Special photo: Susan Bennett
Did you know that many Bible commentators call “The Prodigal Son” the most beloved of all Jesus’ parables?
It could be that everyone likes it because each of us can identify with at least one of the characters. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that at one point or another each of us ran from God, tried to ignore him, when we wanted to sin. On the other hand, we’ve all acted like the older brother –– harsh, judgmental, or jealous and self-righteous. I’ve certainly been both brothers many times.
I wish I’d spent more time being like the Father in the parable! But today, we’re going to look closely at the younger brother, the Prodigal himself.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is found in Luke 15:11-32. In the parable, the younger son says, “Father, give me my share of our property that will belong to me.” We’re not given all the details, but we know this was a rich family, and there was a lot of money, goods, and property involved.
Verse 13 says the younger son “gathered all that he had” and went to a distant country. What that means is that whatever he started out with, the younger son converted it all to cash and left.
There are so many layers here, hidden layers in the actions of this younger son. By demanding his share of the property, he was selling off land that had probably been in his family for generations. He was also telling his father, “I’m saying good-bye to all my legal and moral responsibilities to this family. I’m saying good-bye to YOU. You won’t be seeing me again.” This was enormous; it was unheard of. And it isn’t like he demanded the property so he could work and establish his own life; he squandered it in dissolute living and spent all there was to spend.
The younger son’s fall is fast, complete, and catastrophic. He spends it all. And when he has not a penny to his name, there’s a famine in the country where he’s living, and his situation becomes desperate. He finds a job with one of the local farmers, and ends up in the fields, feeding pigs. There’s no way for a young Jew to fall any lower: he’s working for a Gentile and slopping the hogs. He’s so hungry, he’d gladly eat pig slop. But no one’s allowing him even to eat THAT.
So what happens when people hit rock bottom? Sadly, sometimes we just stay there. Sometimes we’re so far away from God, from any hope at all, that we stay right there on the bottom. There’s nothing worse, especially when we know that, just like the younger son, we have only ourselves to blame. It’s true that sometimes God does let us hit rock bottom. But if that happens to us, it’s only because God, in his mercy and love, knows just how far down we have to fall in order for God to finally get our attention.
The younger son in the parable has a moment of clarity like that. He realizes that he’s deep in sin, that he’s lost –– and that it doesn’t have to be that way. He has a Father who loves him; he has a home; he has a family. He has hope. Maybe he could come back. Maybe there could be forgiveness.
The younger son discovers, just as we can, that receiving his Father’s love does not require punishment and disgrace and restitution. He doesn’t even get a good talking-to. The young Prodigal is forgiven, restored, and 100 percent reconciled to his Father … just as we are.
His Father has remained faithful, and actually was LONGING for his return … just as God longs for our return, as well. When our Father restores us, he restores us completely. There’s no lingering disapproval or condemnation –– no reason for us to feel guilty. There’s nothing but that powerful, grace-filled love.
A long time ago, I was once very, very lost. Maybe some of you were, too. I hope that if you’re still lost, you’ll come back to your Father today. Coming back to God is like coming HOME, in the deepest and best sense of that word. God rejoices!
When we run toward God’s love, instead of away from it, the Father’s heart touches us with such relief and joy we wonder why we ever stayed away so long. When we know our home is with God, returning to him is the deepest joy there is.
Which way are you running? If you’re running AWAY from God, it’s time to turn around. You’ll find grace and love, understanding and forgiveness. That’s a promise.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.