THE PRODIGAL FATHER
Josh 5:9, 10-12; 2Cor 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
In today’s gospel, Luke 15:11-32, we have one of the most beautiful and powerful pictures given to us of the love of God. The episode is known as the story of THE PRODIGAL SON. The story is really as much about THE FATHER as his two sons.
- THE SON WHO ABANDONED HIS FAMILY
The story begins with Jesus introducing us to the characters in the story: a man and his two sons. He tells us the story of the younger son first.
This son wanted to have some fun in life. He was tired of hanging around home and was tired of being given instructions by his parents (and probably his older brother). He wanted out! One day he came to his father and asked him for his share of the family estate. In other words, he was tired of waiting for dad to die so he could get his inheritance! The inheritance would have been mostly land. In the Jewish culture (much like in a farming community today) family land was precious. Since he was the younger son he was entitled to one-third of the family holdings. Notice, the Father also gave the older son his share of the estate. (Lk 15:12 “So he divided his property between them”.) The younger son immediately sold his part of the land (he liquidated his assets) and took off.
Let this sink in. Let us imagine that this family had owned a family farm for about 150 years. After the senior members of the family die the farm is divided between two children. The first child is grateful and considers farming the land to be an honored trust. The second son wants the cash and sells his share to someone other than the brother. This, of course, might have caused some hard feelings! Once this young man gets his cash he heads to a distant country (a big city) and “enjoys life”. During this time, the young man has lots of friends and he is popular. He has beautiful and expensive clothes, and he enjoys “great meals”. He buys himself a big house and life is good. But, unfortunately, the money does not last forever, not with a bank account which knows only ‘withdrawals’ and no ‘deposits’. Soon, he is forced to sell his fancy car. Next, he sells his house, and rents an apartment, because he can no longer pay the large utility bills. Suddenly, as is always the case, all those “friends” go underground – they disappear. It is often said that “Once the carcass has been picked clean the vultures fly away”. (In Pidgin English: When juju don take fowl, dance e finish!)
The worse happens, next: a famine comes to the land. To put in terms of today, there is a serious recession. Because of a devaluation of currency, the young son loses the little he has left in the bank. He can no longer pay his rents. He is forced to perch in the home of one ‘friend’ to the next, until no one can tolerate him any longer. In order to eat and barely survive, he takes a job of looking after pigs. (As a Jew, pigs were considered spiritually unclean. To have to work with pigs for a Gentile was considered the lowest kind of employment). While working there, it dawns on this young man that the pigs are eating better than he is. He is so hungry that he thinks about fighting the pigs for the junk food. Finally, he comes to his senses. He sees himself clearly and realizes that he has made a mess of his life. He was foolish to have left home. He realizes that he had treated his father shamefully. He is filled with sorrow for his choices and wishes he could just go back home. He knew that he had burnt the bridge that could take him home. He knows he doesn’t deserve to be made a part of the family again. He decides to ask for a job as one of the hired workers. So, he sets out on his way home, begging for a ride here and there.
This son represents those who have at one time or another walked away from God:
- Due to some heartache or disappointment in life. You may have concluded that if this is the way God is treating you, then you want no part of Him.
- Some have abandoned God due to bad influences from self-indulgent friends, or from teachers when you went to the university (where faith is relentlessly attacked).
- Or again, due to your love for some sinful practice and a desire to silence the voice of conscience in you.
Many people walk away from God because they believe life will be better without Him. They all soon discover the same thing: that superficial things entice and excite for a little while. These things always leave us empty because they cannot deliver that the satisfaction that was dreamt of. Unfortunately, when people realize the emptiness of their lives, when they “come to their senses”, they often feel it is too late. Some feel that they have no right to ask anything from God. They get discouraged. But they are told, today, that God is waiting for them with open arms.
- THE FATHER WHO WAITED
The star of this story is the Father. His son has treated him shamefully. Out of love he had let his son go. Now that son is coming home. And we are told, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Lk 15:20). The Father saw his son because he was watching out for him. When he saw him coming down the road he did not rehearse a speech of how to rebuke the scoundrel. He did not turn and walk away; instead he threw off all dignity and decorum and ran down the lane and embraced his son. The embrace was long and emotional. The son started his speech, but the Father already knew his son’s heart. He called for the servants and said, “We’re going to have a party! Kill the fattened calf!”
This scene reveals to us a Prodigal Father, Prodigal God. The word “prodigal” does not mean “wayward” or “unruly”. The dictionary meaning is “recklessly spendthrift” or “wasteful.” It means to spend until you have nothing left. This term is therefore as appropriate for describing the father in the story as his younger son. The father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to “reckon” or count the son’s sin against him or demand repayment. This is the kind of love that God has for anyone who “comes to his/her senses” and returns to God with a repentant heart. The message is amazing: if you will repent then no matter where you have been, no matter what you have done, no matter what you have squandered, or how low you have sunk, the Father in Heaven will welcome you home as one of His children. The Prophet Isaiah quotes God as declaring to his unfaithful people: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall become like wool” (Is 1:18). To this effect, Jesus says: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7).
If the story had ended here it would still be a great story. But we need to hear about the older son more than we do the younger.
- THE OLDER BROTHER
Many people feel that it does not seem fair that a person who has lived most of his/her life rebelling against God and ignoring God’s commands should receive forgiveness and end up in Heaven just like the person who had lived faithfully before the Lord. Many people resent “death-bed-repentance”, like that of the repentant thief of the cross, next to Jesus. To this criminal, Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:42-42). This kind of ‘last minute repentance’ is in essence, the complaint of this older brother. It does not seem fair to him that a child who has treated his father so shamefully, who traded off the family heritage in order that he could waste the money on indulgences, should be given a party when he comes home.
But that’s not all. The brother said, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Lk 15:29-30) Clearly, one can understand how this young man must have felt:
- It does not seem fair that one child be left to grab more than other children in the house.
- It is not fair when a person who does less work makes more money than those who do more work (as in the case of the Parable of the labourers in the vineyard, where the ‘late arrivals’ were payed the same amount as the ‘very-early arrivals’ —Mtt 20:1-16)
- It is not right that the self-absorbed guy always seems to get the larger share of the cake.
- It does not seem right that the new-comer to a church should get more attention than the person who has been there for years?
- It is not fair that someone jumps the cue, while you have been respectfully waiting for your just turn.
No normal human beings will tolerate such apparent injustice! But that’s God’s way!
Now, what did the older son actually want? Very evidently, he wanted the same thing as his brother. He was just as resentful of the father as was the younger son. While the younger son made horrible mistakes and knew that he could never deserve grace, the older son tried to live a good life and felt he deserved the Father’s blessing! The older son missed the fact that even though he was the “better” child, he was still dependent on God’s grace. We become like the elder brother when we begin to believe that we deserve God’s blessing because we have avoided the most blatant and distasteful sins. Quite often, we miss the fact that we are filled with pride, we are ruled by our feelings and desires, we are imprisoned by jealousy and bitterness; and we feel free to pick and choose which commands we will obey and which we will ignore. For instance,
- We may pay our tithes/Church contributions but we refuse to forgive
- We may read the Bible every day but we refuse to put God first in our calendar
- We may go to church every week but on the way home we gossip about all the hypocrites who were in attendance
- We may be able to explain Christian doctrine perfectly and spot a false teacher immediately but we are filled with wicked thoughts and hateful words
- We may serve the church faithfully but we cannot do so without telling the whole world what we have done.
The older brother needed the mercy and grace of the father just as much as the younger brother.
How consoling for us, sinners to know that God is like the father in the parable, and not like the elder son! God does not condemn; he does not write off anyone. All of us, sinners can heave a sigh of relief at that, knowing that ours is not a lost cause. God is always there to forgive us the moment we repent.
- APPLICATIONS OUR DAILY LIVES
Let us draw a few applications from this story:
- a) We must take particular note of the Father’s response to the elder brother: “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” The older son seems to feel that he has been cheated because he didn’t get to go out and sin like his brother did. He portrays a nasty mind. There was no mention of “prostitutes” in the whole narrative until he brought them up. Here, one may have a feeling that he accused his brother of sins he would have liked to commit himself. Some people would want us to think that those who have had done dirty things, indulged themselves with lots of stuff, and partied hard every weekend somehow were enjoying life more than those who tried to live in obedience and walked with the Lord. No! Let no one envy them, because the pleasures of sin are short-lived. If you watch such people long enough, you discover that their lives are shallow, their families may be in a mess, their enjoyment artificial; and these persons never seem to have enough. The elder brother felt cheated but he discounted the incredible blessing that he had of the abiding presence and enjoyment of his Father. Furthermore, he did not have the regret, the scars, or the lines of people whom he had hurt along the way. He did not have to live with the shame or experience the emptiness and loneliness of what is means “to hit bottom”. Let us avoid overlooking the blessings of obedience.
- b) Avoid negativity: The older brother’s attitude seemed cold and totally lacking in sympathy. Notice he does not speak about “my brother” — he says “your son”. One gets the feeling that he is one of those self-righteous types who would cheerful kick someone who is down even further into the gutter. In every community, “older brothers” abound. They think that they have the right to judge and condemn those who do not see eye to eye with them.
- c) The story urges us to reach out to others. The context of the story was that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were upset that Jesus was hanging around with tax collectors and sinners. The gospel is not a prize to be hoarded so that others do not “get what we have”. The gospel is a grace we are to share. We are not at all diminished when others come to the same Saviour like ourselves. In fact, when we see others experience the grace of God it should remind us that we too have been given something wonderful. We should celebrate and be glad that one who was lost is now found.
- d) We are also challenged to be like the father, that is, God, and not the elder son. That being the case, we should not condemn or write off anyone, no matter how utterly depraved or sinful we may think someone is. Like God, our Father, we should be prepared to give every sinner another chance. We should help them to take that chance, if we are in a position to do so. If we cannot do anything much for the sinner to repent, we can at least pray for him/her, that God will give him/her a change of heart that will lead to repentance.
- e) Finally, the story leaves us with some questions to ponder. We do not know what the elder son did. Did he repent and go into the party? Did he ever reconcile with his brother? Did he grow increasingly bitter? Whatever our answers, let us remember this: living with the Father is a wonderful privilege. And if we have ever strayed off from God, we can be sure that the Father is waiting and watching for us to come home.