There are three main characters in the well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son. First, the prodigal (wasteful) or younger son parallels all broken believers who have retreated from the Father only to return and be well-received by Him. Second, the Pharisaical son parallels those who claim to be a part of God’s family only to demonstrate self-righteous anger when the Father extends His grace to the undeserving. Third, the protagonist in this story is the father in my understanding. He parallels our heavenly Father who demonstrates how all who turn to Him receive undeserved forgiveness and love. The younger brother is undeserving, but so is the older brother. This is the parable in a nutshell.
Of course, we may learn from all three perspectives in the parable. First, we direct ourselves to the lesson of the prodigal son.
The Perspective of the Prodigal Son
The perspective of the younger son’s retreat is the most common focus when approaching this parable. Most are able to relate to it. Certainly the tax-collectors and sinners related to the younger son. His retreat begins at a point in his life where he has everything; it ends when no one gives him anything – no food, no relief, not gratitude, no compassion …nothing!
If our children depart from the presence of God to do life their own way, they do so because of a perception that they are not free but long to be so. They wish to cast off the restraint of parental and pastoral authority and do their own thing. They increasingly take for granted the grace, mercy, and compassion that God affords them. They will direct their energies, time, money, and abilities to sinful, wasteful living. They may not sin to the extent of the prodigal son, but they operate under his perspective of life.
Time reveals to the true child of God the same acute disappointment that the prodigal son experienced. God loves us too much to allow us to retreat from Him. He will do what is necessary to break our resolve to do our own thing in life. No one can return to God until they realize just how empty life is without Him. As parents, that leaves us dependent upon our heavenly Father to deliver our retreating children.
The prodigal son was not a reasonable man when he was running away from such a compassionate dad. Sin is never reasonable. But the Bible does say that at last this man came to himself. He begins to think of his father’s house. There are steps he takes which lead to his return. First, he reflects upon how foolishly he has behaved and upon the much more satisfying life he could have with his father – even as servant! Second, he resolves to return to his father for forgiveness; however, in so doing he finds freedom under the father’s restraint and authority. Go figure! His resolve to return came at a time when all hope was lost for him.
When we see how foolishly and wickedly we behave as backslidden believers …how wretched and deplorable the circumstance of our sin is, it makes us long for a time when life was once satisfying. We come broken and contrite. We are humbled by our illusory attempt at freedom. We are now ready to return to the throne of God’s grace for freedom. There we ask for mercy. The props are kicked out from underneath us. We’ve come to the end of ourselves. We see that there is only satisfaction in an all-sufficient Savior who has given us His all-sufficient Word. So, we return.
When the prodigal son returns, his father is waiting and watching. He runs to his son with open arms and recognizes him from afar. A father’s compassion knows no bounds. I speak as one who knows. It will be demonstrated by his actions. He doesn’t even allow his son to say what he has rehearsed. Signs of lavish affection are abundant in the story. When we are really meditating upon this story, we cannot help but be moved to tears. The best robe, shoes, a ring, the fatted calf – indeed, all is well!
We find the same reception when we return to God. We don’t deserve it because of our initial retreat. And yet, our Father receives us with joy. There is no “I told you so” attitude here. There is only love, mercy, and compassion. There is only forgiveness for the broken and contrite son.
If we are to expect such a reception, then we must return broken and contrite before the Lord. We must cry out for His mercy as miserable prodigals. The more accurate our perception of our broken relationship, the greater the joy when we understand the acceptability we have before the Father because of the Son of God.
You may be afraid to return to God because you’ve retreated a great distance. But no child of God is beyond the reach of the reception we see in Luke 15. As a matter of fact, how much better it is to realize that we have retreated and then return to the Father. Then, we too, may experience a lavish reception. But why does a long period of time need to pass? I have retreated and returned in a space of five minutes. Are you actually trying to pay for your sinfulness by remaining in the wilderness? Didn’t Jesus pay it all? He has said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink” (John 7.37) … “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11.28).