Exceeding Expectations: The Choice of the Father in the Prodigal Son Story
“Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”” (Luke 15:11–32, NIV)
The Prodigal Son left home with his share of his inheritance from his father. He wastes his money, the land he fled to is hit with famine and he is desperate. His need blinds him so much that he forgets who he is- a Hebrew, loved and kept by the God of Abraham. He is part of a people consecrated to God. As such, he is to avoid pigs. God commands this of his people. But his sins of greed and selfishness have hidden his true identity from him. He is no longer a beloved child of God and a member of a set-apart people but a penniless, hungry stranger in a strange land.
In the midst of his despair, God in his mercy makes the son “come to himself” (or “come to his senses) and remember who he belongs to and where he should be. It is a work of God when one is bought into a right mind. Jesus did this miracle for the man possessed by legions of demons. (Mark 5:15) Humbled but with a growing remembrance of who he is, he sets out for the home he never should have left. What did he expect to find when he returned? The text said he thought that his father would receive him and treat him as a servant. But there were other options.
4 possible responses of the father:
- Turn the son away. “You left, so stay gone.” Interesting that the son didn’t even consider this. He must have known the compassion and kindness of his father. Such knowledge makes the demand of his inheritance early even worse. This must have been in his mind as he came to himself. What a wretch he was to be so cruel to a loving father! We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) You deserve God’s anger. (Ephesians 2:3) God could turn his back on you because of your sin. Why doesn’t he?
- Allow the son to come back but to work and live like a servant to repay what he took from the father and wasted. The son would get the opportunity to work for his forgiveness. We often feel we need to work for forgiveness. The problem is we can not do enough work to make up for how bad our sin is in light of how holy God is. Our only hope is to throw ourselves at his mercy and rely on him, not ourselves.
- Allow the son to come back and live without repayment but not as a full member of the household. The son would be partially restored but not back in full fellowship. He would be more than a servant but less than a son. The Prodigal Son recognized what a privilege it was to be called “son”. He did not feel he deserved that. He didn’t live up to the name “son”. He wrongfully took money from his father and violated the teachings his father gave him by dwelling with pigs.
- Eagerly and joyfully welcome the son back as a full member of the household plus repay his foolish deeds with fresh clothes, a feast and a party in his honor. Such unexpected behavior echoes the sacrifices Israelites were commanded to give for their sin in Exodus. Temple sacrifices were like a joyous barbecue. The animals were roasted and eaten in fellowship with the community to celebrate God’s mercy and love of his sinful people who returned to him in humility. The restored Israelites could go back to their homes feeling free from sin and cleansed, joyful and grateful to their God.
Out of these options, the father in Jesus’ story chose only one.
As Jesus told this story the first time, which option do you think the original audience expected to hear? What would you think the outcome would be if you were there? If you heard a story like this today, how would you expect the father to react?
Why did Jesus include the story about the other son at the end? Jesus knew what was in the mind and hearts of the original listeners. He knew the words and attitudes of the son who stayed home reflected what his followers were thinking. He needed to address those heart attitudes to make his point clear. God is most pleased and abundantly merciful to those who humble themselves before him, no matter the sin.
God provides for you. He gives you so much every day. Have you ever wasted what God gave you, like time, talent or treasure? Have you ever been ungrateful for God’s provision and forgotten that he was your source? Have you left God and gone so far away from him that you found yourself deep in sin, unclean before your holy God? If so, you probably feel unworthy and unable to go back to your former beloved status.
But if in humility you go to your Heavenly Father, you will find him waiting for you with open arms of mercy and love. He celebrates your return. (Luke 15:7) It means more to him than you could imagine. Rejoice, knowing that you are loved by a Heavenly Father of abundance. He delights to do above and beyond what you can imagine. (Ephesians 3:20)
He sent his Son Jesus to earth that we would have life with abundance. (John 10:10) His love for you is so great that nothing can overcome it. (Romans 8:35-3) He will supply all of your needs according to his riches in glory. (Philippians 4:19) And he knows that your greatest needs are for grace, love and forgiveness. He is faithful and just to forgive your sins and cleanse you from unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
Any sin puts you on a path away from God like the Prodigal Son. Go to God in prayer today. Find forgiveness for sin and be restored to full relationship with your Heavenly Father.