Jesus (said): “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living…When he came to his senses, he said…‘I will set out and go back to my father…’” (Luke 15:11-13, 17a, 18a NIV)
Although the parable of the Prodigal Son appears in the 11th through 32nd verses of Luke chapter 15, the previous ten verses are helpful in understanding Jesus’ teaching here. The first two verses read like this: “Then all the tax collectors and sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained saying, ‘This Man receives sinners and eats with them.’” Jesus responds to their grievance surrounded by His dinner companions. He tells them about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and the exhaustive search for both. When they are found, the man and woman rejoice. His point being that everyone, including the tax collector and sinner, has infinite value to God and He seeks after them and truly rejoices when they are found and saved. Jesus then tells them about a lost son.
Here is some of what we learn about the Prodigal Son:
The younger son requests his independence. He wants his freedom to do his own thing and live by his own rules. The father grants his petition. He always does. It is called free will.
The son left for freedom and ended up in bondage. He traded the palace for the pig pen; Eden for thorny cursed ground. Sound familiar?
He comes to his senses. He finally recognizes that sin takes you where you don’t want to go, keeps you longer than you want to stay, and cost more than you want to pay. I can relate: “Been there, done that!”
He heads back home, but not before determining self-imposed conditions that will make him acceptable to his father. “Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” Though he is the one who rejected his father, he decides how they’ll be reconciled. Hmm, really? Once again, sound familiar?
The condition of the son on his own – he was dead, lost, and dressed in rags. With his father – he was alive, found, and dressed in robes. Why anyone would choose the former over the latter could only be explained by our voluminous depravity.
Mark Twain said, “Having spent considerable time with good people, I can understand why Jesus liked to be with tax collectors and sinners.” That best introduces the older stay-at-home brother. He appears to be a hardworking, respectable, dutiful, good and righteous son devoted to his father. He is none of these things. He is an angry, resentful, prideful person who stores up grievances and cares nothing about what his father cares about. He has no real relationship with his father and certainly wants nothing to do with a brother that smells of pigs and prostitutes.
Jesus made His point. The younger son represents the tax collectors and sinners. The older son is a picture of the Pharisees and the scribes. To the first, the wasteful vagabond, the father goes out to meet him and says, “Come home.” To the second, the near yet so far away religionist, the father goes out to meet him and says, “Come in.”
These three parables really aren’t about lost sheep, lost coins or lost sons. They are about our Heavenly Father. They are in fact about our Prodigal God. While one definition of the word prodigal means wasteful and hence the title of the younger son, the other definitions are extravagant, luxuriant and lavish. And hence they describe the extravagant, luxuriant, and lavish love, mercy, grace and joy of our Father. “And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” That’s our Father!
Gary Inrig in his book, The Parables, says, “This running rejoicing celebrating God of love, mercy and grace is the God the Pharisees do not know.” The tax collectors and sinners didn’t really know this God either. And wherever we are – we need to come to know our running rejoicing celebrating prodigal God. That’s our Father!