The Prodigal Son (God’s Reckless Love)

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet… for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry” (Luke 15:21-22, 24, NRSV).

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well-known stories of Jesus. Although many pastors, teachers, and biblical scholars refer to it as the story of the prodigal son, the word prodigal does not appear in the Bible. The son is best characterized as lost, emphasizing that all sinners are lost or alienated from God. To characterize him as “prodigal” casts too much emphasis on wayward lifestyle. If we limit our analysis of the prodigal son to his wanton worldly behavior, we will miss the point of the story. It is in fact more akin to the tale of the lost sheep. This story is meant to demonstrate that we  do not have to stay in our hopeless state. Moreover, it is an example of Scripture imitating life, in that it shows us what repentance means: turning away from sin and back toward the Father; doing a 180 as they call it.

Eugene Peterson puts the story of the prodigal son under the heading The Story of the Lost Son in his translation The Message. This parable shows the nature of repentance, and, more importantly, the joy and the willingness of God to welcome and restore all who return to Him. It shows us the riches of the gospel and its efficacy to overcome any form of sin. Matthew Henry draws a unique parallel between our heavenly Father and the prodigal’s earthy father. He says, “It is bad, and the beginning of worse, when men look upon God’s gifts as debts due to them” (1). Scripture tells us to not seek the wealth of this world. Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

Matthew Henry draws a parallel between the prodigal son and our First Parents. Their foolish ambition to be independent from the Father is at the bottom of every sinner persisting in sin and autonomy. The First Sin relates to man’s departure from God, toward a willful reliance on his own thoughts and valuations rather than ascribing to God’s. We see from the prodigal son that his desire to be free from his father led to a vile, hedonistic, slavish state of being. When we walk in the flesh (fulfilling its every desire) we become the devil’s servant. Walking according to fleshly desires and instincts invariably leads to a state of constant discontent. This is what it means to be a lost sheep, wandering the face of the earth in search of constant gratification, separated from God.

Exegetical Analysis

The parable of the prodigal son reveals two distinct issues: one literary, the other theological. From a literary perspective, the story revolves around two brothers: one younger, the other older. This does not indicate two separate stories, but two parts that compliment one another. Because of this focus on two brothers, it is helpful to analyze this parable from both an existential and historical/sociopolitical perspective. Historically, the “share of the estate” that the younger son would receive on the death of his father would be one-third. Culture during those times dictated that the older son would receive two-thirds, often referred to as a “double portion,” and the second son would receive the remaining one-third (see Deut. 21:17). When the property “was divided” in the story of the prodigal son, the older son was made aware of his share of the father’s assets prior to his father’s death. This was unusual in the prevailing society.

From a sociopolitical perspective, when the prodigal son asked for his portion of the inheritance, it’s as if he wished his father dead! New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey (2), who spent over 15 years in the Middle East, asked a number of people there what it meant for a son to request his inheritance while the father was still alive and well. The answer was always the same: the son wanted his father dead. In that culture, a father was expected to have complete control over his property during his lifetime, so the request of the prodigal son was quite offensive. The father’s willingness to comply with his son’s request was generous beyond all expectations. In addition, the older son in such cases was typically expected to step in and help the father save face with anyone attacking his estate. This does not happen in the parable of the prodigal son; neither son lived up to what was expected.

The wasting of all the son had while “in a foreign land” is culturally understood as acting against the family, whose inheritance can be traced back to the promises of God to Abraham. The famine made employment and food quite hard to get. The “distant country” was likely outside strictly Jewish territory. It is no coincidence that the son also ended up with the demeaning job of feeding pigs—these are unclean animals for the Jews. He had fallen so low that “no one gave him anything,” which indicates a state of complete destitution and neglect.

From a theological perspective, it is important to note there were 100 sheep (15:4), 10 coins (15:8), and 2 sons. One is lost from each number. The sheep and coin were sought after diligently until they were recovered. However, the lost son was not sought after. He was personally responsible for his coming back home. His rebellion was deliberate and “of the heart,” meaning only a change of heart would suffice for his restoration. This is extremely important from a theological perspective. It is one thing to “know” in your head what is right and what is wrong, but it is a different matter to make a heart-felt decision to change one’s behavior, one’s path—to “do a 180” as I said earlier. This was quite true regarding my wandering in the wilderness for decades in active addiction, making choices that belied morality. I never considered this crucial element in the prodigal son’s restoration before now.

The lost son’s behavior is deemed “riotous living” (15:13). The Greek word is asotos, which translates “living ruinously.” It is properly interpreted as meaning “unsavedness” or, by implication, profligacy, suggesting excess or riot. It is from the root asôtia, referring to being “not savable; incorrigible, dissolute, beyond hope.” It also implies debauchery or drunkenness (see Eph. 5:18). Of course, theologically speaking, the lost son “came to himself” (Luke 15:17). His condition brought him to his senses and he realized how his riotous life would end. Further, he considered his current predicament as being worse than his father’s hired servants, who had bread enough to spare (15:17). He decided he would return to his father’s house and ask his forgiveness.

The prodigal son showed true repentance—confession of sin, genuine sorrow, and humility. The Greek word for repentance in this verse is metanoeo, meaning “to change one’s mind for the better” (see Luke 13:3). This is more than forsaking sin; it involves a complete change in one’s attitude and orientation toward all sinful behavior. In fact, it is this degree of repentance God expects from us as a condition for receiving His forgiveness and grace. The prodigal son demonstrated complete humility. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son” (15:21). 

The motivation for the son’s return was hunger, but theologically it was to his “father” that he wanted to return; not to the dinner table. The words “against heaven” (15:21) can mean “to heaven,” indicating he believed his sins were so many as to reach the Heavenly Father—perhaps he believed his sins were ultimately against God. The Jews were aware of Yahweh’s “fatherly” love. Psalm 103:13 says, “As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him.” The son knew he had no right to return “as a son.” He imagined saying to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (15:19). In other words, he planned to earn his room and board when he returned home.

The Lost Has Been Found!

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I have sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found! And they began to have a wonderful time” (15:20-24, MSG).

What does this parable tell us? We’ve looked at several specific words and phrases (lexical items), such as “loose living” (15:13), “came to himself” (15:17), and repentance (15:21; 13:3). Looking at these words and phrases as they appear in utterances, verses, stanzas, and the text as a whole, we see the “completeness” of this story. This great parable speaks of true repentance and the complete joy a father has for a penitent son. Jesus addressed the “murmurings” of the Pharisees early in the story, saying “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (15:4-5). He then drove the point home: “Just so, 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” (15:7).

The details in this story are vivid and moving. Further, they accurately reflect actual customs and legal procedures of the relevant time period. The older son is much like the Pharisees. He could not comprehend the meaning of true forgiveness. In fact, the viewpoints of the two sons are diametrically opposed. The lost son rises and returns; the older son turns and walks away from his father in disgust, falling in moral stature. The central figure, the father, remains constant in his unconditional love for both sons regardless of their behavior or their attitude. Jesus identifies himself with God in his loving attitude toward the lost. He represents God’s perspective during his entire ministry on earth. This parable is one of the greatest examples of God’s willingness to forgive and to accept the return of every lost son or daughter. 

Concluding Remarks

Who are you in this parable? Are you the lost son, a Pharisee, a servant? Are you the older son who was bitter and jealous over the father’s forgiveness and blessing of the younger son who repented and returned home? Are you able to rejoice when a lost sheep is found, or are you taken captive by a righteous indignation, saying, “Why do you lavish him so? He disrespected and disowned you! I’ve been here all along. Where is my adoration?”

Family dynamics is rather fascinating. Even in the family of an addict or alcoholic we can see various roles played out: the Scapegoat (the one blamed for every wrong and ill within the family, sometimes the addict); the Punisher (often a sibling who has “always been there” for the family, and who doles out “consequences” on the addict or protects the family from the addict); the Enabler (usually a member who covers for the addict, trying to smooth things over or restore peace and order in the family, giving him or her enough rope to maybe change one day); the Hero (usually a Type-A personality who is hard-working, overachieving, a perfectionist, who is trying to create a degree of normalcy in the family); the Masot (often the funny, outgoing, class clown of the family always trying to quell the stress of the situation by supplying humor); and the Lost Child (often the middle or youngest child, shy, withdrawn, usually hates confrontation, and has difficulty with establishing outside relationships).

The parable of the prodigal son provides a wealth of theological meaning and puts an historical and sociopolitical spin on the nature of family dynamics during the era when this story was told. It can serve as an in-depth analysis of dysfunctional families today, showing us how easily we can resent the success of others; acceptance of a rebellious, riotous son or daughter who is welcomed back into the fold; righteous indignation by others in the family when a wayward son or daughter returns. It is not easy to forgive others who have harmed us or our loved ones. Thankfully, the parable of the prodigal son can serve to broaden our horizons regarding true repentance, unconditional love, and forgiveness. This is, after all, the point of the gospel itself.

Footnotes
(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 962.
(2) Jirair Tashjian, “Inheritance Practices in the First Century,” The Voice, Christian Resource Institute (2018). URL: http://www.crivoice.org/inheritance.html

Your AHA! Moment

Jillian will be born in August. As she grows, Jillian will develop a learning disability that will prevent her from learning to read at the appropriate age. Due to this disability, she will struggle with school for the rest of her years as a student. Despite her best efforts, her grades will always be average. In high school, Jillian will become friends with a girl named Megan. They will share secrets and be nearly inseparable for much of their junior year. But Megan will be diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer, and she will pass away just as the senior year begins. Jillian will mourn the loss, and her grades will suffer for it.

She will attend a local community college, working a job and taking a small course load. The two-year program will take her three-and-a-half years to complete, and just before heading to a state school, Jillian will be involved in a drunk driving accident. A drunk driver will hit her from behind, pushing her car into an intersection, where a family of three will swerve to avoid her. They skid off the road, hit a tree, and their youngest son will die.Though the fault isn’t hers, Jillian will blame herself for his death and spiral down into deep depression.

Eventually, she will make it to a state school, finish her degree and get a job working for a food distributor. She will love her job. Just as a promotion comes her way, an economic downturn will force the company to lay off much of their management, which now includes Jillian. In the devastating economic climate, Jillian will struggle to get work, and eventually she will file for bankruptcy, selling her house and moving in to a small studio apartment to make ends meet. Though she will strive to get back on her feet, the economy will make it increasingly hard to do so, and she’ll spend a few years living month-to-month.

She will eventually find another job, but due to her bankruptcy and season of unemployment, she won’t be able to retire the way she had hoped, nor will she ever make as much as she used to. She will have to work hard into her old age, piecing her life back together.

Obviously, Jillian is not born yet, but she would soon be. This scenario was presented to a group of people by psychologist Johnathan Haidt. The exercise is laid out in a book by Kyle Idleman called AHA. Awakening. Honesty. Action. The question for the participants was what hardship would you erase first from Jillian’s life? Most chose to eliminate the learning disability and the car accident and the financial hardships. We love our children and would want them to live a life without hardships, pains, and setbacks. We would all prefer our children’s lives to be free from pain and anguish.

But ask yourself: Is that really best?

Do we really think a privileged life of smooth sailing is going to make our kids happy? What if you erase a hardship that’s going to show them how to be joyful in spite of any circumstance? What if you erase some pain and suffering that ends up being the catalyst God uses in their lifetime to cause them to cry out to Him? What if you erase a difficult circumstance that wakes them up to God’s purpose for their life?

Did you know that the number one contributor to spiritual growth is not sermons, books, blog posts, or study groups? The number one contributor to spiritual growth is difficult circumstances. I can tell you this from personal experience spending thirty-seven years as an active drug addict and alcoholic, struggling constantly with difficult circumstances caused by my own actions and decisions. My addiction took me to three years in a state prison. I can point also to hundreds of other alcoholics and addicts who did the exact same thing.

Your AHA!  moment comes out of the sufferings, setbacks and challenges of life. Many people could point to those moments as their greatest moments of spiritual awakening.

Sometimes it takes cancer to awaken us to things of eternal value.

Sometimes it takes unemployment to awaken us to a deeper prayer life.

Sometimes it takes a broken heart to finally let Jesus in.

Difficult circumstances don’t always wake us up; some times they cause us to turn over, cover our heads with a pillow, and go back to sleep. Disappointment in life will often bring about one of two very different responses: We will either cry out to God in desperation, or we will distance ourselves from God.

Right now someone is reading this excerpt from Johnathan Haidt who is experiencing difficult circumstances. In your pain and disappointment, there is a part of you that wants to turn from God and walk away. But don’t waste the pain. In 2 Corinthians 7:10, we read, “For God sometimes uses sorrow in our lives to help us turn away from sin and seek eternal life.” It doesn’t say “God causes,” rather it says “God uses.”He wants us to use rough circumstances to draw closer to Him.

I have, from time to time, participated in Bible study groups at two local county prisons. They would file in to the room, one after another, accompanied by a guard. This is a minimum security county jail, so they are not shackled and handcuffed. You can tell there’s not much pretense or pride, however. It’s hard to get caught up in impressing people when everyone wears the same outfit — an outfit that claims they are bad or guilty or outcast.

The inmates could teach the church a thing or two about authenticity and transparency. Over the few years I’ve been visiting with these men, I’ve noticed something. They say, “Well, now I’ve really hit rock bottom haven’t I?” I have never understood this mentality that we have to hit rock bottom before reaching out for help. This is also evident in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. It seems a man has to be stripped of everything and have no prospects before he is willing to admit that his way simply is not working.

Listen to me, I don’t know what it’s going to take, but I know you don’t have to hit rock bottom. You can wake up now. You can come to your senses today. This can be your AHA! moment.

Consider this: A paraphrase of the return of the Prodigal Son.

A young man walks down a long road. We can see he wears torn clothes. His sleeves are caked with mud. The young man crests the horizon, plodding along. But suddenly, the weary figure is blocked from view. Another figure is running toward him. This older man runs full tilt toward the worn and filthy figure. The two reach one another and embrace. The younger man, solemn and holding back tears, tries to speak. The older man doesn’t even seem to hear him — he kisses the young man, and tears of joy stream down his face. He looks back and calls to someone.

We see a courtyard full of people. Tables are set up everywhere, covered with a full spread of food. The guests aren’t eating yet. Every eye is on a larger table in the corner of the courtyard. The young man now wears a resplendent robe, and some color has returned to his cheeks. He smiles, watching as the older man, standing at the head of this table, addresses the crowd. He raises his cup. Everybody in attendance raises their cups and toasts along with the old man, applauding after they drink.

Redemption is indeed a mighty thing. When you suddenly realize that you can not go another minute without God in your life, without his guidance and love and strength and power and faith and grace and wisdom, you have hit your AHA! moment. There truly is nothing sweeter.