In reality this parable is misnamed. It really shouldn’t be called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for the son is not at its center, the father is. Webster’s dictionary defines the word prodigal as “exceedingly or recklessly wasteful,” or “extremely generous; lavish.” If anyone is prodigal in this story, it is the father! He never gives up on his son, loves him no matter what the son might do, or regardless of how disrespectfully he is treated. His son is his son, and nothing can ever change that. He is the prodigal father!
But the younger son shows a lack of respect for authority and deference to his elders. His central problem is pride. He finds out that shame and destruction follow pride. In his disrespect for authority, he thinks primarily of himself, totally disregarding how it affects others. His request for his inheritance is not to benefit others but to pursue pleasure—especially entertainment. As a result, his unwise actions bring him to the point of despair and a re-evaluation of his life.
The text, “When he came to himself” is commonly applied to a person who recovers from being deranged. Jesus indicates that the folly of the younger son is a type of insanity, as it is with all sinners: A kind of madness is in their hearts. They are at odds with God, indulging in evil obsessions, contrary to their better judgment. Vincent’s Word Studies explains, “This striking expression – came to himself – puts the state of rebellion against God as a kind of madness. It’s a wonderful stroke of art, to represent the beginning of repentance as the return of a sound consciousness.” Misery and desperation may stimulate reason in a sinner when he comes to himself. And, once the younger son comes to realize his distorted and unrealistic view of himself and humbly repents, he can be restored.
But by demanding his share of his inheritance before his parents’ deaths – in defiance of Jewish law the younger Son is essentially saying “I wish you were dead”. He shows that he looks upon God’s gifts as debts rightfully owed to him. Impatiently, he demands his share immediately. Sadly people today constantly, selfishly, and arrogantly press their rights rather than fulfill their responsibilities.
Another important element in this parable is how unconditional the father’s love really is. There is no sequel to this parable, but if there were, it would not include a scene like this. Having forgiven his son on Monday, the father wakes up on Tuesday and begins a lifetime of nagging his son – a lifetime of reminding his son of how much he had forgiven him. On the contrary, the parable assumes there will be no daily reminders of the ruinous life his son had led, because the father has moved on emotionally. He’s wiped the son’s slate clean, but the father has also rid himself of any memory of disappointment that could haunt him for the rest of his life. He counts his blessings and leaves the burden of his son’s sins behind him.
And so for the father this story of forgiveness is wonderfully liberating. But it is liberating for the son too. For the son the reconciliation is genuine. There is no burden of sin to contend with. There is the joy of having a clean slate on which to write the next stage of his life, and an appreciation of how generous his father had been. The father, like God, forgives his son’s sin – and ours – unconditionally.
Now the father in this parable loved both his sons equally. Yet, the elder son took issue with the way his father received his younger brother. The father remains the model of a non-anxious presence. “My boy,” he responds affectionately, “you’re always with me. Everything I have left belongs to you. But your dead brother is back. Your lost brother has turned up safe and sound. It’s right to celebrate and rejoice. Come in and join the party!”
As with all of Jesus’ stories there are many facets to the parable, depending on your perspective. Surely one of the points he is making with the elder brother is that “God always welcomes us home with all his heart.” He always cares for us.
Other than the cross and resurrection, Jesus has no more overt way to tell us that when we take the older son’s part, we are forgiven. When our heart turns cold as ice, when our eye looks hard with judgment, when we withdraw because mercy disgusts us, still we are invited back into the house. Our highhandedness cannot outreach divine mercy.
A question then is not whether God forgives, but whether we accept forgiveness. There’s something in each of us of both the older son and the younger son, and the father pursues both, insistent that both should come to the feast of forgiveness.
So this story invites us to accept forgiveness when we tend toward indulgence, arrogance, or both. Not only does the father set us free from our entrapment in sin, but he offers us an example we can follow of what it means to forgive, and thus he reveals a deep dimension of how to be Christian, how to be human.
A great question then, this Lent and always, is whether we will not simply accept forgiveness, but extend it to others.
The shame of a really great story or sermon illustration is that, unlike the parable, you only really get to use them once. That said, one of the best story’s I’ve ever run across was presented by a preacher named Ronnie White from Golf Course Road Church of Christ, Midland, TX. (which is a little more than half way between Dallas and Santa Fe just east of Odessa) It made an impression on me, so I’d like now to present Rev. White’s story in his own words.
G.W. Ravensbury was an itinerant preacher back many years ago. That’s how he made his living: preaching off of trains. He’d ride a train to one town, preach, get back on the train, and head to another town.
Ravensbury tells the story of a train ride he took that was more strange than many of the others. Ravensbury was sitting at the back of his train car, and he noticed that there was this young gentleman who was sitting a few rows ahead of him. He had this cardboard suitcase stuffed real tight up underneath his seat. And he appeared very anxious. This man would get up, pace the car for a bit, and then sit back down. He did this every 10 minutes or so.
Finally Ravensbury decided that he would go have a chat with the young man. So he got up, asked if he could have a seat next to him, and introduced himself.
“Son, my name’s Ravensbury, and I’m a preacher. You seem like you’ve got a lot on your mind. Would you like to talk?”
Ravensbury said it was like opening up a spigot. The young man’s life story just came pouring out.
“Me and my pa didn’t get along well at all when I was coming up. We’d fuss & fight. Shoot, we’d get into it over nuthin’.
“One day we were getting after each other real hard — I can’t even remember what about — when I said something like, ‘Well why don’t I just LEAVE!’ And my Daddy said, ‘Son, there’s the door, don’t let it hit you on the backside on the way out.’ I didn’t really want to go, but I was so angry that I went to my room & packed everything I could fit into my cardboard suitcase.
As I went to leave, my Daddy yelled back at me & said, ‘SON… if YOU WALK OUT THAT DOOR… don’t you EVER come back.’ I was so mad I just left.
“Things didn’t go too well for me after that. I kept wandering from one po’dunk town to another working one piddlin’ job after another, and I wasn’t doing too good. One night I was out drinking with some buddies, and we got this idea to try to rob this liquor store. When we got caught, I got sentenced to prison.
“But before I got out, I decided to write home to Mom and Dad. I told them I was in prison, and about to get out. I said I was sorry for how I left and for what I did. That I’d understand if they never wanted to see me again, but I’d be passing through town. You see, my house is just off the tracks here about 10 miles ahead. I told them that if they wanted to see me to tie something white out in the tree. That if there wasn’t anything white, I’d just go on through to the next town & they’d never have to hear from me again.
“Mr. Ravensbury, if there’s nothing white hanging out in that tree, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m at the end of my rope. I just don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
Ravensbury said that as they grew closer, the young man became even more nervous. Finally, the young man nudged Ravensbury and said, “My house is right up around this bend. Do you think you could see if there’s anything white tied there for me? I just can’t look.”
Ravensbury said he pressed his forehead up against the window hoping to see something — ANYthing — that was white tied up in a tree. And he said as they turned that corner, it was the most majestic sight he’d ever seen. Apparently that family had emptied their house of every towel, every wash cloth, every bed spread, every pillow case, even every piece of underwear — EVERYTHING in that house was out there flapping in that tree. It was just a tree of white out there in that yard.
Ravensbury called to the boy, “Young man… LOOK!”
As soon as the young man caught a glimpse of the tree, he grabbed his suitcase, rushed out the door, & leaped off the train car as quick as he could. Ravensbury said that the last image he saw was of that young man dragging his cardboard suitcase up the hill, and an older couple bursting out of the house to come greet him.
And Ravensbury said that THAT is a picture of what God’s grace is like. That the cross was God’s way of emptying Heaven’s linen closet of everything white so that it would be known for all-time that God wants us home. No matter what we’ve done, or where we’ve been — for us please just to come home. AMEN.
Preached by Thom Hagerth