We’ve all heard the saying: a picture is worth a thousand words. It is not as good as the real thing but a picture can communicate more than words can do. Seeing a picture of the mountains of Switzerland is better than trying to describe the mountains. Telling an illustration as a speaker is more effective than many charts and outlines.
When it comes to grasping the love of God, words can only take us so far. This is why God gave us miracles and the great parables of the New Testament. They are pictures designed to communicate what words cannot.
In Luke 15:11-32 we have one of the most beautiful and powerful pictures given to us by God. The story 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 Left
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. (v. 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’s say your family had owned a family farm for 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. Do you think that might cause some hard feelings???
Once this young man gets his cash he heads to a distant country (think “Las Vegas”) and lives it up for a while. During this time he has lots of friends and he is popular. He has nice clothes and great meals. He attends shows, buys a nice condo and life is good. Unfortunately, the money doesn’t last forever. He has to get rid of the leased car and rents an apartment because he can no longer make the payments on the condo. Suddenly, as is always the case, all those “friends” disappear. Once the carcass has been picked clean the vultures fly away.
Next a famine comes to the land. To put this in our day let’s say there is a serious recession. The young son loses the little he has left and is forced to live in a box under a highway overpass. In order to eat he takes a job at the garbage dump shoveling garbage into the landfill. (As a Jew, pigs were considered spiritual unclean. To have to work with pigs for a Gentile was considered the lowest kind of employment). While working at the dump it dawns on this young man that the rats are eating better than he is. He is so hungry he thinks about fighting the rats for the garbage.
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 leave home. He realized he treated his father shamefully. He is filled with sorrow for his choices and wishes he could just go back home.
He believes he can’t go home because he burned that bridge. He knows he doesn’t deserve to be made a part of the family again. He made his choices. He decides to ask for a job as one of the hired hands. Maybe there is enough of a family connection left that His father will give him a job. So, he hitchhikes his way home.
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 if this is the way God is going to treat you, then you want no part of Him.
- Due to bad influences from constantly watching television, from self-indulgent friends, or from teachers when you went off to college (where faith is relentlessly attacked).
- Due to your love for some sinful practice and a desire to silence the voice of conscience.
People walk away from the Lord because they believe life will be better without Him. They all discover the same thing: the superficial things entice and excite for a little while (sin is enjoyable otherwise it wouldn’t be tempting) but they always leave us empty because they cannot deliver what we want: purpose, satisfaction, and a connection to something “beyond us”.
Unfortunately, when people realize the emptiness of their lives, when they “come to their senses” they often feel it is too late. They know after all they have done that they have no right to ask anything of God. They are ready to stop making excuses for their life and take responsibility for their actions. They want to move in a new direction. There is no justification, just a sincere request for an undeserved mercy. The Bible calls this repentance.
The Father Who Waited
The star of the story is the Father. His son has treated him shamefully yet he gave his son the freedom for which he asked. In love, He let His son go. Now that son is coming home. 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. (20)
The Father saw his son because he was watching for him. When he saw him coming down the road he didn’t rehearse a speech of rebuke; he didn’t turn and walk away; instead he threw off all dignity and decorum and ran down the lane and embraced his son. It must have been much like a Father embracing a son who had gone away at war and the father had not heard from his son for months. 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 prized heifer, fire up the grill, and let’s have some steaks!”
It is an amazing picture isn’t it? I love this insight from Tim Keller in his excellent book, Prodigal God.
The word “prodigal” does not mean “wayward” but, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “recklessly spendthrift.” 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 his sin against him or demand repayment. [Keller 69]
This is the kind of love God has for anyone who will “come to their senses” and come to God with a repentant heart. The message is staggering: 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 of Heaven will welcome you home as one of His children.
If the story ended here it would still be a great story. In fact, many people believe the story does end here! That’s unfortunate because we may need to hear about the older son more than we do the younger.
The Son Who Served
We understand the feelings of the older son. I’ve had people say (more than once) that it didn’t seem fair that a person who lived most of their life rebelling against God and ignoring God’s commands could receive forgiveness and end up in Heaven just like the person who had lived faithfully before the Lord.
That’s in essence, the complaint of this brother. It doesn’t seem fair to him that the child who treated his father so shamefully, who traded off the family farm so he could waste the money on indulgences, is 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. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (29-30)
You understand how this guy feels don’t you?
- It doesn’t seem fair that one child seems to get more than others
- It isn’t fair when a person who does less work makes more money than you do
- It isn’t right that the self-absorbed guy always seems to get the girl
- It doesn’t seem right that the newcomer to the church seem to get more attention than the person who has been there for years?
- It isn’t fair that the younger kid is playing ahead of my child who waited his turn?
We say these things all the time. We feel like we are getting short end of the stick.
Do you know who the older brother represents in the story? He represents the Scribes and the Pharisees. He represents those who are religious, who are long-time members of the church. Jesus shows us that you can be a good person on the outside and still be far away from God on the inside. The younger son was estranged from his Father in a foreign land. The older was estranged from his father in his own home. Sin is not about breaking rules . . . it is about putting ourselves in the place of God.
What did the older son most want? If we think about it we realize that he wanted the same thing as his brother. He was just as resentful of the father as was the younger son. He, too, wanted the father’s goods rather than the father himself. However, while the younger brother went far away, the elder brother stayed close and “never disobeyed.” That was his way to get control. His unspoken demand is, “I have never disobeyed you! Now you have to do things in my life the way I want them to be done.” [Keller – Kindle 349]
The first 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 we deserve God’s blessing because we have avoided the most blatant and distasteful sins. Sadly 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.
- We may tithe but we refuse to forgive
- We read the Bible every day but we refuse to put God first in our calendar
- We go to church every week but on the way home we talk about all the hypocrites who were in attendance
- We can explain Christian doctrine perfectly and spot a false teacher immediately but are filled with lustful thoughts or are addicted to pornography.
- We serve the church faithfully but we can’t 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.
Think about it in terms of inheritance. It may not seem fair that someone inherits more than you do but the truth is, you are owed nothing! An inheritance is a gracious gift. Your relative could just as easily have given everything to . . . . your Pastor (or an animal shelter, or to the Red Cross, or toward a community organization). Your bequest is a gift of grace.
Three applications. First, note the Father’s response to the elder brother
“ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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. Do you ever feel that you wish you had done more bad things so that your testimony would be more dramatic? Do you ever think those who have had multiple sex partners, indulged themselves with lots of stuff, and partied hard every weekend somehow were enjoying life more than you who tried to live in obedience and walked with the Lord?
That’s what people want us to think. However the pleasures of sin are short-lived. If you watch people long enough you see that their lives are shallow, their families are a mess, their enjoyment is contrived, and they never have enough. The elder brother felt cheated but he discounted the incredible blessing he had of the abiding presence and enjoyment of his Father. He didn’t have the regret, the scars, or the lines of people he had hurt along the way. He didn’t have to live with the shame or experience the emptiness and loneliness of when you hit bottom.
How often do we overlook the blessings of obedience? This son had everything the Father owned. He had a wonderful and rich inheritance . . . there was no reason to feel cheated or resentful of his younger brother.
Second, the story urges us to reach out to others. The context of the stories was the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were upset that Jesus was hanging around with tax collectors and sinners. All three lost and found stories were spoken to rebuke the Pharisees for their attitude. 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 Savior . . . 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.
There is often tension in a home when a new child comes home from the hospital. Children may feel the new child is taking something from them. They don’t see the bigger picture. This child will be a new playmate, a new friend, a companion for the journeys of life and one who will expand the joy and love of the family. It should be the same way in the household of faith. When we add people to the family we are enriched, not diminished.
Finally, the story leaves us to make a decision. We don’t know what the elder son does. Did he repent and go into the party? Did he ever reconcile with his brother? Did he grow increasingly bitter? We are left to ask ourselves some tough questions.
- Do you feel God owes you? Do you think you deserve His blessing or do you see the deep need of your own soul? Are you ready to stop making excuses and take responsibility for your own life and actions?
- Will you run to God for mercy and grace? Will you come to Him with your hands open rather than your fists clenched? Will you come gratefully and humbly?
- Do you envy those who sin? Do you feel they have a “better deal than you do?” Are you overlooking the incredible and superior blessing that you have in being close to the Father and enlightened by His Word?
Different people respond to different things in a picture. One person will notice the mountains, another will notice the clouds. One person notices the people another can tell you what make of car is in the picture. A picture speaks to different people in different ways.
Think about this picture of the father and his two sons. With whom do you most identify? The restless prodigal who just wanted “out”? The reckless consumption of the one who believes they are living the “good life”? The deep anguish of one who realizes they have made a mess of their life? The angry son who feels cheated? The father who is treated shamefully? Or the one who is stunned by grace and grateful for a new beginning?
Whichever person and scene you most identify remember this: living with the Father is a wonderful privilege. And if you are one who has gone off on his own, be sure of this: the Father is waiting and watching for you to come home.