This beautiful parable is an extended illustration of our Father’s mercy. He is the center of the story. He has two rebellious sons – a prodigal one, whom we shall consider this morning, and a self-righteous one, who we shall save for next Lord’s Day. He is merciful to each one of them. The living God seeks and saves the lost through his Son. But our lostness is not the same. Sometimes we are worldlings who want nothing but our own way, pleasure, and money to pursue our dreams. Others prefer the security of a good reputation and have the appearance of virtue, but their obedience is what the older writers call “legal:” – it does not spring from any real love for God but from enormous pride. We have all gone astray, each one to his own way, and we are all brought home to our Father only through repentance and faith. This is the other commonality. It is not that the church has some people who are wild at heart and some who are traditionally minded. This cannot be drawn legitimately from the parable. Repentance brings everyone back into the Father’s house on the Father’s terms.
Because there is much rich material in the parable, we shall break it up into two parts. This morning, we shall consider the prodigal, for his rebellion is a pertinent warning to many young people today – craving freedom to do their own thing, rebellious under the authority of a loving father, and simply wanting to leave. Next week, we shall consider the self-righteous son, who stayed at home but his heart was also far from his father’s. The central theme is the Father’s mercy, and he will dominate both sermons so that by God’s grace we rejoice in his mercy and resolve to serve him not as time-keepers working for merit badges but with sincerity and thankfulness. There is a third category of men not mentioned in this parable – those outside the church, for they were never in the Father’s house. Let us pray also this morning for them, for there is hope for them through repentance and faith. The strangers must be brought in through Jesus Christ. Once we were also strangers, but we have been brought into our Father’s house, so that we may glorify God for his mercy (Rom. 15:9). Now that we are in our Father’s house, let us learn to stay here with thankfulness and joy.
A Young Man’s Rebellion (vv. 11-13)
Ingratitude and Discontent
There is nothing uglier in a young man or woman than ingratitude for all the blessings of home. Our Lord does not give us a detailed autopsy of the prodigal son’s heart, but we can identify him readily enough, for we have often encountered him in our churches. We may have been him at one time in our lives. Why else would he make such a monstrous demand as “give me my due,” unless he had grown restless under his father’s wise government? He did not want the order and freedom of life in his father’s house but the slavery of being his own master. He allowed these kinds of thoughts to fester in his soul. He grew discontented. He began to indulge various fantasies of what he could do with his own money, what pleasures he would enjoy, and the kind of friends he wanted. He was a wild pony at heart, and he was willing to kick his way to freedom. Such thoughts always begin with ingratitude – like Adam and Eve in the Garden. The whole garden is not enough! We want that tree also. We want to live as god. It is the old, sad story, and you can anticipate the same sad results in your life if you are listening to me this morning but nursing rebellion against your parents in your heart. Do not deceive yourself. Face it for what it is – rebellion against God. None have ever prospered who have despised his gifts and grown discontent under his benevolent care. You will not be the first to “have it your way” and find peace in the end. You will be but another in a long line who did it your way but were left in the mud and misery of rebellion.
Pride and Presumption
Pride is bad enough when one finds it in the world, but to find it in our Father’s house, among those who have so many blessings and privileges is terrifying. See how this young man of 17 or 18 goes to his father and commands him: “Give me what I am due.” Give me my share. Wait – your due? Your share? Matthew Henry once said that it is a sign of a bad heart and of worse things to come when we look upon gifts as rights. But this is where ingratitude and discontent lead. I am owed the life I want. We hear this kind of stupidity in the mouths of many young today, as if it were the very wisdom and virtue of heaven. I have a right to do as I please. It sometimes sounds like Satan has taken over the hearts and voices of many even within the church. Parents, do not listen to these howlings from your children, but calmly rebuke and correct them. Your children may leave in rebellion for a time, but let them know that nothing is owed them except everlasting hell. But pride will have its way, unless confronted and humbled by God’s Spirit. If you are nursing these kinds of thoughts in your heart, even as an older member of God’s house, forsake them quickly. Do not think about what you are owed, what is due to you, that you do not deserve this or that. Think only of the blessings of being in God’s house and fight against your fallen desires and lusts. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself” – and this includes denying thoughts about “my life” and “my rights.”
Rebellion and Departure
Here we reach our first conundrum in the story. The father granted his son’s request. He granted it knowing what would happen. I think he had seen his son for some time unhappy in his home and under his wise government. He recognized the signs – here is a wild and untamed heart that must come crashing down in its pride before it can ever be settled in the happiness of submission to my loving and wise will. He gave him “his life” – an interesting way of describing the division of property that the father then made (v. 12). Since the firstborn had a double portion, it is likely that the youngest son received a third of the property, sold and converted it into cash to fund his thrilling new life. The oldest son received his portion of the property, but it likely remained under his father’s authority and use for his lifetime. Why grant the son’s request? The same reason we find these chilling words in the miserable history recorded in Psalm 106: “But they lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert. And he gave them their request; but sent leanness unto their soul” (vv. 14-15). God sometimes gives us the things we crave, but he gives them not as blessings but to chasten and by his grace cure our wayward, lustful hearts. The prodigal did not wait around for something to keep him home. A few days later, he gathered all his possession and journeyed into a far country. He could not wait to take his patronage and begin his new life of rebellion away from his father’s concerned gaze. Rebels do not want to live under the eyesight of those who remind them of a better way of life or who correct them for their faults.
Waste and Immorality
Sin is waste. Sin wastes the hard work and capital of others, as we see in this nation. Sin wastes the care, prayers, and training of godly parents. This son is called “prodigal” with good reason – he threw his father’s life and gifts to the wind. As he hoped, he found new friends, and they helped him spend his money. They introduced him to the joys of bottle, table, and the flesh. Away from his father, he could not fornicate quickly enough, eat and drink enough, and taste sufficiently all of sin’s fleeting pleasures. Because sin is so wasteful, it is also expensive. In his father’s house, the prodigal could live like a king with plenty to spare; in the world of rebellion, everything his father gave him quickly ran out. Righteousness accumulates slowly but surely; sin spends quickly. There are not enough zeros to pay for the world’s wickedness. With a wasteful, presumptuous heart, all the safeguards against moral purity are also tumbled down. His conscience may have trembled a bit at the start, but it quickly slunk into the corner. Spiritual harlotry and sexual license go hand in hand. They always have and always will. When we do not want to live humbly and thankful in our father’s house, we shall seek comfort in the bosom of the strange woman. She is willing to oblige, as long as we have the money.
The Misery Sin Brings (vv. 14-16)
He Spent Everything…And Then Famine Came
But then the money runs out. It always has, and it is running out today. The most wicked men, of course, who delight in the power and influence that money gives more than in sensual pleasure, always seem to hold on to their fortunes and increase them. But for the rank and file, money passes through their fingers like water. Men who win lotteries are typically bankrupt within two years. Give a fool a fortune, and he will soon be a beggar. But it is a portent of better things ahead when the running out of the prodigal’s money happened at the same time as a general famine. Because he became hungry, friendless, and hopeless so quickly, it brought him to his senses sooner. God does not always work this way, however, so do not expect him to bring you to your sense at all. He does not bring all prodigals back home. When he intends to bring them home, he normally allows them to flounder – deeply, often, and quickly. This is especially true of covenant children who become enamored with the world. If they are Christ’s, they will soon find their way much harder than the children of the world find it. With the outward miseries come the inner turmoil, the remembrance of past mercies and blessings, the haunting of godly parents’ voices and warnings. It is a potent mixture to bring the wayward home, and parents you can brew it daily through your communion with Christ, loving entreaties to your children, and making home a happy place to be – for those who want happiness on God’s terms rather than their own.
He Became a Slave and Fed Pigs
For ungrateful prodigals who grew up in their father’s home, the way back after rebellion usually requires a very low fall. Remember that this prodigal wanted freedom; he soon became a slave. He who had everything now hired himself to be another man’s servant. And he fed pigs. The irony of this should not be missed. The parable has a Jewish context, and nothing was lower to the Jewish mindset than someone who herded pigs. To do so was to be surrounded with uncleanness and defilement. But this is where sin takes us – all of us – all sins, whether the carnal pleasures of the prodigal or the polite sins of those not courageous enough to take full flight into the arms of the world. Sin is to feed pigs, to wallow with them in the mud and manure, and to feed with them. Yes, the prodigal was so hungry he was willing to fill his belly with the carob pods that were often used to fatten livestock. Imagine what he looked like – where were his fine clothes now? Imagine what he smelled like – where were all his newfound friends? No one would want to touch him. He had paid for pleasure with money, and now he was eating with pigs. No wonder our Lord had to descend into hell, into the muck in order to deliver us. No wonder he had to become “no man, a worm” in order to redeem us. We simply have no idea how horrible our sins are, what a stench they are to God, and how undesirable they make us to others – unless they also stink.
He Starved and Was Ignored
His way back to his father’s house required that he retrace all the steps of his rebellion – from being full and blessed to being starved and utterly alone. This kind of low fall is often necessary to bring the sinner home. For those who speak of “coming to Jesus” as flipping a light switch and good thoughts about self and God with some good music to set the mood, v. 16 will not resonate. This verse has to be in the story, or the young man would never have returned home. Sinners must be brought to feel their emptiness, or they will never hunger for the true bread from heaven, Jesus Christ. They must be alone and feel that there is no helper for them, no friend, or they will never seek the Friend who sticks closer than a brother. Our faith has become so superficial that all of these basic lessons that our fathers and mothers of old daily nurtured have become lost upon us. Full men – in worldly terms – cannot feel their true emptiness. Men surrounded with friends and helpers – even fake ones on the internet – will never say with our Savior when he saw our helpless state: “Then he saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor: therefore his arm brought salvation to him” (Isa. 58:16).
But Then He Truly Repented (vv. 17-19)
Came to Himself – Which is to Turn to God
These three short verses show us true repentance so that we learn to distinguish true from false repentance. Our partaking of the salvation purchased by Jesus Christ requires our repentance, and God must grant it (Acts 11:18). Repentance is at the heart of the gospel – “unless you repent, you will perish” (Luke 13:3,5). First, it is said that the prodigal “came to himself.” His course since leaving home shows us that sin is a certain kind of madness. It manifests a heart insanity and mental delusion not to want to remain under God’s blessing. But sin is a lie, and it deceives its hosts, especially when they had lived under truth. To choose to turn from God is the ultimate madness. But when the Lord begins to turn our heart back to him, we also come to ourselves. We were made for God, and to turn to him is to be recovered to ourselves. We cannot have life and peace unless we live under the blessing of our Maker and Redeemer. Sin turns us away from God, and therefore drives us away from sanity, health, and peace. As the prodigal looked at his situation, he suddenly realized his folly – and he confessed it to himself. He told the truth to himself – all my father’s hired servants have more than I do. Is this where sin has driven me? Must I starve here? I have done this to myself. I tried to find my life apart from my Father, and life apart from him is the hellhole of cloaca. Only in fellowship with him, with his gift of righteousness through his Son, do I truly have a life. Any other life is slavery.
Conviction – I Will Return to My Father
While many rest with surface thoughts about their choices and circumstances, real repentance, because it is born of rising faith, goes deeper. God’s power is at work in it. Faith is not a feeling or inclination but an action to reverse course, to trust God, and to begin walking with him. We see this in the prodigal. Telling the truth to himself – and does not the Lord desire truth in the inmost parts? (Ps. 51:6) – a strong conviction arose within him. I will rise and return to my Father’s house. Here is true repentance at work – reverse course, stop sinning, retrace my steps, and go back in the paths of righteousness. Without “putting off” of sin and “putting on” righteousness, as the Spirit describes it (Eph. 4:17-31), there is no real repentance. There may be a worldly kind of sorrow that laments bad choices and their consequences, a melancholy that many confuse with repentance, but not true repentance – a hatred for sin, a renunciation of sin and self, a new resolve to walk in the ways of God’s commands, all empowered and made possible by receiving and resting upon Jesus Christ as he is offered in the gospel. Because repentance is not preached today, many equate better feelings about life with true discipleship, but this is a false gospel. Following Jesus and knowing God are not first about feeling better about yourself but giving him the honor of confessing your sinfulness and his righteousness. Then, humbled before him, we renounce ourselves and our sins, rise and return to our Father’s house, so that we can place ourselves under his wise government and seek nothing but to please him.
Complete Personal Responsibility – I Have Sinned against God
There is something else about repentance that we must not miss. The prodigal must have paused and trembled at his newfound conviction. What will my Father say? He put those thoughts away and instead rehearsed what he would say, not as playing a part in a play but what actually needed to be said: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you.” Note this carefully. “I have sinned.” There was no “but.” There was no “you, father.” There was nothing but acceptance of complete personal responsibility for sin. Not – “The serpent deceived me,” or, “This wife that you have given me.” We must stop making excuses for our sins, or we shall forever live in the garden of exasperation, fault finding, personal avoidance of responsibility, and therefore “NO REPENTANCE.” Blaming others is ultimately blaming God. Even for the true believer, it is easy to slink back to “but this other person, these circumstances.” We all carry the victim card in our pocket. If you want to walk with God and know his power and smile upon your life, take it out now and burn it. None of your sins are anyone else’s faults but your own. Many will not truly repent and come to Christ because they spend all their mental energy on the “what if” merry-go-round: if only this person had done differently, or this had not happened to me. These are Satan’s subterfuges to lead you away from true repentance and toward another kind of deeper level sin – Eden blaming, Eden victimization, Eden blaming God. The ultimate God-murder, the ultimate sin – It is not my fault. It is your fault. Confess, take responsibility, and be free.
Condemned Himself – Unworthy to be Your Son
Each aspect of repentance has its own grace and beauty, and self-condemnation is one of the most beautiful (2 Cor. 7:10-11). It is telling that the very thing today’s psychiatrists describe as harmful is actually indispensable to mental health. We must judge ourselves (1 Cor. 11:31), haul our consciences up before God’s tribunal, and stand with him in condemning ourselves. Yes, Lord, I am guilty. Yes, Lord, you are righteous to condemn me. If you give me what I deserve, then I can no longer be your son, for I have forfeited every claim upon your fatherly favor. I have repudiated your goodness to me, the inheritance you promised to me, the love you gave me. And the prodigal: I am unworthy to be your son; make me your hired servant. True confession and repentance unburdens from the chains of rights and deserving. The repentant son and daughter, or husband and wife, never says: I will come home, but it will be on my terms. You were right, father, the prodigal might have said, but do not press me. I will condescend to come home, but let bygones be bygones, and accept me back as I was. This is not repentance but the devil’s lies. I have no other choice but to confess you were right – your sheer power compels me to do so. No, not the repentant son or daughter of God, for he says, Father, I want to come home, but let it be on your terms. I will gladly take the lowest place, the lowest seat. I demand nothing but to be admitted back under your roof. I will come on your terms, for your terms are right. Completely right. I was completely wrong. I am unworthy to be your son. I will work for scraps – not to work myself back into your good graces but because this is what I deserve – not your favor but your condemnation.
Confidence – In His Father’s Mercy
O, but the son does not yet know his father’s mercy, does he? He perceives dimly but has no idea of the unsearchable riches of Christ, his bowels of compassion, his lowliness of heart. But as we close with the prodigal this morning, we have worked ourselves up to a place where we can perceive and marvel at God’s mercy. The prodigal did not know its fullness, but he did perceive that his father would not throw him out on his ear. He knew there was love at home, but he did not demand to be allowed back into that inner circle of love. He would be content simply to bask in the warm rays around the periphery. He demanded no party, no hero’s welcome, no “I’ll meet you halfway” upon his return. He perceived what we must believe – that there is mercy in our offended Father. That we can return home to him. He will freely pardon our sin. We can wash in the crimson tide that flowed from Calvary. Yes, we must be humbled, but the penitent does not think of this as a heavy burden. Please do not conclude that the prodigal is beating himself up for effect or self-atoning. Men who confess themselves unworthy of anything but slavery do not in the next breath try to make atonement for their own sins. He is telling the truth about himself. He is expressing his inmost conviction that this entire, sorry episode in his life has been a grievous sin against God and against his father, but there is nothing else for him to do but to go back home. His father will surely receive him. He will receive us also. Let us turn from our sins and head back for his house. There is love and acceptance there, full pardon for the humbled sinner.