What I Missed in the Story of the Prodigal Son

The parable of The Prodigal Son is one that most people know very well. You might have called it by a different name (The Parable of the Lost Son, The Parable of the Wayward Son, etc.), but you probably know it well enough to recite the details.

We can find it in Luke 15:

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “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. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “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! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 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.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “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. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

Along with the many other things this parable tells us is something I completely missed. I’ve been reading a book by the late Michael Spencer called Mere Churchianity, where the author points out something that I’d never thought about before. When the prodigal son realises how much better his life would be if he went back home, he decides he will bargain with his father (verse 19). Rather than asking to be received as a son, he decides he will say:

 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.

Given the son’s outrageous behaviour, this seems like a fairly sensible choice, but it’s easy to forget a massive detail: the father in this story represents God.

The son had sinned against his father so terribly in this story that he could never expect to be forgiven, so he starts to work on a plan to get himself back into the house, and out from the cold. Faced with the knowledge that we have sinned against our heavenly Father, we do the same. We try to bargain with God. We try to be good enough.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll see this very clearly in your own life when you fall into sin. When the shame and regret comes, my heart starts working on damage-limitation: I resolve to do better in the future, to never fall into that sin again. This might look very righteous on the outside, but on the inside, I’m trying to earn God’s favour, something that I will never deserve. I know that God is angry at me for my sin, but I forget that He is gracious and forgiving, so I try to fix it myself. I can imagine that this would have been a big issue for the prodigal son in the weeks and months after he’d been welcomed home. He would’ve done all sorts of things to make it up to his father, and these actions would have offended him for two reasons:

  1. What the son did was so terrible, so insulting, and so unloving that he could never make it right himself.
  2. The father had completely forgiven the son, through his great love for him, and all the son’s efforts to earn it showed that he didn’t truly believe it.

So, when we try to earn God’s forgiveness instead of coming to Him in repentance and living in the knowledge that we are truly forgiven, we effectively say that our sin wasn’t such a big deal, because we feel like we can make it better ourselves, and we act like we don’t believe that Jesus’ work on the cross bought our forgiveness completely. God’s grace and mercy are stronger than your sin. Come to Him in regret, repentance, and boldness, knowing that you have been forgiven completely, and that God can still use you.

However, so many people act as if they can earn their salvation, and this is where the real danger lies. They know, deep down, that they are sinners and that there is an afterlife. They don’t want to go to hell, so they take out a little insurance. They go to church, they help others, they try to live a righteous life. They do everything that the world would ever reasonably ask of any ‘good person’. But works don’t undo the infinite offence of sin! Do you think His hearts desire is to have people serving on the Parents-Teachers Association? Do you think He sent Jesus to the cross so that more people would throw their spare change in to the charity tin at the supermarket? What we see in the parable of The Prodigal Son is that God doesn’t even want to hear about our works. When it comes to welcoming us home, He doesn’t want to receive from us; He wants to give! When we live a religious lifestyle, we’re trying to give to God so that He will accept us, but our actions will not save us. When we go to Him in brokenness and repentance over our sin for that first time, He not only accepts us back, He gives us the “best robe”, puts a ring on our finger, and sandals on our feet. Our own actions only bring death; it’s been that way since Adam and Eve first sinned. God’s forgiveness brings life, everlasting life, and adoption into His family!

If you’re living a religious lifestyle, but don’t know God, and don’t have a day-by-day, real, living relationship with Him, go to Him in repentance. If you can’t feel sorry for your sin, beg Him to show it to you, and beg that He would grant you repentance (not just sorrow for your sin, but an act of turning away from it). If you try to earn your salvation, you’ll only earn death. Go to Him with nothing, and He will give you life everlasting!