In this episode, we examine the story of the prodigal son. God is the perfect parent, always wanting what is best for us. He offers us love and belonging, built on the foundation of truth. If we follow the way of our Good Parent, listen to what He says, and make our choices with intention, we will be equipped to endure the struggles of this life and we will reign with God in the next.
The prodigal son
Let’s look at one of the most familiar stories of all the Bible with this in mind, The Prodigal Son. It’s Luke 15:11. And actually, probably, this story would be better titled The Prodigal Father because the word prodigal just means excessive, and we’re going to look at the two excessive sons, one was excessively legalistic, the other was excessively licentious; but it’s overshadowed by this father who was excessively graceful and excessively loving. And that’s the main focus we want to have today.
Now let’s just look at the context here, Luke 15:1. This is why Jesus is telling this story.
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him.
And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”
This word receives has the idea of waiting eagerly for someone. In other words, he likes these people! Why does Jesus like these sinners and tax collectors? A tax collector would be a traitor to the Jewish nation. They’d be a political outcast. A sinner would be someone who has violated the pharisaical laws; and the Pharisees and scribes, of course, would be Jesus’s people. He comes from that group. They’re the people who are educated in the law and say we should live the law, which Jesus says too.
And they complained. So he starts speaking these parables, the parable of the sheep and the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son, the prodigal son.
Verse 11. Then He said: “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.
Now, I’m not sure exactly what’s going on here; but I’ll give you my best take. This word livelihood is the Greek word bios. It’s often translated life. You’ve got multiple words that are translated life: psyche. We get our word psyche from it. It is used as life or soul. It’s translated life about half the time and soul about half the time. And this is our essence of who we are as people, our living being.
And then zoe is translated as life, and it is eternal life, like Jesus gives us eternal life. It’s the quality of life you live, whether we have fulfillment or not; and bios is what we do for a living to stay alive, our function in society.
It appears here that what happened is we’ve got this family business; and in the Jewish culture, the family business would grow as the family grows. You see this all throughout the Bible. Like, if—who was it?—Tamar was supposed to have lost her husband, and they’re supposed to do the levirate marriage thing so she could have offspring, and Ruth was the same way. They’re supposed to—the kinsman-redeemer is supposed to have offspring for her so that that family could have their land and possession perpetuated. And in both stories, there’s a reluctance to perform that duty because they wanted to land for their heirs, not for this other branch of the family.
Well, what we’re supposed to do here is keep the family together and grow the family business. And so this guy comes and says I don’t want to be part of this family business anymore. I want my part for myself.
So he gets it, and apparently what he does is he gathers up the sheep and whatever else and sells it, turns it into money and then goes off on a journey.
And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.
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.
Now, of course, there’s nothing more disgusting to a Jewish listener than a pig. And the audience he’s talking to here is mainly the Pharisees. So you’ve got these Pharisees complaining about the sinners, and he’s talking about, in this story, this this Jewish fellow has violated his familial duty by asking for his estate to be divided; and now he’s gone off and joined himself to a non-Jew, and now he’s feeding pigs. You can’t really go any lower on the social strata then this guy has gone in this story from a Jewish perspective.
And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
Verse 17. “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!
So where is he on the Maslow pyramid now? He’s gotten down to the bottom. Sometimes that’s what it takes for us to get some reality. And he says I would prefer to eat and live, so,
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.” ’
Now this is very interesting because in his mind, apparently, being a son didn’t have any value before because he basically left the family business and spit on his dad and said following you doesn’t matter anymore, being with my brother doesn’t matter anymore. And now he recognizes that he actually isn’t worthy to be a son anymore. He’s squandered his sonship. But he would like to be full.
The father was watching
“And he arose and came to his father. And now we have the prodigal 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.
Now if you’re sitting here and you’re a Pharisee, your mind is exploding here because a father who is the CEO of this family business, first of all, doesn’t run to greet somebody. You come to me; I don’t come to you. So this is a very undistinguished thing for this fellow to do.
And not only that, he did it when he’s a long way off. What does that tell you about this father? He’s been watching. He’s been waiting. He’s been hoping.
Now as a little prelude here, it’s important he did not follow the prodigal son and nag him. Can I hear an amen to that? He let him go because that’s what he wanted to do. But he was waiting for him to return, hoping he would return.
God likes us
And when he returns he runs and then he falls on him and kisses his neck before he hears the apology. And clearly this is God in the story. What does that tell you about God? He likes sinners. Not just loves! We know God loves the world, but you can love the world still not like it, right? Don’t you love people you don’t like? Some people are not likable. Let’s face it. But he likes them! Isn’t that crazy?
Now why is that such good news? We tend to think, oh, wait a minute! Somebody’s going to get away with something! Why do we say that? We don’t think we’re sinners! We think we’re above other people. Well, of course he would like me! I’m likable! Hmm. You know, if we’re really honest, all of us are not likable some of the time.
But he likes him.
And then the apology comes. The son says,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“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.
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.’
Still a son
Now was he still a son when he was off in the other country? Always. He was always a son. But what was broken? The fellowship. The fellowship was broken. Who broke it? The son did. What was the father doing? “Please, please I need you for me to be glorified. Don’t do that! Oh please.” No, he didn’t do that. He went on with his life, but he’s looking, waiting, hoping, and when he comes back, it’s received immediately because he’s his son. And this is the starting place.
When you go to the Disney two-minute Snow White Adventure Ride, the little cart goes about half a mile an hour, and they still make you put a seatbelt on. And this is our seatbelt. This is what allows us to go on this ride and take these daring adventures because we can’t screw this part of it up! We’re God’s child because he chose us to be a child. He’s the one that birthed us.
Think about physical birth. We tend to say, well, God would not violate our choice. Let’s just think about physical birth. Did you choose which year to be born? What city to be born in? Which mom and dad to have? What house to grow up in? You know, most things in life we don’t get to choose.
I like to say we get to choose three things: who we trust, the perspective we have, and the decisions we make on a daily basis to take action. But that’s really it. Nothing else in life we get to choose.
You could decide tomorrow, you know, I wish I’d never been born. Can you undo it now? You can stop living in this world, but you can’t stop existing. God birthed us because he wanted to, and it’s irrevocable. It’s an irrevocable gift just like physical birth.
And he likes us. He wants to have fellowship with us.
Think about the Laodiceans. He says you guys think you’re rich, but actually you’re very poor. You think you’re rich because you have a lot of money and rich clothes, but you’re actually poor because you are spiritually poor. So what I want you to do is buy from me gold. Buy from me gold.
How do we buy gold from God? He tells us. I’m standing outside your door knocking with my voice. Please let me come in. Not beating the door down. Not blowing the door open with magic. Not nagging. Just asking to come in. If you will open the door and let me in and I can have a meal with you, then you’ll be rich. You’ll have as much gold as you can imagine.
Well, the same kind of thing’s happening here. They begin to be merry. Fellowship is restored.
And then, the legalist objects
Now the Pharisees come into the picture. So we got the prodigal father who has this amazing love for his children that cannot be exhausted and cannot be squandered. We can only squander the experience of the love. And we have the prodigal son who has taken all this amazing benefit that he got from his dad, and he squandered it with prodigal living; and now we have the prodigal legalists.
So, now, the Pharisees, the guys who he’s telling the story for, they enter the picture.
“Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.
So he called one of the servants and asked, “What’s going on in the house? What’s the party for?”
And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ So we’re having a big party.
“But he was angry and would not go in to the party. Therefore his father came out—
Now, in this case, the father comes out and actually comes to the son. This is a son that has never left, so they still have a relationship.
—and pleaded with him, and he said, “Come on in and celebrate the son returned.”
So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, 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.’
What is just about that? You mean you’re going to let this lowly sinner over here, you’re going to accept him and love him? And me, who has kept all these rules! I do my devotions! I get up at 5:30 every day, and I do a 45-minute devotion, and you’re going to let that guy have your love and not me? I went on three mission trips! I gave $1700 to missions! And what have they done?
“And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me—
Now this is cool, isn’t it? This guy’s just as off as the other one. He’s living right there in the house. Why do you think he hadn’t had a fatted calf? No need. You know, one of the things the Bible tells us is you don’t have because you didn’t ask. You know, how many things are we bitter at God for him we never even bothered to ask.
The consequences remain
But he says ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.
See this prodigal son came back, and the relationship was restored; but the consequences remain. He didn’t get his stuff back. It was sold. He lost his inheritance.
We can squander our inheritance. We can squander our possession.
God made us to be rulers with him. He wants us to overcome so we can sit on the throne with him. That’s our destiny. But that can be squandered. But being his child cannot be squandered.
See if we can’t make that distinction, we’re going to be stuck in a place where we’re doing everything we do to convince ourselves through other people that we belong to God. And we’re going to miss the whole point of living to walk by faith and overcome so we can ascend to the point God intended for us to.
All I have is yours! So here you’ve got this prodigal legalist who doesn’t even understand what he has. He’s just serving and following the rules, apparently because he thinks he’ll get something out of it; and he’s missing out on what’s really there which is this phenomenal relationship with his dad.
Well, all of us tend to fall into one of those two camps. I am a lot more like the Pharisees. And the Pharisees are the ones that actually are getting waxed in this parable. So, I love this parable because it tells me that God’s not going to spit me out for being a legalist. He likes me too, which is great! God’s a perfect parent.
Now sin has consequences. The consequences are not going to go away.
God is the perfect parent
And, just as an aside here, this is the way we should do our parenting or grandparenting or surrogate parenting. We should let people know there’s nothing you can do that will make me not want what’s best for you. Nothing. No matter how bad you are, no matter what you say to me, no matter how low you go in life, I will always want what’s best for you. We’ve got to let people know that, not only with our words but our actions.
But because I like you—not just love you—but because I love and like you, I’m going to tell you the truth about what’s in your best interest. This father let the guy go, and he was destroying himself. He’s always waiting for him to come back. That’s amazingly powerful.
If we endure, we’ll reign
Let’s look at 2 Timothy 2. This is one of the one of the great verses in the Bible about this topic. 2 Timothy 2. It’s a little song here.
2:11. This is a faithful saying:
For if we died with Him,
We shall also live with Him.
This is a chiasm. This is A in the chasm.
If we endure,
We shall also reign with Him. This is the B.
If we deny Him,
He also will deny us. That’s the B2.
And then the A’s repeated.
If we are faithless,
He remains faithful;
He cannot deny Himself.
So the central point of this, actually—and 2 Timothy is written to a bunch of believers who are watching Paul about to be martyred, and Paul wants them not to chicken out and to take the same path he’s taken, which is the path of giving your life. That’s the point of 2 Timothy. Don’t chicken out. God didn’t give you a spirit of fear but of power, love and discipline. Stay the course.
So the central point of this is if we endure, we’ll reign; if we don’t endure, we won’t.
This son could have been a part of the family business and been elevated to the leadership in the family business, but he squandered it. So this is a conditional thing.
But it’s sandwiched by this seatbelt. If we die with him, we shall live with him. That’s not conditional. It’s unconditional. If we die with him, if we’re buried in baptism with him and raised to walk in newness of life, we can not walk in newness of life, and we will still live with him. Why? Because if we’re faithless, verse 13, he remains faithful. He can’t deny himself.
See, we don’t merit the grace of God, but Jesus does. And that has been transported onto us. And if God were then to reject us, he would be rejecting himself.
I know many of you have had loved ones that have strayed, perhaps have strayed to the point of total self-destruction, partial self-destruction. All of us have done this to some extent or another.
We can’t lose our sonship
It doesn’t matter how unfaithful we are. We can’t lose our seatbelt. We can’t lose the fact that we were born into a spiritual walk as the son of the prodigal father.
And this is the foundation for living a heroic life because on Maslow now, we can go to the next level. We don’t have to worry about belonging and acceptance. God likes us. He does it because he’s God. He chose to. We don’t have to do anything to win that condition.
So we can go on to where God really wants us to go, which is to focus on giving our life to walk in service to others so we can overcome as he overcame and sit down on the throne with him. That’s what he wants for us.
And Maslow calls that kind of living transcendent, which means unexplainable. And it’s unexplainable because now we’re not dependent on what other people think. We’re just acting on what God thinks, in the Christian version of this.
I care about what God says, which is going to happen after this life.
It is an amazing tale, an epic tale that God has put us into. It is a fantastic journey with all kinds of terrain. Each kind of terrain has its own challenges, and each one is an opportunity to know this prodigal father by faith. But the foundation of it is no matter how bad we mess up, our belonging, our acceptance is not conditional. Approval is conditional.
God’s not going to approve behavior that’s not in our best interest, just like you wouldn’t approve your child playing with razor blades. But we cannot out sin the love of God; and that gives us this amazing foundation from which we can actually live this epic life of heroism.