Jesus began: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.’”
In the culture of that day, it would’ve been extremely insulting for a son to treat his father like this. To ask for one’s inheritance while the father was still alive meant rejecting the father—in effect wishing he were dead and out of the picture. It was virtually unheard of for anyone to dishonor his father in this way. This illustration would’ve been shocking to Jesus’ audience, leading them to pay close attention.
He continued: “And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living”—a reckless and wild lifestyle.
To Jesus’ Galilean Jewish audience, the far country and another factor we’ll note shortly would’ve brought to mind the gentile area to the east of the Sea of Galilee, the pagan area of the Decapolis where the Greeks had founded a number of cities a few centuries earlier. The culture there was thoroughly pagan and sinful, characterized by idolatry and sexual sins of all kinds. Essentially the young son took off and wasted his inheritance on wine, women and song. A modern equivalent might be going to Las Vegas and blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars on gambling, girls and partying.
This story is quite poignant, for who does the father symbolize in this story? God the Father, of course. And who is the lost son? That’s each of us, those who at some point in life determined to go our own way apart from God. The father in the parable, representing God, is utterly heartbroken and grieving over the foolish actions of his child. But he knows he can’t live the son’s life for him or force him to change his mind.
Back to the parable: “But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.”
This is how we know the son went to a pagan gentile area, because he ends up feeding swine—which were commonly raised for food and also for sacrifices at the many pagan temples. The son has hit rock bottom. Once the money of his inheritance had run out, his newfound friends had run out too. Now he has nothing. The money is gone, the friends are gone, the fun is gone, and the party’s over. Reality has set in—he’s hungry, and the only job he can find is feeding the pigs in this pagan land.
He was so desperate that what he was feeding the pigs started to look good: “And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!’”
Here’s the key—“when he came to himself.” He’s been lost, and now he begins to come to his senses. He realizes that his father’s hired workers have it better than he does, so he makes a life-changing decision.
“‘I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’”
He acknowledges that he has sinned, both against God as well as against his own father. He knows he has lost all claim and rights to be called a son or to receive any inheritance—he gave that up long ago. Now he just wants a job as a servant, which is better than he has it now.
“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.”
The father, picturing God Himself, has been looking down the road, hoping and waiting for this son to one day return, and now he sees him far off and runs to his long-lost son and showers him with affection and love! This is before the son has even made it all the way back and given his rehearsed speech.
“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
The father, however, would have none of it. “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.’”
The robe and ring were symbols of being accepted back into the family as a son. He was not being accepted back as a servant—the best he could’ve reasonably expected, and likely not even that—but as a full son again.
“‘And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”
The primary lesson of this parable is that our God is a loving Father who doesn’t give up on His children. Even when we foolishly reject Him and turn our backs on Him, He still loves us and desperately wants us to return to Him.
However, He will not force us to turn back to Him since He has given us freedom of choice, and all of us must at times experience consequences from our mistakes to grow in wisdom and judgment, learning love and all God’s ways above the ways that seem right to us.
And when we do turn to God—regardless of the seriousness of our sins and mistakes—He is there to figuratively throw His arms around us, smother us with love and affection and welcome us to His family. It’s a strikingly beautiful picture of His love toward us!
There’s another lesson here too. The parable goes on to describe the very different reaction of the other son who had been faithful and never left. The other son doesn’t even acknowledge his own brother. To the father he calls him “this son of yours.” He doesn’t accept his own brother back, but rejects and resents him and is angered at his father’s love for his brother who has now returned.
The father gently responds: “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.”
This also is a powerful lesson for us. No one should act like this other son, ready to cast the first stone at someone we might view as a sinner, but rather we should love them as God loves them and rejoice whenever a person turns to God. Yet note that the father is also merciful to this upset son in going out to him, being gentle with him, assuring him of blessing and in teaching him the proper attitude and way of life.
In all this, we see that God loves us deeply and forgives us far more than we could ever deserve—and that we must learn to also be merciful and forgiving toward others, as Jesus Christ taught again and again throughout the Gospels. This is grace in action.