“There was a man who had two sons, and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate which is coming to me.’ So his father apportioned his property to his sons. A few days later, the younger son turned all his assets into cash and left home for a distant land. There he squandered his inheritance with extravagant living. After he had spent everything, a terrible famine struck that country and he faced starvation. He went to work for a local landowner who sent him to his farm to tend pigs. He yearned to appease his hunger with the bean pods the pigs fed upon, for no one gave him anything. But when he came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘My father’s servants have an abundance of food and here I am starving. I will go to my father and say, Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I no longer deserve to be your son: employ me as one of your hired servants.’ He then set out to see his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was deeply moved with empathy. He ran and threw his arms around his neck and tenderly kissed him repeatedly. Then the son said to his father, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you and am no longer worthy to be regarded as your son.’ But the father gave orders to his servants, ‘Bring my best robe and put it on him, put my ring on his hand and sandals on his feet, then bring forth the calf we are fattening and we will feast and celebrate, for my son has been restored to life again. I thought I had lost him, but he is found!’ And they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:11-24, paraphrased)
The fifteenth chapter of Luke is comprised of three stories regarding things that were lost but later recovered. They express the joy of those who find a lost sheep (vv. 1-7), a lost coin (vv. 8-10), and lost son (vv. 11-24).
The story of the prodigal son can be outlined:
Rebellion (vv. 11-13)
Desperation (vv. 14-16)
Conversion (vv. 17-19)
Restoration (vv. 20-24).
The story echoes the words of Christ, who said, “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk.19:10).
Those attempting to describe the character of the young man in this parable label him “the prodigal.” The word means “reckless, extravagant and wasteful.” It has been called “The Pearl of the Parables,” for it perfectly describes how a sinner can go from rags to riches. Charles Dickens deemed it “the greatest short story ever written.”
Jesus often teaches about God the Father through familial analogies. He receives parental satisfaction when His children are obedient, but He educates them by any means necessary. From the onset, Jesus makes it clear His story concerns two sons, not just one. Note that Jesus speaks of two sons, not two brothers. The focus here is on the younger son’s relationship with his father. In a separate but related story, the elder brother is the focus later in the chapter (vv. 25-32).
The family in Jesus’ story is wealthy. He refers to an estate, an expensive robe, a ring, a large feast and numerous servants. Upon the death of a father, Jewish law allotted half as much to the younger son as the elder (Deut. 21:17). But in any culture, it is considered inappropriate for a son to ask for an inheritance while his father is alive. The prodigal does not seem to have a plan, a goal, or a vision for his future. He does not sit down with his father to discuss what to do with his life. Ingratitude and presumption blind him from understanding what his father wants him to become.
The story sheds light on the deep-seated need for a young person to live on their own, independent of parental oversight. Because his freedom requires funding, the prodigal presumptuously insists on receiving his inheritance prematurely. When the son speaks the words, “Give me what is mine,” he is making a distinction between what belongs to his father and what belongs to him. Through his words and subsequent actions, the son effectively severs his relationship with him. By demanding his inheritance early, he is treating his father as if he is already dead.
Respecting his freedom to choose, the wise father grants his son’s request. Sometimes a parent gives a child what he wants in order to show him what he needs. A father often lets his child learn the hard way. If his son is to be cured, the cure will be found in an excessive and sinful lifestyle. His father knows a child who is sick of home eventually becomes homesick.
The prodigal soon sets out to distance himself from his father. His hasty decision to leave suggests the boy has already given his situation a great deal of thought. We are not told his destination; only that it is far away. Perhaps any place seems suitable, as long as it is far from his father, far from restrictions and far from responsibility.
Upon his arrival in a distant land, he embarks on a spending spree and squanders all his resources. What the father gave generously, his son wastes selfishly. We are spared the details of his wild lifestyle. Greed for the best things always leads to the worst things. Covetousness and materialism lead to poverty and sin. Sin always wastes what the father provides. Many prodigals waste their health, their finances, and their future potential. Personal gratification is the cruelest slavery of all. To serve one’s self is to serve a hard taskmaster who is never satisfied. The prodigal represents the entire human race, estranged from God, carelessly throwing away their lives.
The prodigal’s sudden inheritance breeds irresponsibility. His motto seems to be, “Eat, drink and be merry” (Lk. 12:19). But his flagrant spending gains him only fair-weather friends. Many people try to buy companionship, only to find their friends are gone soon after their money is gone. Sin causes us to lose both our money and our integrity. All too soon, the prodigal finds he is penniless, friendless and homeless. A famine rages in this country as a spiritual famine rages in his soul.
The prodigal is mesmerized by the newness of the far country, his new friends, and his new liberty. He is unskilled and unprepared to earn his own way in life. Estranged from his father, he is forced to find menial employment. He set himself up to be deceived and exploited. Because Jews are forbidden to eat or own swine, to feed them is seen as the most degrading employment possible (Lev. 11:7).
The prodigal leaves home to be his own boss, but finds himself serving a cruel one. The nameless pig farmer is best analogized as Satan. The devil always leads individuals toward the pigpen of despair. Satan tries to debase us, while the Father stands ready to affirm our true value. Before he left home, the son never dreamed he would end up in a pigsty. Any job we find out of the father’s will leaves us dissatisfied. Rebelliousness promises freedom, but it is only freedom to serve pigs. The prodigal’s travels have taken him down a dead-end street.
After his money is spent, his newfound friends apparently see him as expendable. Although they were with him when he wastes his fortune, they are conspicuously absent when he is in the pigpen. Because the pigs are being fattened for the market, they fare better than he. As far as the owner is concerned, the pigs have more value than the prodigal. Living in sin degrades a man until he envies pigs. When the son leaves his father’s protection, he never imagines one day pig slop will be appetizing.
Some lessons are only learned in the pigpen. His complete decimation represents the end result of living in sin to the extreme. The son’s freedom has become bondage. Hunger pangs cause him to recall his father’s abundant estate. He wakens from his nightmare to dream of home. When he comes to himself, his thoughts turn to his father. Amid the stench of the pigs, he remembers the sweet smell of his father’s house. The choice is whether to sit at his father’s table or starve among the swine. No one who has been in the pigpen finds this decision a difficult one. To the son’s credit, he does not blame his friends, his boss or the pigs: he blames himself. Sin drives us to desperation and desperation drives us toward God. The journey home lasts from the time we come to our senses until we reach our Father’s arms.
Living any place outside the Father’s house is not really living. Sometimes a person must lose everything before he appreciates what he once had. The son does not think seriously about his father until he really needs his help. Desire alone is insufficient to alter his circumstances. Even regretting his sins is not enough. Because his repentance is genuine, he puts his words into action. He does not let pride stand in his way. He quits his job in the pigsty. He has no money for new clothes, therefore he must travel destitute and without resources. But the desire to be with his Father motivates him homeward. He wants to communicate with him and he rehearses his confession. His words, “Father, I have sinned,” prove he knows his former lifestyle is an offense against his father. He resolves to escape his current pitiful condition, but can only imagine his father’s reaction when he arrives. His desire to return to his father is accompanied with sincere sorrow for his offenses against him.
Feelings of guilt and unworthiness plague the prodigal. But he will return to his father even if it means living in disgrace. To be a servant in his father’s house will be a promotion from pig farming. He is now ready to serve his father in any capacity he deems right for him. He is willing to work in the field, as long as it is his father’s field. He fully expects to be put on probation. But his willingness to take the lowest position allows his father to elevate him to a higher position (Lk. 14:19). How he imagines his father will respond only proves how little he really knows him. He will yield himself to his father unreservedly. When one submits to God without terms or conditions, He pardons without terms or conditions. The prodigal’s scripted prayer indicates how he views his father, but the father’s response indicates how he views his son.
Implementation of God’s plan of salvation demands what is perfectly epitomized in these verses:
1. Become aware of your true condition – “he came to himself”
2. Acknowledge God’s abundant provision – “my father’s servants have bread to spare”
3. Realize this is a matter of life and death – “I perish with hunger”
4. Resolve to find God – “I will arise and go to my father”
5. Confess your transgressions against Him – “I will say I have sinned”
6. Comprehend your own unworthiness – “I am not worthy to be called your son”
7. Act upon this knowledge – “he arose and came to his father”
The father knows his son must come home of his own free will. Seeing him “a great way off” indicates the Father always expected him to return home one day. The father spots him through the telescope of his fraternal love.
One can only imagine the wonderful scene. Perhaps at twilight, the father sees a shabby, emaciated silhouette coming down the road. Perhaps his initial thought is that it must be one of his servants. But then he realizes even they are dressed better than this stranger. The fine clothes the prodigal wore when he left home are now in tatters. The father’s heart beats faster as he realizes it really is his long lost son.
He sees his son before his son sees him. As he limps toward his father, his father begins to run toward him. The only place in the Bible where our heavenly Father is depicted as running is when He runs to meet the prodigal. It may be said that the Father only runs to meet prodigals. He does not run because he has to; he runs because he wants to. His reaction to his son’s arrival proves he has never stopped caring about him. Through all his trials in that distant land, his father was always there with him in spirit. Although he lost his father’s money, he never lost his father’s love.
The son has imagined he will initiate the reconciliation process, but his father beats him to it. His father expresses his forgiveness before the son has a chance to speak. While a single kiss may be only a token, multiple kisses express the deepest affection and acceptance. The Greek terms used here indicate the father kisses his son eagerly several times. Repeated kisses emphasize the completeness of his restoration. No returning prodigal ever fully comprehends the meaning behind his father’s kisses.
Soon after the prodigal left home, he gets what he deserves. When he repents and returns home, he gets what he does not deserve. He finds back at home what he had left home to find. The cycle of restoration is now complete, for he has come from “Give me” (v. 12) to “Forgive me” (v. 21).
The prodigal makes no attempt to justify himself. He is determined to surrender to his father’s will. His rehearsed speech consists of three parts (vv. 18-19). “I have sinned. I am not worthy to be your son. Make me one of your servants.” These words seem to be engraved on his heart. But scripted prayers save no one. When a man is ready to be a servant, the Father is ready to reinstate him as his son. The father will not allow him to give the last part of his speech. God does not want us to be slaves in His household, but members of His family. The father never denies his son has sinned, but the sordid details are irrelevant. When the son takes ownership of his sins, the father makes them all disappear. The prodigal asks only for forgiveness, but the father gives him love, status and riches beyond his wildest dreams.
Although the son has returned, what happens next is up to the father. Now it is the father’s turn to speak. If the father scolds him, few will blame him. But he does not verbally abuse him and say, “How dare you come back here!” “Look at what you’ve done to yourself!” “You stink!” “Sleep in the barn for a few days; then maybe we’ll talk.” “Where is my money?”
Instead, the father kisses his sins away. No one kisses someone they are angry with. There is no probation period for the truly repentant heart. Neither is a detailed confession a prerequisite for unconditional forgiveness. Absolute pardon means permanent restoration. God promises to remember our sins no more, to remove them as far as the east is from the west and casts them into the depths of the sea (Jer. 31:34, Ps. 103:12 & Micah 7:19). The Father keeps no record of forgiven sins.
With the grunting of the pigs still fresh in his ears, he now hears his fathers loving words. The father’s joy is further expressed by the expediency of his commands. He immediately calls for his finest robe to be wrapped around his son. A ring is given to him as a mark of his father’s favor. Because only servants are barefooted, shoes are brought to verify his status as a son. He is showered with the tokens of restoration.
Overwhelmed by his father’s response, the son is speechless. Concerning the prodigal’s return, Charles Spurgeon said, “Mercy ran to meet him, love embraced him, grace kissed him, wisdom clothed him, truth gave him the ring, peace shod him, and compassion provided the feast.” Only God can move us from a pigpen to a mansion.
When we confess our past sins, the father assures us of his future blessings. The robe, the ring, the shoes and the exuberance all prove the son’s restoration is instantaneous, complete and permanent. But lest anyone think the father’s grace ends here, the best calf, kept ready for a festive occasion, is roasted for a party. The father has forgiven his son and now invites everyone to share his joy. There is music and dancing (v. 25). The prodigal son did not come home to condemnation – but to a celebration. The feast represents the spiritual food which we need, but only the Father can provide. When a lost soul returns to God, he always finds Him to be more merciful than he could have imagined.
The operative words in this final verse are “lost” and “found.” This is the same boy who boldly asked for an early inheritance some months before, but he is now a son humbled by his father’s mercy. Although the son’s attitude has changed, the father’s attitude has remained consistent. The father describes his son as having been dead. Sin leads us to spiritual death and only the father can restore us to life. When the shepherd finds his lost sheep, he calls his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him (15:6). When the woman finds her lost coin, she calls her friends and neighbors as well (15:9). When the father finds his son, his servants rejoice (vv. 23-24). When a sinner repents, the Father and His angels celebrate with him (v. 10).
While the prodigal feasts at his father’s table, his former friends are living in famine in the far country. The Father can provide blessings that cannot be obtained apart from a close, personal relationship with Him. In the beginning, the prodigal only wants a monetary inheritance. In the end, he realizes his relationship with his father is his inheritance. The son takes the last few steps into his father’s home with confidence and assurance, for he is still warmed by his father’s embrace.
“I’ll not die here for lack of bread,
In this strange and foreign land –
My father’s house has a great supply
And generous are his hands”
“What have I gained by sin,” he said
“But hunger, shame and fear?
My father’s house has all I need
While I am starving here.
I’ll go and tell him what I’ve done,
Ashamed to look into his face;
Unworthy to be called his son,
I’ll seek a servant’s place.”
His father saw him coming back
The one who sin defiled;
He saw, then ran to hug the neck
Of his rebellious child.
“O, father, I have sinned: forgive!”
“Enough!” The father said
“Rejoice, my house: my son’s alive!
The one who once was dead!
Now let the fatted calf be slain
And spread the news around –
My son was dead, but lives again –
Was lost, but now is found !”
by Reginald Mundy
Runaway son, returning,
To the father’s warm embrace;
You feel the home-again heartbeat
As his arms are wrapped round your neck…
And your head sinks on his shoulder.
Amazed at the gracious grasp;
You almost look behind you,
Lest it be meant for another …
But it is not for another: it is for you.
You did not dream such compassion
Could be exemplified,
Nor that your father
Could extend such mercy,
But your uncertainty melts
As you experience his perfect pardon,
Your dam of guilt gives way
To his flood of compassionate love.
Runaway son, returned!
Tomorrow you begin anew.
As you face the elder brother’s grudge,
Remember your father’s love will be there too.
The story of the prodigal is both a warning and an encouragement. The true soul winner always rejoices to hear it. The Father today still waits for prodigals to return. We must demonstrate to others the forgiveness the Father demonstrates to us. As the father never gave up hope for his son, so we must not give up hope for others. The Father always keeps a light burning in His window…just in case.
- Points to Ponder
1. Why would employment in a pig sty be especially objectionable for a Jew? (See Deut.14:8 & Isa. 65:4)
2. The prodigal received an unexpected welcome. How does his greeting parallel the one Jacob received in Genesis 33:4?
The father gave the prodigal a ring. What is the significance of giving and
receiving a ring in each of the following passages?
3. Genesis 41:42
4. Esther 3:10
5. Esther 8:2
Note the prodigal’s first words to his father. From the following verses, name others who made similar confessions:
6. Exodus 10:16
7. Numbers 22:34
8. I Samuel 15:24
9. II Samuel 12:13
10. Job 7:20
11. When you came home to the Father, what did He say to you?
Was the reception different than what you expected?
Express how it feels to be in your Father’s house.