They meant it as a hateful insult. It turns out to be a thrilling truth.
During the personal ministry of Jesus, as the leaders of the Jewish community (e.g., the Pharisees and the scribes) became increasingly perceptive as to the nature of the Lord’s teaching, they concocted various malicious rumors in their attempts to negate his gracious influence. Some charged that Christ was “a gluttonous man, and a winebibber.” Moreover, they said he was “a friend of publicans and sinners” (Lk. 7:34). Though mean-spirited in design, this last phrase warms the heart of every sincere person who has anguished over his/her sins. In spite of our flaws, the Son of God still wants to be our “friend.”
There may be no greater concentration of divine commentary on the love of God for wayward man than that which is revealed in the trio of parables recorded in Luke 15. These are the narratives of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Boy (more familiarly known as the Prodigal Son).
The stories take their rise from the fact that publicans (tax-collectors) and sinners (particularly vile folks, e.g., the prostitutes; cf. Mt. 21:31) kept drawing near to Jesus, to hear his marvelous lessons. The imperfect tense verb pictures a steady stream seeking out the Master Teacher.
But the more the masses came, the more the Pharisees “murmured” (again an imperfect form). The term, both in the original language and in the English format, is a form of onomatopoeia, i.e., the word is derived from a sound. One can almost hear the buzz of grumbling. Their charge was: This man makes it a practice to receive sinners unto himself, and he habitually socializes with them. As they hovered in the rarified atmosphere of religious snobbery, they feigned horror. And so, in order to highlight the vast difference between the way God views sinners, and the way some men see them, the Lord gave these parable lessons.
In this study we wish to focus upon the third, the parable of the estranged son.
We do not have the space to reproduce the entire narrative (Lk. 15:11-32). The student is encouraged to read the story carefully, savoring each detail. For our study purpose, we will condense the account and focus upon five aspects of it.
The Basic Account
A man had two sons. The younger approached him one day and asked for the immediate bequest of his inheritance. The petition was granted and soon the young man was off to a distant country. There he squandered his resources. That, combined with other dire circumstances, forced him to seek employment as a swine herdsman. His condition was acute. Eventually, he “came to himself,” acknowledged his foolishness, and made his way homeward. From a distance the grieving father saw him coming. He ran and met the wayward lad, and joyously welcomed him home.
Like a great drama with several “acts,” the parable of the Prodigal Son has various movements worthy of close analysis. Preliminarily, though, let us simply say that the father in the story is God, and the boy represents those who depart from him.
It is perhaps no great mystery that a restless young man should want to explore the world. Fascinating stories of life in Rome or Athens may have excited the lad’s thoughts. He was bored with home life. And so he resolved to ask for his inheritance, which would have been one-third of the estate (Dt. 21:17). He would find his own way in the world. There are several points worthy of reflection here.
First, there is the matter of contemplation. One never implements such a plan without first letting it foment in his mind. Actions result from thought processes. This boy let dreams of foreign excitement take root in his mind until he could resist them no longer. How imperative it is that we guard our thoughts, for out of them come the issues of life (Pr. 4:23).
Second, it is a grim reality of life that youth is ill-prepared to assess the ultimate consequences of wrong-doing. In a time of youthful exuberance, it is difficult to see where the consumption of alcohol, or the flirtatious encounter, will lead. Immaturity thinks of the present, not the future.
Third, the son was self-centered. He did not reflect upon the need for service to his father, nor the encumbrances he might be inflicting upon his brother. His pleasure was all that mattered. “It’s my inheritance, and I want it now!” Selfishness is at the heart of all rebellion against God, and it demonstrates a lack of understanding of one’s basic purpose in life. Human existence is not about partying; it is about glorifying the Creator of the universe (Isa. 43:7; Eccl. 12:13).
While it sometimes is the case that the “tents of robbers prosper” (Job 12:6), and that the wicked are not adequately punished until the day of judgment (Psa. 73:17), it also is a fact that frequently there is a cause/effect relationship between sin and the hardship it brings. Popular opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, “the way of the transgressor is hard” (Pr. 13:15).
When the wayward son decided to “strike out on his own,” severing fellowship with his father, he had not counted the cost. His state is described as a “far country.” R.C. Trench, in his classic work on the parables, called it “that land where God is not.” When one is estranged from God, he is in a distant land! There, the headstrong son “began to be in want.” The original term denotes that which is lacking. It describes deprivation. When one is alienated from God he is lacking in everything that is vital. He is destitute of that which provides life with meaning.
The devastating condition of the son is depicted by his employment in the filth of the hog sty. Once upon a time, the youth had lived in the plush environment of his father’s house; now he was a lowly servant in the pig kingdom! The depth of his depravity is accentuated by the fact that he was so famished, and void of self-respect, that he longed to gorge on the carob pods (ASVfn) the hogs ate (an empty belly; an emptier soul!). To the Jewish mind, one could sink no lower. So is it when one divorces himself from his Maker.
It is not infrequently the case that those who give themselves to debauchery eventually hit the bottom of the barrel. Sin is a hard taskmaster. But suffering the consequences of such foolishness can be a necessary prelude to repentance. Some people are not shaken into reality until they taste the bitterest dregs of rebellion.
So it was with the estranged son. Eventually, “he came to himself.” Shaken into reality by the bleakness of his circumstances, he was driven to the conclusion that being separated from father was not in his best interest.
A part of this “reality check” was generated by precious memories of the past. Times had been good at the home place. There, even the servants had more than enough to eat. In painful contrast, he was gaunt with hunger. The sobering reality of his stupid apostasy struck him with tremendous force. He must pull himself together and struggle to make his way homeward.
“I will arise,” the boy emphatically declared. Note that marvelous, “I will. . .”
It is an unfortunate thing that so many labor under that philosophical illusion known as “determinism.” Skeptical determinism sees all “movement” as mechanical, the result of mere cause-and-effect phenomena. Hence, human beings really aren’t free; they only react to the forces around them.
Similarly, Calvinism denies man’s freedom of will. Humans are so depraved by virtue of having inherited Adam’s sinful “nature” – it is alleged – they are incapable of acting responsibly on their own. They can only do what is right at the behest of some supposed supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit.
Both views are false.
But this youth took a brutal look at himself. Honest self-evaluation is crucial to spiritual healing (Jas. 1:23-24). There can be no reconciliation with God until there is repentance, and there can be no repentance without an awareness that one has sinned and he is deeply sorry for that conduct.
To his credit, the lad confessed: “I have sinned.” Sometimes such a confessions rings true; at other times, it does not. Pharaoh made the acknowledgment (Ex. 9:27), as did Balaam (Num. 22:34), Saul (1 Sam. 15:24), and Judas (Mt. 27:4), but these statements of regret reflected no deep and lasting conviction. On the other hand, David, subsequent to his disgraceful sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:13), like the Prodigal, was most contrite (cf. Psa. 51).
But true repentance involves more than an "I’m gonna someday. . . " disposition. So, with dispatch, the young man “arose and came to his father.” Resolution was translated into action. The need for response is “today,” lest our hearts be hardened (cf. Heb. 3:15).
Is it time that you returned to God?
Unquestionably, the most thrilling aspect of this story is the reception the young man received at the hand of his sorrowing father.
Not infrequently the Bible portrays the compassion of God in terms of being distraught at human rebellion. The wickedness of the antediluvian society “grieved [Jehovah] at his heart” (Gen. 6:6; cf. Judg. 10:16). The poignant scene in Luke 15 is ripe with this sense of divine urgency over a fallen son.
The father saw the homeward-bound boy while he was still “afar off,” suggesting that he had been anxiously watching, ever-longing for that return. The text records that he “was moved with compassion.” The original term suggests an inner disposition that results in the extension of mercy. God is a compassionate being (cf. Ex. 34:6; Psa. 78:38; Mt. 18:27).
Three verbs describe the father’s response: he ran, he fell upon the lad’s neck, he kissed him.
Charles Hodge once authored a book titled, Will God Run? In earlier days, I wondered about the meaning of that title. Then I understood; it was about this episode. A true spirit of forgiveness does not respond begrudgingly, or even hesitatingly; it runs. To “fall upon the neck” meant to embrace lovingly. Finally, there was the kiss of forgiveness. The Greek form of “kiss” is intensive, hence, to “kiss fervently.” Trench called it the “pledge of reconciliation and peace” (cf. Gen. 33:4; 2 Sam. 14:33; Psa. 2:12). The joy of this reunion cannot be overly emphasized.
The wayward son was welcomed with renewed family advantages – the best robe, a ring (denoting “full position and privileges of sonship”), shoes, the fatted calf. The text overflows with symbolism that underscores the forgiving love and benevolence of the father. Can there be any greater motivation for submitting to the God of our very being? “We love, because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).
The parables of Jesus are inexhaustibly sublime. The longer one studies them, the more he treasures the great truths they contain. The lessons learned from this one – concerning the consequences of estrangement from God, and those qualities necessary for restoration, are treasures indeed. May we embrace these precious truths.
For further study of Christ’s parables, see our book, “The Parables in Profile”.