The Prodigal Son

Scriptures: Romans 3:21-26Luke 15:11-32

Hermann Ridderbos said, “Nowhere have the concepts of sin, repentance, and divine grace been depicted more vividly and impressively than in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Sin, as leaving the fellowship of the father, in living far away from the father, in the wasting of the father’s goods. Repentance, in the discovery of his own distress, in his consciousness of having sinned against the father and having lost all the rights of a child, and his return to the father. Grace, in the father’s awaiting of the son, in his pity for him, and in the joyful reception of the lost son into the father’s house.”

This is a familiar story, and one in which you almost wonder, what else can you say about it. It seems to be one of the more straightforward ones too. But I want to note something here in the beginning. Your pew Bible, and many Bibles, call this the parable of the Lost Son.

It’s the parable the “prodigal” son. The Greek word means prodigal. If you look at prodigal, we think it means lost. But it doesn’t. If you look it up in the dictionary, the word prodigal means “reckless spendthrift, one who is extravagant, and possibly out of control.” So the son was prodigal in his spending, in his life that he led, once he left the father.

And his relationship with the father, I have to wonder what it was like in the beginning. Because, when he asked his dad to split the inheritance, so he could get his part now, you need to understand, in the Hebrew setting of that day, that was as good as saying, “Dad, I hope you die. Can you speed it up so that I can get what I’m due? Let me get what I deserve.”

Of course, the father didn’t give him what he deserved. What he deserved was to be kicked out and cut out. Instead the father gave him what he asked for, which meant selling off some of his property. Those of you who are farmers understand how difficult that can be. He had to liquidate it in order to give his son cash.

The son took that cash and immediately left. And I understand the desire sometimes to leave your parents. I graduated from a Nebraska high school. I had lived all over the country with my dad, because he was in the Air Force. And I have to tell you that part of the reason why I went to Penn State for my first year was because it was half a country away from my parents.

I actually think that that’s a good thing. Every seventeen- or eighteen-year-old should live for a year totally on their own, so they understand exactly what life is. Having at that time a $125 a month allowance to get toothpaste and any extra food, gas for my car, everything, because I had no source of income.

I was a full-time student. I was eighteen on the first day of school, at college. I learned very quickly the cost of things. I also had out-of-state tuition. So I learned very quickly what that meant too, in terms of the extra cost if you are an outsider coming in.

And frankly, the next year I moved back to Nebraska. And I went to school at Lincoln, where I was an in-state student, and I was only an hour away from my mom and dad, although I didn’t go to see them as often as I probably should have. But I learned what it meant to live life alone there.

This young man – I don’t know how old he was. But he couldn’t wait to get out from under his dad’s thumb, at least as he saw it. Because he didn’t recognize, perhaps, what his father was doing, and how his father was showing love. His father showed his generosity in the grace of even giving him his inheritance, and I suspect that even before then, he had shown love and grace many times, and it was just unrecognized.

Erma Bombeck wrote this about her dad:

My dad he just didn’t know how to show love. It was Mom who held the family together. He just went to work every day, and when he came home, she had a list of sins we’d committed, and he would give us what-for about them.

I broke my leg once on a swing set. It was Mom who held me in her arms all the way to the hospital. Dad pulled the car right up to the emergency door, and when they asked him to move it because the space was reserved for emergency vehicles, he shouted, “What do you think this is, a tour bus?” Mom carried me in while Dad parked the car.

Seems all my life Dad was parking the car someplace, coming in wet and half-frozen. Dad was always sort of out of place. At birthday parties he just busied himself blowing up balloons, setting up tables, and running errands. But it was Mom who carried the cake with the candles on it for me to blow out, and led the singing.

I remember when Mom told him to teach me how to ride a bicycle. I told him not to let go but he said it was time, so I fell, and mom ran to pick me up, but he waved her off. I was so mad that I showed him. I got right back on the bike and rode by myself. He didn’t even feel embarrassed. He just smiled.

When I went off to college, he was fiddling with the luggage and the boxes. It was mom who sat down and said that everything would be all right. She did all the writing. He just sent checks and a little note about how great his lawn looked now that I wasn’t playing football on it.

When I got married, it was mom who got choked up. Dad just blew his nose loudly and left the room.

All my life he said What are you doing? What time are you going to be home? Do you have gas in the car? Who’s going to be there? And no, you can’t go.

Not mom. She just loved me. But Daddy, he didn’t seem to know how to show love. Unless… is it possible that he was showing it all along, and I just didn’t recognize it?

The son did not recognize the father’s love for him, and his grace to him. And today, while it is often labeled the prodigal son, Timothy Keller wrote a book entitled The Prodigal God.

The father is the one who was truly prodigal in this story. Keller points out that God recklessly lavishes His grace and forgiveness on us, far more than we ever deserve. And he says God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope.

We see that, in the father, not just in his grace in giving the son what he wanted initially, but when the son came to his senses and the son went back, repenting of what he had done, recognizing that he was wrong, that he no longer deserved to be the father’s son.

All he wanted to do was be a servant. It says that when he was a long way off, the father saw him. Now I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to look at something a long way off, I have to actually be out there looking. (I probably have to use binoculars too, the extra strong kind, because of my eyesight.)

But the point is, the father was taking time during the day. We don’t know how many months this was, but it had to have been a long period of time. And the father was still out on the porch, every day, looking for his son, longing for him to come back home.

Why? Why didn’t he just write him off? That’s what most of us would have done. These days, especially, in this culture. Yet the father longed and looked.

And when the father did see the son, he then does something again that was unthinkable Remember, he was an older gentleman, and they wore robes in those days, probably longer than mine, and in order to run, they had to hitch up their robes. So he basically climbed down the steps, hitched up his robes, and ran down the road with a total lack of dignity, forgoing any concern about what he would have looked like.

One of the things that I did before getting gastric bypass surgery was I got put on an appetite suppressant medication. And I was one of the 0.0001% that has an adverse reaction. Instead of being an anti-anxiety medicine and an appetite suppressant, it made me passively suicidal.

And after about twenty-five days of that, I did lose weight, because I didn’t care. I also didn’t care about stopping at stop signs or anything else. And after close to a month, they took me off, and I had what’s called rebound. If any of you have overused any histamines, you know what I’m talking about, because you use them and you’re dry, and then as soon as you stop, you instantly get all clogged up.

Well, I got very happy, and at the church I was serving at the time, we processed down the aisle, and my wife had to grab my sleeve to keep me from skipping down the aisle. I’m sure that I would have thrown away all the dignity of my office if I’d have gone skipping down the aisle to approach the pulpit.

This man threw his dignity out the window, to go run to his son. And it says that he fell on his neck. It means he embraced him with a bear hug, and he kissed him on the cheeks and the neck, saying, “My son, my son, my son.” And the son tried to give his little speech.

And he got no further than “I don’t deserve to be your son,” when the father, I imagine personally, put his hand on his mouth or something, to keep him from saying anything more, and turned to his servants and said, “Go get some robes to put on him. Give him a ring” (and by that, the ring that they talk about was a signet ring, a ring that says you are a part of this family, you have authority over the servants in this household) “and sandals on his feet” (because slaves didn’t wear sandals, but citizens did.)

So he was basically making his son into the citizen he was before he left the house. And then he says, “Go kill the fatted calf,” the thing that they have been saving up all year for a family celebration. Again, those of you that may have bought a calf, and raised it with the intent of slaughter, know more than I do what is being talked about there.

It takes time. You don’t just go to the supermarket and buy a fatted calf. It takes money and it takes energy. It takes feeding and care, so that they’re in the best possible condition for the slaughter, so you get the best possible meat. And here, the dad was there saying, “Kill it now, because we’re going to party.”

He showed that much grace and love and forbearance to this second son. But he wasn’t done, because the older son came in, and the older son – who is, frankly, the one that I usually preach on, because we’re more like the older son than we are the prodigal son, most of us – he was kind of ticked off.

Frankly, he had a reason to be. After all, the father had already given the second son his part of the inheritance, so that means that everything that the man was spending right now – on rings, sandals, robes, fatted calf – was coming out of the older son’s inheritance. He was spending some of the older son’s inheritance, and so the older son was kind of ticked off.

And he tells this to his dad. It says the father pleaded for him to come in. And the son says, “You never even gave me a goat, much less the fatted calf, so I could party with my friends. And I did whatever you asked.”

Have we ever felt like that sometimes? We spent our whole lives trying to be Christian and follow all of God’s rules, and we see somebody who at the last minute somehow seems to turn around to Christ, and all is forgiven? That’s hard to accept.

The father, at that point in time, shows his continued grace to the older son. He could have said something to him about his arrogance, his petulance, acting like a child. But instead he says, “My son you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead, and is alive again.”

And that phrase, it’s in there a couple of times in the parable. Let me just take a side track for a moment. The Jews believe that somebody can be declared dead, even while alive, because they are cut off completely from the family. For instance, in the Orthodox Jewish faith, if a son or daughter marries an unbeliever, an outsider, then –

Anybody ever see The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond? At one point, the dad tore his clothes. That was to signify the tearing of his heart, and that his son was now dead to him. He wouldn’t talk to him. He wouldn’t communicate with him. He wouldn’t see him if asked.

In the movie, he had to arrange something where he caught him in the hallway, just to give him a picture of the grandson, which is what finally melted his dad’s heart.

But there’s this idea of people being dead to us. The father says, “He was dead to us.” He was gone. He was out of the picture. He was no longer part of the family. But now, he’s alive, aAnd we need to celebrate that.

It’s that way with each one of us. Forgiveness with a second chance. Forgiveness is by definition never earned. It’s an undeserved gift. And we were as dead to God, in our sin, as this young man was to his father.

It must have been preying on my mind, because I’ve mentioned this analogy a number of times in Bible study and other places, but I’ve been to Billy Graham crusades, and I love Billy Graham and I encourage people to go to his crusades. They will be moved. They will hear the Word.

But he is Arminian in his thoughts, whereas we’re Reformed and Presbyterian, we believe in election. The way I describe the difference – and I have actually heard Billy Graham use this analogy.

He says you, as a sinner, are overboard in the middle of the sea. You’ve fallen off of a ship, and you’ve already gone down twice. And the sea is rough from the storms of life. And Jesus throws out a life-preserver. All you have to do is grab hold, and you will be brought into the warmth and safety of the ship once more. And it’s a wonderful picture, that all depends on you.

But as Presbyterians, what we believe is, you weren’t going down for the third time – you were already a floater, as I heard somebody put it. Or down at the bottom. And God pulls you up out of the water, however He might do it, pumps the water out of your lungs, breathes in the breath of life, and then holds out His hands and says, “Join me.”

You who were dead are now alive. Your Father, your prodigal, reckless, extravagant Father, is calling you home. Looking for you. Wanting you to be there. Understanding that you don’t deserve it. But knowing that you are His, anyway. Because of Him.

And when you do that, when you truly do that in your heart, you will begin to feel the flow of grace and forgiveness that cannot be experienced in any other way, and you will begin to have the wellspring of joy coming up in your heart, that even in the tough times of life, even during a famine, even during a storm, you will know that your Father is there. Looking for you, watching over you, and ready to bring you through, so that you can celebrate once again.

The name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

%d bloggers like this: