives nothing in return.
I am thankful that Jesus declared all things clean, because I do love bacon, but imagine the horror in the crowd at the thought of that shame. This is the horror we can relate to as parents knowing that the son has chosen to separate himself from his father, seeking what he thought would satisfy him, only to find himself hungry, destitute and alone. I don’t think the son thought that he would end up this way. What the son did not understand was his worth to the father. God will leave the 99 to find the one. He will shine his light exposing the darkness to find the valuable coin.
17 “ But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, 19 and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’
We are all individuals and when we are rolling around in the mud, we each have our own breaking point. We know this about our children too. They are unique, they all learn differently. Some learn by watching others, some learn by doing. Some learn from success, and all learn from failure. Here is the beauty of circumstance; It enlightens us. We see our need for God more clearly, especially when we have made a mess around us.
20 “ And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
The father was waiting and watching and was ready to receive him. The son showed humility and true repentance. He was prepared to humble himself and become a servant for his father, setting aside any right he had to be called a son.
22 “But the father said to his servants, [ f ]‘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 fatted calf here and kill it and let us eat and be merry; 24 for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.
The father interrupts his son. Seeing his son walking on the road, returning home was enough explanation. Actions are more powerful than words. In an instant the son was restored.
A beautiful story. A story of hope. But the story is not over, because Jesus had a lesson for the Pharisees too.
25 “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted cal f.’
The fatted calf was what we know as Kobe beef. The choice of meat. Now let’s not forget who the author of this story is. It’s Jesus. This celebration was not just a weekend BBQ. They are sacrificing this animal, because there was sin, there is atonement and then there is celebration. Jesus is right here in the middle of this story of the lost. Jesus is the one who is willing to be the great reconciliation when we make a mess of our lives. And he does not condemn when we come to Him, but he offers himself up and then celebrates as you feast on Him.
28 “But he was angry and would not go in.
This sums up the Pharisee’s. They were angry that Jesus would sup with sinners. They were probably angry that He would offer them a choice seat at the table, that the sinner would receive an invitation to the Great Feast, that they would be informed of the cost of following Him, implying the sinner would be allowed to even make that decision. Angry that Jesus would express the immense value they possessed, angry that they could be redeemed.
Therefore, his father came out and pleaded with him.
Here was Jesus, he came to the Jews, He pleaded with them. He comes to the righteous and he pleads with them.
29 So he answered and said to his father, ‘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. 30 But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’
Right, there is the disdain, the first son, has become a Pharisee.
31 “ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 32 It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found. ’”
Jesus is addressing the heart of the religious leaders and the heart of anyone who is a man pleaser, a legalist, a salvation through works believer.
The father says, “all that I have is yours”. We do not have to work to please God. Is God pleased by our obedience? Yes! But your obedience is not worth more than His sacrifice.
God's economy is not our economy. Charles Spurgeon says:
"The truth here taught is just this: that mercy stretches forth her hand to misery, that grace receives men as sinners, that it deals with demerit, unworthiness and worthlessness; that those who think themselves righteous are not the objects of divine compassion , but the unrighteous, the guilty and the undeserving, are the proper subjects for the infinite mercy of God; in a word, that salvation is not of merit but of grace." (Spurgeon)
Jesus told this story in response to verse 2. 2 And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man [ a ]receives sinners and eats with them .”
I would have loved it if Jesus had simply replied “Like you”. That would make a great meme! Jesus knew that His church would grow. That gentiles and sinners and the poor and the hungry and the desperate of heart would enter His Kingdom. And that they would enter it by their humility of heart. Yet he is still saying to the Jews: Son you are still with me and all that I have is yours.
Who are you or more specifically who do you identify with in this story? Are you the sinner who has tested the limits of the freedom God gives and is ready to return to God? I went through a two-year period where I was angry with God. I may not have gone the deep end on the outside, but I had on the inside. I abused the freedom that God gave me. I finally came to the end of myself spiritually and emotionally and felt like I had a wrestling match with the Lord one night. I submitted and returned. Every instance of the lost son or daughter does not look the same.
Rev 3:19-20 says 19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore, be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come into him and dine with him, and he with Me. 21
Who is a God like to you, that pardons iniquity, and passes by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retains not his anger forever, because he delights in mercy
Are you the son who looks good on the outside but is critical of those around them on the inside? Or do you think you understand the problems and solutions better than the father does? Do you not trust in God’s free gift of eternal life or believe you must earn it by “always being good”, afraid of making a mistake?
“For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has become His counselor?”
35 “Or who has first given to Him
And it shall be repaid to him?”
36 For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.
We are not God; we do not counsel God and we cannot control every circumstance, nor should we desire to. We don’t know how this story ends with the first born, did he join the party, or did he stay outside? The message of this story is that the firstborn is dismayed by the grace, forgiveness and loving kindness of the father. The firstborn does not understand, just as the Pharisees did not understand.
But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. 22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.
23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. 25 For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, 26 for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.
27 Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. 28 So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.
Jesus was revolutionary. He came to change their status quo. We have to align ourselves to His way of thinking, not our own. We seek justice, we want fairness and equity. We may see the prodigal and think how wasteful! We may see the firstborn and think, I can see why he would be upset, look how faithful he has been. God’s economy is upside down, we need Him to help us sort through our hearts to understand His righteousness. It is not about demerits and brownie points.
This story is also about a family. We all can understand families, whether we are the parent or the child, or both! Obviously, there was an issue between these two boys. Maybe the older brother Lorded over the younger? Maybe the younger felt they could not measure up? Conflict and emotional pain though are not an excuse to run from God, it’s a reason to run to Him.
My favorite character is the Father; He is filled with the fruit of the spirit. He showed love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. He was wise. He was respectful, he was watching and hoping and praying during the separation. I can learn a lot from this father.
We cannot discuss the Prodigal Son without discussing the Elephant in the room. Our broken hearts when our children appear to be far from the Lord. First off, our children are God’s children. If you have dedicated them to the Lord, then remember that promise you made to Him.
Secondly, we cannot always presume to know the mind of our children, we may know them very well and can often correctly predict their behavior, however we are not mind readers. But just like the Father in the Parable, God is watching, and He is wise, and He is kind and longsuffering. And He loves our children more than we do.
I want to end on a practical note with a recommendation for parents of adult children here. I recently read a book called “Doing Life with Your Adult Children, keep your Mouth Shut and the Welcome Mat Out”, by Jim Burns. I wish I had read this book about 8 years ago before my oldest turned 18! There’s lots of advice on parenting toddlers, children and teenagers but things seem pretty silent after that. This book is an excellent read, addressing the real pitfalls in this transitional stage of parenting.
I personally have been corrected by The Lord with this read. Just like the father in the story I had to let go. How can they learn if I keep trying to advise them not to fail? I’m not the worst but am learning to listen more, speak less. Chapter 6 is titled “When your Grown Child Violates Your Values” The author clearly outlines the “Anatomy of an Atrophied Faith”, a good primer for us all.
His best practical advice for when our children reject the faith are:
Maintain a climate of openness and grace, refuse to beat yourself up and continue to influence them (gently). In short Love, but with boundaries. Our children will continue to mature and grow, just as we have and will. We are past training and correction. We are to love, respect and emotionally support them. If your children are adults, they will now look even more closely at your relationship with Jesus. We are not perfect, but now the time for humility and honesty about our flaws is more important than ever before.
The Prodigal Son returned because He recognized where he belonged, with His Heavenly Father. I liked the Good News translation of Proverbs 22:6 “Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their life.”
Jesus loves the lost, and that can prove challenging to us as followers who want to please God. If we are truly about pleasing God, then we will focus on what is a priority to Jesus. Looking for the lost sheep, and waiting patiently and prayerfully for the Prodigal’s return, because we know that there is a celebration when they arrive!