The prodigal son is one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told. In this two part series you will learn more about the character and heart of the father than the rebellion of the son. Jesus compares the father in the story to the heart of God the Father. The father’s response reflects the heart of God toward you.
In this first week we will look at the father’s reaction to the prodigal’s actions, and how similarly God allows us to leave him when we sin and then runs toward us when we return to him. Maybe you’re in great pain and have enormous guilt from what you’ve done. You need to come home to the father.
For the next two weeks we’re going to study one of the most revered stories Jesus ever told. And it’s so rich.
There was a morning this week as I was studying this story that I just wept over the sheer goodness of God. That’s how rich this story is.
And I hope and pray so much that that goodness can get conveyed to you today.
Now, in the telling of this story, we need to understand that Jesus was talking to two different types of people.
The first type of people were the sinners, much like the people in the first few rows over here.
The second type of people were the religious leaders.
Now, this is such an incredible story that I decided to teach it in two parts.
It’s a story of a father and two sons. Today we’ll look at the younger son. Next week we’ll look at the older son in this story.
Let’s read this story from Luke 15:11-24:
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.
He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!
I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’
So he got up and went to his father.
“But 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.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
So they began to celebrate.
This is a story about a son who had two choices – he could live at home with the father… or, to use the language of this story, he could live in a distant country.
And everyday in our lives, we choose between these two alternatives as well.
I can choose to live at home with the father.
And if I were to sum up what it is that I want for my spiritual life and the spiritual lives of each one of you, it would be this single phrase – to live at home with the father.
When I live at home with the father, I invite God to be with me all day, and I’m in constant communication with him.
When I’m at home with the Father, I’m able to say to him, “If there’s anything in me that displease you, I want you to get rid of it.”
When I’m at home with the father, I remember what my primary identity is – I’m a beloved child.
When I’m at home with the father, I’m not easily threatened or worried or fearful.
When I’m at home with the father, I remember that I’m perfectly safe in his hand. So I’m not easily discouraged.
When I’m at home with the father, I know that when problems or challenges come, he’s right there with me.
That’s God’s deepest desire for you and me – that we would live at home with the father.
But then there’s another way to do life – we can live in a distant country, far away from the father.
When I’m in a distant country, I’m not thinking of God.
When I’m in a distant country, I don’t want to be reminded of God because then I might feel guilty for some of the choices I’m making.
When I’m in a distant country, I find sins like deceiving someone or gossiping increasingly attractive.
When I’m in a distant country away from God, I don’t have an inner sense of freedom in life.
When I’m in a distant country, I feel weighed down because I know something is wrong with me.
When I’m in a distant country, I feel hurried and rushed and easily irritated and easily threatened.
When I’m in a distant country, I may search for moments of pleasure, but I don’t have sustained joy.
So here’s the deal – we can live at home with the father or we can live in a distant country.
Some of us are in a distant country right now.
So Jesus tells us this story about a boy who reaches a series of crossroads or decision points.
And we’re going to look at these decision points – there are four of them in the life of this lost son.
And I’d like us to consider what we choose when we’re faced with similar points of decision in life.
The first point is reached, in a sense, before the story even begins. It’s what might be called the Point of Temptation.
One day the thought occurs to this young son:
“Living at home is a burden. I’d be happier away from the father. I’d be happier without all these constraints on my life.”
We see this in children sometimes.
Some of you have very compliant children, and they love to be at home with their parents.
Anyone here ever have or see a non-compliant child?
I read about one recently.
There was a two-year-old kid named Frankie — a strong-willed kid, a prodigal two-year-old — just resistant to authority around the house.
One day his mother saw him pull the chair over to the front window and carefully placed it inside the drapes, between the window and the drapes. He’s standing there staring out at the world when his mother came looking for him.
She spotted his little legs protruding beneath the drapes and quietly slipped in behind them. Then she heard this two-year-old kid, Frankie, speaking to himself in very sober terms. He was saying, “I’ve got to get out of here!”
Well, that’s the story of the prodigal son. “I’ve got to get out of here,” he says.
“Here, at home, I always have to do what the father says. I have to work in his fields. I have to eat at his table. I have to follow his rules. My life would be better if I had no rules. I could be my own boss.”
And you know what, it will occur to every one of us at some point in our spiritual journey:
“I wonder if I would be happier if I went my own way. I don’t know if I trust that if I stay at home with the father it will lead to the best life.”
Maybe you’re having these kind of thoughts right now.
Maybe you’re tempted to enter into a relationship that you know will dishonor God. You know it, but it feels like it will bring love or happiness or pleasure so you want to leave home.
Maybe you’re just tired of being faithful in a task, or in a ministry, or as a parent or spouse or friend, and you feel like, “If I could just escape and run away I would be happier.”
Maybe you’re tired of honoring God financially by giving… by tithing… by being generous… by dealing honestly. You know if you took shortcuts you’d have more to enjoy, and you’re tempted to leave home financially.
This prodigal son says, “My life would be better if I could just get out of here.”
But here’s what he never does: He never thinks it all the way through.
He sees the initial allure of temptation, but he never thinks about the consequences. He never sees himself far from home, cut off from the love of the father… alone… unloved.
If you’re entertaining a temptation right now, I want to ask that you think it all the way through.
If you’re unfaithful in your relational life, if you bail on a responsibility, if you sacrifice your financial integrity, do you really think you’re going to get to the end of your life without regret? Do you think you can cheat God that way?
Have you thought about what the consequences will be?
I heard a story of a man who was away on a business trip and was approached in an elevator by a woman who invited him to her room.
And he could have gotten away with it. He was far enough away from home that he would have probably never seen this woman again. No one would have ever known about it.
He said a verse of Scripture flashed in his mind like it was on a white screen staring him in the face — “If you sow to the lust of the flesh, you will reap the destruction of the flesh.”
He thought through the consequences.
Some of you are contemplating steps right now that if you take them they’ll lead to pain and misery and brokenness.
Everything in your future rests right now on whether you’re willing to do the hard work of thinking through the consequences. If you do, you’ll be spared enormous suffering.
Well, the young son in this story doesn’t do that. He just entertains these thoughts for who knows for how long.
You can’t just keep toying with the idea of sin forever.
If you keep contemplating it and imagining how good it would be, if you don’t trust that the father really does have the best life in store for you, the next step will be irresistible.
One day the young son just decided to leave.
Look at verse 12:
The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’
Another translation says, “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”
And this leads us to the second crossroads which we’ll call the Point of Action.
He crossed the border now from toying with the idea to actually carrying it out.
And he convinced himself that he has a right to his father’s property, although, legally and ethically it belonged to his father.
Now, the reality here is, if we toy around with the idea of sin long enough, we will move into action… and I’ll tell you when it will happen.
It will happen as soon as we find an acceptable rationale to do it.
Rationalizing is universal among fallen people.
We will do something that violates our values as soon as we deceive ourselves into thinking it’s okay.
When I was in middle school, I found a movie in my parents bedroom that I knew I shouldn’t watch. It was an adult movie.
I thought to myself, “I shouldn’t watch this. I could get in trouble…
“And besides, this kind of movie only reinforces immoral values.” Okay, I didn’t think that as a middle school student, but it was true.
But I did think, “Well, if my parents are watching it, it’s probably okay for me to watch.”
And I also thought, “I need to learn about the adult world sooner or later, so really this is kind of an educational thing.”
It made sense to me that this was for educational purposes. So I watched the movie.
While I was watching the movie, my mom came home and continued my education.
She did not put the best robe on me or a ring on my finger or sandals on my feet. Someone got killed, but it was not the fattened calf.
I learned something that day about the power of rationalizing, about violating something that I knew to be right.
And kids are not the only ones who are good at rationalizing. Adults are real good at this.
Now, this is where we need to get real serious. Some of us in this room have crossed the line from contemplating sin to action.
You’ve had inappropriate conversations with someone to whom you’re not married.
You’ve already begun to look at things and fantasize about things that you would be ashamed of if they were brought into the light.
You’ve already begun to pad your expense account in ways that you know are unethical.
You’re engaged in addictive patterns of behavior.
There’s a pattern of lying to avoid trouble.
And the reason these things go on is, we tell ourselves as we come up to these actions, “This isn’t really that bad.”
Or, “Other people do worse things.”
Or, “The reason I exploded in anger is this other person’s fault for provoking me.”
Or, “I live in the real world, and this is what it takes to succeed.”
So the question for us today is: will we be honest, acknowledge that we need to stop rationalizing our actions, and face up to what we’re doing to ourselves… and what we’re doing to the heart of God the father?
This is a real interesting thing. In this story the action that the young son takes is, he says to his dad, “I want to have my inheritance and leave home now.”
And it’s important that we understand the nature of this request. This is not the story of a young man who is out to appropriately assert his independence and explore the world.
This request means he wants his father to die.
The son comes to his father and says:
“I want what’s coming to me when you die, and I don’t want to wait that long to get it. I want to live as if you were dead right now.”
To choose sin, to choose to live in a distant country is, in effect, to say to God the father,
“I wish to live as if you were dead… as if you had no claim on me or my life.”
Now, in some ways, the most remarkable response of this story is what comes next.
The son says to his father, “I want my inheritance, and I want to leave.” Yet, the father does not do what all of Jesus’ listener’s would have expected any normal father to do.
The father does not smack his son upside the head and kick him out of the house. The father does not disown his son.
The father takes what rightfully belongs to himself, what will sustain him in his old age, and the father freely gives it to his son.
And it’s at this point that Jesus’ listeners would have been outraged. Because it’s not the response they were expecting.
The father doesn’t have to do this. No normal father would ever do such a thing. No normal father would respond like this to a request that was so disrespectful.
Yet the father allows the son to leave.
It’s part of what’s so amazing about this story.
This is a radically different kind of love!
This is a story about a God who gives freedom to his children… even when that freedom will cause him immense pain… because he hungers so deeply to be in a love relationship with free children.
The son defies the father, defies his obligations, defies the call of gratitude.
He says, “I want to live as if you were dead,” and moves to a distant country.
Then the next phase is inevitable.
Look at verse 13:
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
He convinces himself that it’s okay to do this – he turns temptation into action.
And he wastes very little time doing it. The text says, “Not long after that… he went.”
When we’re moving into sin, we don’t spend time thinking or reflecting over it.
Sin is always in a hurry because it knows that it’s based on a lie.
The son knows that he will be rejected by the whole community for what he does.
So not long after that, he takes it all, travels to a distant country, and wastes his money on wild living.
But then he hits the next point of decision.
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
This is the Point of Pain.
If we live in a distant country long enough, sooner or later there will be pain.
This son was alone, and he was desperate, and he had no hope.
And the question is: How is he going to respond to pain? What is he going to do when he hits the wall?
I’ve had a number of surgeries in my life. Each time when I ask the doctor, “What can I expect after this surgery?”
Each time they’ve given me a one word answer. Do you know what the answer is?
There are two main ways of dealing with pain.
But that’s not dealing with the source. It’s just masking the pain for a while.
The other way is facing the pain.
Eventually, if we want to get well, we’re going to have to go through rehab and deliberately experience pain and build our body back up until the pain is gone.
Two ways to face pain.
This is a major crossroads in the spiritual life… what are you going to do when you hit pain?
This young son hits a wall of pain and here’s a key point: He no longer has the means to avoid facing it – no more money, no more parties, no more distractions.
In order to survive, he has to take care of pigs.
Now, Jesus probably chose pigs in this story because they were unclean animals. To eat them was forbidden by any devout Jew.
And in order to survive, this son had to care for pigs, which was a despised job that would have brought shame on him if anyone knew about it.
So he rejected his father who loved him, and attached himself — hired himself out to someone. Literally, it’s a word that was used to glue something to something else. He glues himself on to another person, but this person isn’t feeding him.
The text says no one was feeding him.
The polite way in the Middle East to get rid of someone that you didn’t want, an unwanted person, was to assign them to a job that you knew they wouldn’t accept.
I’ve worked for people who do this with their staff. Rather than being forthright with a person, they assign someone to a job that isn’t a good fit, hoping that in their discontentment and/or misery, they’ll decide to quit and move on.
Probably that’s what went on here.
The guy said, “Okay, you can be a pig herder,” knowing full well that an Israelite wouldn’t take that job… but this kid is so desperate, he takes it.
He knows ultimate pain.
But then Jesus says in verse 17:
“When he came to his senses,
He finally acknowledged reality — “My father’s hired help eat better than I do, and have a better life than me.” He came to his senses.
Another version of the Bible interprets it this way: “When he realized what he was doing.” It’s like a wake up call.
Maybe you need a wake up call about something in your life. Maybe there’s an area of pain through which God wants to do work in you.
Maybe you’re in a painful season in your marriage.
Maybe you know the pain of feeling unfulfilled in your life.
Maybe it’s the pain of living to please other people all the time, and you feel empty inside.
Maybe you’re in pain right now because there’s guilt or sin that you have never really dealt with.
And here’s the choice that we’re faced with right now.
We can mask the pain. We can distract ourselves by getting little momentary happiness fixes:
Watch too much TV to help us escape.
Shop and spend money as a distraction.
Focus on achieving as a way to not think about the pain.
Get momentary happiness from pleasing others.
Avoid pain by being busy.
Or maybe you find yourself wanting to engage in negative escapist behavior…
Like drinking too much
Or eating a box of chocolates
Or listening to Country Western music.
People get addicted to these kinds of activities as a way to numb the pain.
Or we can courageously face the pain in our lives today. We can acknowledge, “I feel pain and I know, ultimately, it’s over my sin… or it’s about this inner emptiness inside me.”
“Or it’s about relational failure.
“Or it’s about disappointments.
“And with the help of God, I’m going to quit running away to a distant country.
“I will deal with it directly.
“I will spend time alone reflecting on it, and I will pray for wisdom about it, and I’ll talk with wise and discerning friends.”
“I’ll chart a course of action and forcefully pursue it.”
Well, here at this third point of decision, this young son faces the most severe pain that he has ever experienced… and he faces the truth. And he wouldn’t have done it without pain.
Question: how much pain do you want to go through?
Jesus says, he comes to his senses and then he rehearses a little speech. He decides that he’s going to go home.
Have you ever had a real important conversation coming up, or a job interview, or you were going to ask someone out on a date, and you were a little nervous so you composed a little speech ahead of time about what you were going to say?
Well, that’s what this son does.
Look at what he says. Verse 18:
I will set out and go back to my father and say to him:
Then he composes this little speech.
Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’
He’s in pain, and he decides to go back, but he doesn’t envision going back and being fully at home with his father. He doesn’t consider that to be a possibility. He’s going back with the intention of being a hired servant.
As a hired servant, it would be different than being a son. He’ll be a free man with his own income, living independently in the village.
He can maintain a certain level of autonomy. He may be able to pay his father back, at least partially. He may be able to kind of redeem himself.
He may be able to perform valuable services for his employer, but he will not know the intimacy of a son with a father.
This fourth crossroads, this final decision is — will you live as the hired servant or as the child of God?
This is the Point of Transition.
I wonder for how many people here today if you were fully honest you would say:
“I understand what it is to be a hired servant. I try to do things for God. But I don’t know what it is to live simply as a loved son or daughter. I don’t know God like that. I mean, I’ve heard the words before, but I don’t know him like that.”
You need to travel with this son right now as we walk through the rest of the story.
This desperate, starving boy makes the long journey back to his village utterly crushed by his defeat, and he knows what to expect.
He’s thinking about that moment when he reaches his village every step on the journey – how he’ll face hostility and open humiliation.
He’ll face it not just from his father and the father’s household, but from the whole village.
But he reaches the outskirts of the village and word begins to spread from one home to another. “He’s back. The prodigal son is back.”
He’s so skinny you can hardly recognize him.
He’s lost everything that belongs to his father.
There’s something else you need to know.
What this meant was… money from the land that belonged to his father ended up going to the Gentiles.
Land was such a precious thing to the Israelites that they actually had a ceremony. If you lost property — a great deal of money or land — to the Gentiles, there was a ceremony in which you would be cut off from the village and community, and the son would know all about this.
Jesus listener’s knew all about this.
He knew to expect this, and, of course, the father knows what will happen.
If his son comes back, as soon as he comes into the village on his way home, he’ll be mocked and taunted and maybe even physically abused by this village that he has scandalized.
So the son approaches the village… and the people are gathering for this climactic moment in the story.
Then Jesus says:
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him;
Then one of the most wonderful phrases in all of Scripture that Jesus says about the father:
he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
It’s the only time in the Bible where God is pictured as running.
And something we need to understand is, a middle-east nobleman with a long robe never ran. For him to pull up his robe and show his bare legs in that culture was unheard of.
It would be like a CEO of a company today running through the office in his underwear. It was just unheard of.
It was also a violation of dignity for a noble person to run.
Aristotle, the Greek philosopher wrote, “Great men never run.”
Great men are run to. You never see CEOs and kings and Popes running. People run to them.
Running is done by children, by those who are desperate or needy or too eager or afraid.
But do you see? Jesus is saying this is the heart of God.
This father’s heart is so full that he forgets everything.
He forgets his dignity, he forgets his robe, he forgets everyone who’s watching, and he sees only this starving, exhausted son that he had given up for dead.
Only now his son is coming back home and the father takes off like a running back out of the backfield.
Then for what happens next there are no words. The father doesn’t say anything at all. No lecture. He doesn’t say anything about the boy’s past.
And in the absence of words he says so much. In the absence of words he says everything.
The father throws his arms around the son that he thought was lost to him, and he can’t let go.
And he starts kissing his son.
And the way Jesus says the word — kissing — it can be translated that he just kisses him over and over and over. He can’t stop.
And for who knows how long, there’s no words — just tears and embraces and kisses that say what words could never say.
This is the heart of God toward you.
Whoever you are, wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve done, this the heart of God toward you.
God doesn’t want you to live as his hired servant. He wants you to live as his beloved daughter or son.
If you just turn to him, he longs to run to you and to throw his arms around you, and to kiss you over and over and not let you go. That’s the heart of the God who Jesus came to proclaim.
Finally, the son speaks. And notice what the son says… how it’s different from the first draft of his speech.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
Do you see how it’s different? When the son actually speaks, there’s no mention at all of the hired servant plan. He doesn’t say, “I want to be your hired servant.”
Now, some people think the reason the son doesn’t say that is because the father interrupts him and cuts him off.
It could be… although the text doesn’t say that.
I think it’s more likely that something else is going on. I think the son is just stunned by this unimaginable expression of love from his father.
I think the son had anticipated returning a thousand times, and he had sketched out every imaginable scenario in his mind except one.
I think he was expecting punishment.
I think he was expecting public ridicule.
I think he was expecting his father to banish him from his home forever.
I think he thought through every scenario, except one.
I don’t think he ever considered the possibility that his father would be the one to run to him.
This son sees his father, as if for the first time. I think the son had no idea until that moment of what his father’s heart was toward him.
He realizes in that moment that the money was never the issue. It was the relationship between the father and the son that he’d nearly destroyed. It was the heart of a father that he had nearly broken.
And you know what, it’s the same for you and me.
I think the son realized in that moment with his father’s arms wrapped around him, kissing him over and over, he doesn’t want to be away from home anymore, not even the distance of a hired servant.
And then the father wants everyone to know — the whole village to know — his son is fully restored.
So he has the servants dress the boy in his finest robe, the way they would dress a king. He puts a ring on him as a sign of his authority. He puts shoes on his feet. They’re the mark of a free man, not a slave. Then he says, “Let’s start the party.”
And Jesus says that’s the heart of God the father for you, whoever you are.
Whatever you’ve done, it doesn’t matter.
However bad it seems to you, if you just turn, the father longs more than anything to run to you right now and embrace you.
However long you’ve been living in a distant country – maybe just a little bit, maybe a long time – right now is the time to come home.
Now, I want to invite you to spend the next few moments saying to God whatever it is that you need to say to him.
Maybe you’re aware today that you’ve been kind of playing around with temptation for a while, and you realize what the consequences could be and you want to stop right now.
Maybe you’ve already taken some steps away from the father. Maybe there’s a pattern of sin going on in your life and you need to acknowledge it and confess it right now and put a stop to it before you move any farther.
Maybe you’re here today and you’re in great pain. Maybe there’s guilt or hurt from what you’ve done. You need to come to your senses. You need to come home to the father.
Maybe you’ve been living for a while like a hired servant, and you long to know the embrace of God as a son or daughter that’s just loved, and you need to tell him that.
This is your time to come home.
Michaela and the team are going to play a song and while they do I’d like you to take the next few moments to say to God whatever you need to say to him.
Blue Oaks Chuch