As he did every day, the father walked from his home to the small hill where he could look down the road and see for several miles. He always thought, and hoped, that he would see a familiar figure heading his way.
His thoughts were always the same—a mixture of longing, of hope and of regret. When he failed to see what he'd hoped, he would turn and go about the business of the day. There was always work to be done. But there was also the empty place created by the one who a long while back had chosen to leave and go far away from his home.
The father remembered the day his son left the family. The young man wanted his portion of inheritance to go out on his own and make an independent life. It would create a hardship to divide off his portion earlier than planned. But the father did it, with regret, but knowing it was the only thing that could be done. His son would learn life's hardest lesson no other way.
Watching him go was the most difficult moment of the father's life, knowing that his son wasn't prepared for life and that he wouldn't listen to him for instruction or wisdom. When would he return? And when he did, could the family environment be the same?
This is the story Jesus Christ told in Luke 15, commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son. It recounts a son's departure from his father's home, the lessons he learns, and his return, wiser for the experience. It is also the story of a family's journey to reconciliation.
Families are the foundation of life. The biblical family is the model on which God is building a spiritual family of glorified sons and daughters. This parable tells of a son who was lost and then found. While it shows many details about a family, in the end one truth stands out—a father's patient endurance for the son he loves.
The story in brief
Let's review the account. A man had two sons. One day the younger came to him with a demand: He wanted an early disbursement of his inheritance. Despite the likely hardship that would come in taking this money from the estate, the father gave the son his portion. So off the young man went, into another life.
He traveled, it says, to a far country. Distance in a relationship is not always measured in miles. It would seem the distance in this relationship had grown to become quite vast long before he left the family home. The son no longer wanted to live under his father's roof.
Did he no longer respect his father? Had some longstanding unresolved tension between the two led to a severing of relations to where they could no longer "walk together" (Amos 3:3)?
The story allows almost anything to be read into it to provide an explanation. Father-son relations are beautiful to behold but also at times complex. Could it be that the son had emotionally left the home long before he physically walked out the door?
In time the son burned through his money and found himself penniless. High living beyond his means reduced him to doing manual labor for a daily wage. Using all the material enticements available to us today, it's easy to imagine how his money could've easily disappeared. A new car or expensive motorcycle. Costly meals. Entertaining and spending money on people whose friendship was dependent on his ample bank account—their friendship lasting only as long as he had money.
After working at a job that paid little and gave no satisfaction, he began to evaluate his situation. He was barely making enough money to buy food. It seems the animals that he fed ate better than he. No money. No friends. No good prospects.
A breakdown of relationships
What would you do in such a situation? Would pride prevent you from returning home or restoring a relationship? Would stubbornness push you toward self-
destructive behavior such as addiction to drugs or alcohol? Or perhaps you might feel your parent no longer loved you and would not want you back.
Perhaps you actually find yourself at present in a position similar to that of the son in the parable. You have been estranged from a parent or friend and feel you cannot return to him or her. You can't bring yourself to pick up the phone or reach out and begin to mend a broken relationship.
It's a sad feature of life today. We're connected by so much social media yet can't always connect at the deepest level of love and meaning. You can have hundreds, even thousands, of "friends" on Facebook but be all alone in your life at the most critical moments. It's vital to have friends and those we can talk with to receive counsel, encouragement and support. It also takes effort to keep the lines of communication open.
Returning to Christ's story, it now reaches the most critical point. The young man comes to himself when he realizes the servants in his father's home have plenty of food and don't go hungry. He says, "I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you'" (Luke 15:18).
Imagine the moment of humility. He's at the end of his rope. All his natural confidence is gone. He realizes he can't go forward on his own. He knows that he must return home. The journey is now at its most crucial moment.
It's never too late
How many of you are waiting for a child to return to you and your home—back to a relationship that may have been severed long ago? You think back over the long months and years—lost time that cannot be regained. Yet you haven't lost hope. You wait for a letter, an e-mail, a call or to hear footsteps on the path to your house. You know that someday it will happen, you just don't know when. A day doesn't go by that you don't think about your child.
The news recently carried a story about an 87-year-old man who was reunited with his daughter after 40 years. He had divorced her mother when the daughter was four, and he last saw her when she was 12. For more than 40 years he didn't see his child.
She grew up, married, had children and grandchildren. One day she called him on the phone and said, "This is Donna, your daughter." The man discovered he had a family he knew nothing about. He quickly agreed to meet and began making up for lost time, knowing time could not be regained but determined not to allow any more to be lost.
That is how it will be one day for those who wait. That is what this parable is talking about. The prodigals will return. They will come to a moment of clarity and say: "I want a relationship once again with those who love me and pray for me. I need to go home!"
A message about deep love
Jesus Christ gave this parable to encourage families. God's great plan of salvation is based on the family structure of a father and mother and children born within the love of a relationship based on His laws governing the family. And the basis of that law is love—the love of a parent for a child.
This parable shows the deep love of a father for his lost son. I can imagine him praying each day for his son's return, requesting God to guard him from harm, asking God to help the son even when the son's behavior didn't honor God. During these prayers the understanding that God wouldn't suspend the law of consequences didn't keep him from asking for God's mercy and goodness on the lad.
This parable is also about each of us. God the Father stands waiting for the time when each of His children will at last realize the need for a lasting and satisfying relationship with Him.
The image of family reconciliation and turning of hearts is quoted in one of the great prophetic messages of the Old Testament (Malachi 4:6). This parable of the lost son combined with this prophecy helps us to understand God's deep desire to bring reconciliation within His creation. Together these form a promise that you can take to His throne of grace and claim in full faith. When hearts turn to God, they will also return to those human relationships that have been broken through the years. You can count on it.
Holding out hope
The parable of the lost son is a parable for today. It offers hope for all who long for reconciliation. Whether it be with a child, a parent or a friend from the past, this story points to hope. It teaches that even when hope is deferred and the heart is sick, there is the promise that hope will blossom into a tree of life (Proverbs 13:12).
Imagine for a moment the day the father goes out to the hill and at last sees his son coming up the road. What joy and elation he feels! His heart immediately reaches out to his returning son, his feet quickly propelling him forward to the exuberant embrace. Both father and son are together again, the distance bridged and the time apart forgotten.
His years of hope and longing are summed in the declaration, "This my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found" (Luke 15:24).
You may think this is a good place to end. But the story goes on. There is the reaction of the older son. Remember him—the one who stayed and honored his father and worked to build the family business? At first he wasn't that happy over the return of his brother. When he came home that day and heard the noise from the celebration, he wondered what it was all about. When he heard his brother had returned home and a banquet was being held in his honor, it was more than he could handle.
He refused to join in the celebration. On hearing of his son's anger, the father pleaded with him to join in welcoming home his brother. But he couldn't because, as he put it: "These many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him" (Luke 15:29-30).
Once again the father showed his wisdom: "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" (Luke 15:31-32).
The bond forged between the father and the older son could never be broken. The loyalty and dependability of the son here had been proven beyond doubt. Such relationships need no party or grand demonstration of fact. Trust was simply there.
I like to imagine the two brothers reconciling and their healed relationship becoming stronger and enduring through the years. The father lives on to see grandchildren run through his home with shouts of joy and fun. In his later years he thanks God for all of his family, and in time he dies, full of years and giving thanks to God with his last breath for His goodness and grace.
There is always hope for reconciliation. Pray for it and expect it. Never ever give up on God!