The prodigal son in Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 is a well-known story; one that marks a complete journey from ruin to restoration as a young man has to hit rock bottom before he can realise the profound treasure of the family and the household into which he had been born.
Our story starts with this young man feeling – like many young people do – the restrictions of his father’s household; the weight of expectation and responsibility; the chafing of the rules that govern how he is to behave as the son of an obviously wealthy and powerful property owner.
He wants, like we often do, to be his own person; to make his own mark on the world; to experience the fullness of life as an independent and free person who is capable of making his own decisions. But not without his father’s resources! So he tells good old dad that he wants to set off on his own and asks for his portion of the inheritance to fund his adventures – and his father obliges.
Selfishness and separation
With no one looking over his shoulder, and no responsibilities to carry, the young man’s life is truly his own and he spends his inheritance on everything his heart had ever desired. He travelled to a far off place, found himself some exotic friends, kitted himself out in the very best threads, and partied, partied, partied. All the money in the world – and he never made an investment, never purchased land of his own, never planned for the future; he lived for the present moment, for absolute pleasure – until the money ran out ….
And he began to be in need. Isn’t it interesting that none of his good-time, party time friends offered to assist him? That the inn which had probably accommodated him didn’t offer to put him up for free for a while?
He had absolutely nothing and no-one. His own choices had destroyed him but he only realised the fact when it was too late.
The only option that he had was to sell himself as a casual labourer – and the only work that he could find was in the fields tending pigs. Unclean, dirty pigs – a forbidden food in the Israelite culture – yet, in his desperation he has no other option but to look after them in the mud and the muck.
Not only does he know the shame and degradation of having to take such an inferior position – this educated son of a wealthy and powerful landowner – but it is a sign of how completely he has lost his way, turned his back on his culture, and on his God.
Yet despite him enduring such humiliation, it is still not enough to meet his basic needs for he is paid so little that as he watches the pigs being fed, his stomach pangs with hunger and he enviously desires even that which the pigs are eating. Yet either no one notices – or no one cares – for he is not given anything.
Friends, this is the slippery slope of sin that leads us ever further away from our loving Father, from the household of heaven; to places of complete ruin and humiliation and despair.
We never embark on the journey with the intention to end up in the mud and the muck – but when we take that very first step of saying, “God, I just want to do things my own way for a little while” we really have no idea where we will end up.
And I need to say that all too often as Christians we say, “If God didn’t want me to pursue this path he wouldn’t have opened the door” when actually it is the path we long to pursue even knowing that it might lead us away from God and – as the story so clearly tells us – the Father is generous to the son who wants to set off on his own, allowing him the freedom and the free will to go his own way.
Are short-lived pleasures and fair-weather friends worth the separation from God; the shameful things we have to do to hide our situation or try to get out of it; the gut-wrenching, soul-destroying sense of emptiness and loneliness?
Some of us might self-righteously be thinking that we would never allow the little sins, the once-in-a-while selfishness to take us that far. Like the pharisees and the chief priests who were muttering about Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors, we think we are so much better, so much smarter, so much more cautious than our neighbour which is exactly why Jesus told this story: because we are all sinners and if we have taken even one step away from the Father’s love and presence, we are on the road to ruin.
Fortunately, the story does not end there. It is a story about God, as much as it is a story about us, and so “ruin” can never be the final word.
As this young man sits in the squalor and starvation of his circumstances, the realisation suddenly hits him that in this strange land in which no one cares for him or sees him, he is not being paid enough for this humiliating labour to even fill his stomach. Yet in his father’s household, the hired men are treated with such justice and respect that they even have food to spare.
He begins to see for the first time that the household full of laws and responsibilities and expectations from which he longed to escape, was a household of far more dignity and reward and kindness than what he has found in the exotic country that he longed to explore.
Resolution and repentance
And so he makes up his mind; he comes up with a plan: he will go back to his father and admit the mistakes that he has made. He will apologise for his selfishness and stupidity. He will own up to the disrespect that he has shown and throw himself on his father’s mercy, asking not to be considered a son again for he knows that he does not deserve that, but at least to be an employee, a hired man within the household. That will bring vastly more into his life than he currently has.
Return and reconciliation
He starts the long journey back home – I doubt with eager feet – probably rehearsing over and over again what he will say, imagining how his father might respond, dreading what would happen to him if he is turned away, hearing already the ridicule of the servants and of his brother.
Yet as he comes into view at the bottom of the road up to his father’s home, his father sees him and we read that his heart is moved with compassion; he runs to the son who was lost – not even needing to hear the words that had been practised – throws his arms around him and greets him with a kiss which is a sign of intimacy and trust and deep affection.
In that moment, the past is erased; the mistakes are forgiven. And as much as the young man manages to blurt out his confession, his father ignores him in the excitement of what is to happen next.
Reclothing and rejoicing
The father orders his dirty son reclothed in finery and the fattened calf slaughtered in order that all might celebrate and feast his return. He who was dead is alive again; he who was lost has been found. What a magnificent moment of reunion! It far outweighed what the young son had been expecting – this complete and utter restoration into his father’s household, this full and unhesitating embrace, this royal treatment declaring, “This is my son.”
When we look at the path back to the Father, it becomes clear that on the road to reconciliation God does most of the work.
Yet just as the young man had to realise the mistake he had made in demanding to be set free, let go, set off on his own – and his unworthiness to be considered a son of the Father again – so too do we need to acknowledge the extent of our wrongdoing.
I’m not talking about some simple, half-hearted prayer of confession that secures our forgiveness even when we plot and plan to repeat the behaviour again tomorrow, but of that long and painful journey back home to the Father’s heart during which we have to bear the weight of our sin and measure what it has cost ourselves and others.
The good news is that we don’t have to hit rock bottom in order to change our direction; at any step towards ruin, we can realise where we are headed towards, repent and return to God.
And the embrace of God will be unhesitant and generous. The affirmation will come, that “This is my son, my daughter, who was dead but is now alive; who was lost but now is found.”
Ruin or reconciliation, I wonder this morning what path you are on. For those of us struggling with our sin, uncertain of how to change direction, I invite you to close hear these words from God:
“Beloved daughter, beloved son,
flesh of my flesh and heart of my heart,
how I have yearned to be the arms you run to;
to wrap them tightly around you
and whisper tear-choked into your ear:
‘There is nothing that can keep you from my love –
no unspoken thing too big, too small
to dampen my longing
to laugh and dance and feast and sing
and work and love and rest and eat
and be …
… just be with you.
I’m sorry you’ve felt the need to stay away so long;
that you’ve thought yourself unworthy, unwelcome, unforgiven.
In my eyes
I hope you see only compassion
for the things that have hurt you,
for the times you have chosen wrong,
for the desperate, aching need to know you are loved.
In my embrace
I hope you feel how much you have been longed for,
how much you are my delight, my joy,
as my heart beats against your own.
In my welcome
I hope you believe you are at home;
that though you felt dead and distant,
you are alive and well;
that though you felt lost and alone,
you are wanted and found.
Beloved son, beloved daughter,
flesh of my flesh and heart of my heart,
I will never let you go.’”
Yours in Christ