Those who seek the “joy” of being free from God end up in the despair of enslavement to sin. Jesus’ powerful parable of the prodigal son reminds us of this truth.
From the beginning of creation, the first couple—Adam and Eve—ran from God. And since then, the story of human history is the story of prodigals, convinced by the lie of Satan that doing things their own way is the road to freedom. Well, that road is always going to lead to trouble and despair.
Jesus has been telling some parables about God searching for the lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and now a lost son. Luke’s the only Gospel writer who records the parable of the prodigal son.
If we divided this parable into scenes, the first scene could be called: Burning Your Bridges Behind You. It begins in Luke 15:11:
“There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. (verses 11-12)
The implication here is that this father is a widow; he is older now; his sons are grown men. The older son would receive two-thirds of the family estate, and the younger son one-third.
In this culture it was shameful for a son to demand his inheritance while his father was still alive. So, this is a shocking and painful request. The younger son is essentially saying to his father, “I am tired of waiting for you to die so I can get my hands on what I have got coming.” One Bible scholar wrote that in this culture, this was tantamount to telling his father, “I wish you were dead.”
He is not just tired of waiting for his father to die; he is tired of living under his father’s authority and his father’s morality. Let me tell you, he was a prodigal long before he left home.
Now Jesus tells us in verse 13: “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country.” The word used for “gathered” probably means he turned everything into currency. He only wants the cash value of the land and cattle. He doesn’t want cows; he wants cash. But most of all, he wants out.
He is going to burn every bridge behind him. I can just imagine his father standing there on the roadside as he watches his son leave—and perhaps never return again. Maybe you have been there in his sandals; maybe you are there right now—you know the taste of those bitter tears as you have watched a child or a loved one run away from God.
The next scene opens, and I will call it Looking for Freedom from People Who Are Enslaved. Jesus says in verse 13 that he “took a journey into a far country, and there squandered his property in reckless living.”
The far country implies that he has traveled outside of Jewish territory. And the fact that he will end up working on a hog farm gives you the idea that he has left Judaism behind, as well as his heritage—and the God of Israel.
Jesus says he spent his inheritance in “reckless living.” This refers to drunken debauchery. The older brother will say later that he had spent his money on prostitutes. The prodigal is trying to find freedom among people who are already enslaved to sin.
But make no mistake; at this point, he is saying to himself, “This is the life I’ve dreamed of; these are my friends. This is home.”
By the way, beloved, do not try to convince people who are sinning that they are not having a good time. Oh no, sin is pleasurable; independence from God feels like freedom. But, of course, it does not last.
Let me call this third scene Watching Wild Oats Come to Harvest. Jesus continues His parable:
“And when he had spent everything, a sever famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” (verses 14-16)
Now to the Lord’s Jewish audience, the picture Jesus is painting is of a life that is completely beyond redemption. I mean, you cannot get any worse than this—you cannot get any lower and deeper in sin than this prodigal son.
To top it off, his friends disappear as soon as his money runs out. He is abandoned by everyone, just like he abandoned everyone back home.
Before going any farther, let me offer two suggestions for those who are praying for some prodigal out there in the world today. First, ask God to help you build a bridge to your loved one—not for compromising but for communicating. Keep the conversation open, and lovingly insert gospel truth whenever appropriate; but just remember, your prodigal probably knows all the verses already by heart.
Second, don’t pray for the prodigal’s good fortune; pray for God to send a great famine. Pray for God to bring that one to an empty place that reveals the emptiness in his or her life. Beloved, don’t pray that God will keep the prodigal out of the fire—ask God to heat it up. Remember, prodigals do not come to their senses in the father’s house; they tend to come to their senses in the pigpen.
Now with that, the prodigal reaches this point of desperation. And I believe what happens next is altogether misunderstood by many in the church today. Jesus continues:
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”’” (verses 17-19)
Now you might think the son is demonstrating repentance here—not at all! He is starving; and he comes to himself—literally, he comes to his senses. It is as if he wakes up and says to himself, “What in the world am I doing here feeding pigs when my father’s hired servants have not missed a meal?”
What this prodigal does is come up with a speech he hopes will soften up his father, just enough to give him a job. He plans on going home, not to repent, but to negotiate for employment.
But isn’t he going to say to his father, “I have sinned against God and against you”? Well, let me tell you, these Pharisees probably recognize that Jesus is using the words Pharaoh said to Moses, to try to stop the plagues. He said these same words: “I have sinned against … God, and against you” (Exodus 10:16).
According to verse 19 the prodigal also plans to say, “Treat me as one of your hired servants.” This word for “hired servants” is not the word for slaves or servants. It’s a financial word the apostle Paul uses in referring to paying a salary (“honor”) to elders who faithfully preach (1 Timothy 5:17).
When he says, “Treat me as one of your hired servants,” he is literally saying, “Fashion me—make this out of me.” In other words, here is his speech, boiled down to the truth: “Listen Dad, here is what I want you to do. I want you to pay for my apprenticeship so I can learn a new trade as a skilled, salaried craftsman.”
This would allow him to live in the village independent of his father and make a new career that allowed him to regain some standing in the community. At this point, he is planning to come home and save face; he is coming home for financial assistance.
He still wants money from his dad. But he is about to discover the unlimited treasure of his father’s grace. More on that in our next Wisdom Journey study.