“And he said, “There was a man who had two sons.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
And so begins one of Jesus’ most enduringly beloved parables. The parable of the prodigal son has loomed large in the mental history of the world ever since Jesus told it. The idea resonates with some of the deepest desires of our heart—to receive forgiveness when we have sinned, to be restored when we have blown it, to be reconciled when we have broken a relationship. Because of its power in our cultural imagination, it is worth at least a bit of our time.
I want to break this parable down into a couple of parts. The first part is encouraging. The second part is uncomfortable. And the first part of the story breaks down into four movements. It begins with evil-hearted foolishness. This father’s younger son came to him one day and said he had had enough. He was tired of working on the family farm day-in, day-out. He really couldn’t tell the difference between himself and the servants. About the only distinction he could make is that he happened to share the owner’s name. He was ready to go and do his own thing. But, in order to do that, he was going to need to get an advance on his share of the estate.
When Jesus said this, a murmur rumbled through His audience. No son of theirs would have ever said something like this. At least, he wouldn’t have said it and lived to tell his tale. In asking for his share of the estate, he wasn’t asking for something easy like for his dad to go down to the bank and withdraw a few thousand dollars. An estate portion was inherited. You can only get an inheritance when the person who gives it to you dies. He wasn’t just saying, “I’m ready to go off on my own,” he was saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead so I could move on with my life.”
This wasn’t just foolishness. This was evil-hearted foolishness. Have you been there? Have you been in that place where what you wanted to do wasn’t merely stupid, but damnably so? What you wanted to do crossed the line from mostly harmless silliness to potentially grievously hurting someone else who loved you? That’s not something very comfortable to think about, much less talk about, but if we’ve ever been there—and the odds on that are unfortunately pretty high—we need to own it. Maybe you’re there now. You have set off on a path that is going to lead to tragedy and pain if you stay on it.
Here’s the wild thing about wanting to start off on a path like that: God lets us do it. Think about it. We set off to do something that will advance the cause of sin and unrighteousness—the polar opposite of the cause of His kingdom—and He steps out of the way and lets us do it.
That’s what the younger son’s dad did. As the younger son he was legally entitled to a third of his father’s estate. That wasn’t something he could gain access to immediately. It didn’t exist as cash to be handed over. It was a working farm. The father would have to actively liquidate a third of his estate in order to grant this request. That meant posting the sale, courting buyers, selling land that had probably been in his family for generations, and then finally getting his hands on the cash. This meant living with his little ingrate of a son for weeks, possibly months.
And yet, that’s how God bears with us. We want to explore our options other than Him even though He gave us life and has sustained us every day since, and He lets us do it all the while, initially at least, still keeping our lives from completely flying to pieces. That’s a graciousness that’s hard to really comprehend.
There’s something for us: God is gracious with us even when we don’t deserve it. He still loves us even when we throw everything He’s given us right back in His face. He bears with us even when we wish Him dead and gone so we can do our own thing without all of His restrictive rules hanging over our heads anymore. Even when we sin, He’s still worth serving. We should probably stop there and let that truth soak in a bit before we go any further.