My brothers and sisters in Christ,
Well, this morning we have heard what is often called the “the crown and pearl of all parables,” what Charles Dickens called “the finest short story ever written.” The Prodigal Son. But kind of like the “Good Samaritan,” we’ve given this parable a name that directs the way we think about it. The word “prodigal” doesn’t show up in the parable at all—nobody calls anyone a “prodigal,” yet the name has stuck. Does anyone here know what “prodigal” actually means? [wait for responses] It means that someone is wasteful or recklessly squandering with regard to money or goods. “The Financially Irresponsible Son” is another way we could translate that title.
But is that really what this is all about? Is Jesus’ point to tell us that those who follow him are supposed to be good with their money and not to blow it all on wine, women, and song (if that is indeed what the son did)? If it’s all about good stewardship, then I suppose some of us fall short there. But I think we can all agree that that’s not what Jesus is talking about. The story of the Prodigal Son is a story about the son, yes, but it is also just as much, if not moreso, a story about his father. Because in the story of the Prodigal Son, we learn that the love God has for sinners is so all-encompassing that he always joyfully embraces repentant sinners, no matter how terrible their sins may be.
So let’s look back to the parable. We have a young man, the younger of two sons, who one day goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance. Numerous commentators point to the impropriety of this act on the part of the younger son because it amounted to, in essence, telling his father he wished he was dead so that he could have his inheritance. He was legally entitled to it, of course. But under normal circumstances, his father would have to have been dead for him to inherit it. So the son’s request is remarkable because in it lies a rejection of his father, his family, and his home. Even more incredible is that the son’s father allows this to happen, giving him his share and letting him go.
The son, having rebelled and received what he wanted, now goes into the “far country,” the “wider world,” wherein he squanders what he was given, “living wastefully.” He blows through his inheritance like spending is going out of style. In my mind, he must have been living like Mr. Toad from Kenneth Graeme’s The Wind in the Willows—spending his money on increasingly expensive hobbies and pursuits with no self-control, almost possessed by the desire to live large and enjoy every little thing that comes his way. Suddenly, he finds himself penniless, his stores exhausted. Completely broke, and there’s a famine on. To feed himself, he becomes a swineherd for a man in that region—an unthinkable profession for Jesus’ Jewish hearers—but in a world of famine, not even his employer can pay him enough to feed him, so the son finds himself wishing to eat the husks of the carob pods that served as the pigs’ slops. The son has truly hit rock-bottom.
And then, as if scales have fallen from his eyes, the son finds himself in his plight. He realizes that his whole life from the day he left home to this point where he finds himself sitting in the mud with his pigs has been a life of rebellion against his father. “How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!” he says to himself. “I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men” (Lk 15:17–19, NASB). He realizes what he has done was wrong, and he hopes that perhaps he can still find some safety with his family again, albeit as a resident outcast and a pariah. Not a son anymore, but someone living adjacently to his family. Maybe he could earn their trust again—maybe, just maybe, he could do something to make up for his behavior….
We’ve all been that son to some extent, have we not? Maybe not with our own parents, but certainly with our Father in Heaven. On account of the fall, all human beings have a tendency to want to be the boss and to want to do whatever they want, even if what they want to do is bad for them. The sinful heart wants to act out all of its own desires, even though God has given us instructions that point to the deadliness of sin and following what our hearts really want. So we tell God that we want what we have coming to us now, that we don’t need him, that we’d rather he was dead, and that we can be happy on our own.
But suddenly, after skipping down the primrose path, we find ourselves mired in sin, don’t we? Sooner or later the Law holds up a mirror to our behavior, to our thoughts, words, and deeds, and we realize what we have done and what has happened to us—just how far we’ve fallen, indeed, just how terribly we’ve messed up. And that’s when the despair kicks in. The fear. The pain. Remember what we said together when we spoke Psalm 32?
For when I kept silent, my bones wast- | ed away*
through my groaning | all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy up- | on me;*
my strength was dried up as by the heat of | summer.
Upon recognizing our sin and realizing just how heavy God’s hand is upon us (because the wages of sin is death), we realize that we are doomed if we try to fix the problem ourselves. It’s like that old phrase, “to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” Have you ever tried that? We think of it now as a phrase meaning to do something through one’s own will, but originally it meant that something was impossible to do. When you grip one boot to pull yourself up, your other foot hits the ground. Like the son, we want to do something to convince God to keep us around when we realize just how badly we’ve messed up, but we can’t. Sin keeps us from doing so. So what’s the solution?
This is where I think Jesus really shows us the point of the parable. The son comes home, but how he acts here doesn’t show the heart of God—it’s how the father acts. When his father sees him far off, he is “moved to compassion in his vitals.” His “heart goes out” to his son, and he runs to him! This is not the act of someone wounded by anger against a son who, wittingly or unwittingly, said he wished his father were dead. This is someone filled with love for his son. Who is filled with joy at the sight of this child of his, this beloved child who left him, who he thought had died in a far-off land. Imagine your own children. Would you feel this way at the sight of your own child returning home after you had thought them lost to you forever? I would hope our reactions would be at least as joyous as his, though I know that is not always the case. But imagine the laughter, the tears, the sheer happiness of the reunion for the father, running to his footsore, ragged, and weary son, flinging his arms around him and kissing him again, and again, and again.
And note, too, that the father runs. He runs to his son. He doesn’t meet him halfway up the driveway to the house, he meets him while he “is still a long way off.” He recognizes him from a great distance and runs to embrace him. And while his son confesses his sin against his father and against God, his father wastes no time. “Quick! fetch a robe, my best one, and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us have a feast to celebrate the day. For this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:22-24, NEB). Everything that the son had thought he’d lost—all the privileges, all the familial joys, were restored. His father could not wait to restore these things to him, to lavish him, the lost son, with his love and to bring him back into his family once again.
This is how Jesus loves us, brothers and sisters. While we were trapped in our sins, despairing over what we had done, he saw us from far off, he ran to us, came down from heaven to us, so that we might be restored to our oneness with him, restored to our former place from which we had fallen when our first parents sinned. And he reached down, got into the muck with us, and embraced us and pulled us out.
There’s a wonderful Orthodox icon depicting the resurrection that shows Jesus lifting Adam and Eve up out of the grave. That’s what he did with us. He came to us, and delivered us. Put the best robe around our shoulders, put new shoes on our feet, and restored us to our rightful place. All through his radical, all-encompassing love for sinners who repent. And though we may sin again and again, this parable teaches us not to despair. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.” Or as King David writes,
“I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my in- | iquity;*
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity | of my sin.“
No matter how many times we stumble, when we turn to God in repentance, Christ rescues us and restores us, just like the father in the parable. He always is there to embrace us with open arms, to hug us close to himself and say, “My child who once was dead is alive again. My child who was lost is now found.” That’s how much he loves us. That is who our God is, that is who Christ is, and that is where our hope lies. Of course, some won’t understand this. The older brother in the parable didn’t. He didn’t understand that his father’s love—that the love of God, the love of Jesus—extends so far, that his father could love someone so far gone as his brother. But that’s the glorious scandal of this parable—the wonderful scandalous truth of who God is. He loves those who are “far gone.” He loves them so much that he dies for them all and rises again so that all might be reconciled in his death and resurrection, that all might be given the best robe and fed from the fatted calf. For we were lost. Now we are found, and we are restored because we have a God who runs to bring us home.