It is one of the most well-known parables of Jesus, and yet many of us only latch on to part of the point.
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Here is Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son:
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.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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.’” (Lk 15.11-32)
It is a stunning picture of the Gospel!
It shows us many things:
We’ve all wandered away from God.
There are consequences for our wandering.
The door is always open to come home.
The Father loves us more than we can imagine.
Grace really does wipe out what we’ve done wrong.
It’s easy to get self-righteous when someone else is experiencing God’s love and forgiveness and freedom.
The Father loves the self-righteous too.
We are children of our Father.
But I want to dwell on one other part of the story for a moment, which we can sometimes skip over, and that is the attitude of the Prodigal when he is lost in his sin, far from home.
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.”(v.18-19)
You can hear the weight of the son’s shame in his words.
He acknowledges his sins, which is good, and plans to turn away from them, which is great.
But he feels unworthy to be a son anymore.
And truthfully, he’s not wrong. He had rejected his father, essentially rejecting his own sonship, and abandoned the family for good.
The Father hadn’t kicked him out; the son had left.
The unworthiness that he feels is fair.
So he plans to go home, to beg forgiveness, and in a best-case scenario, hope his Father will allow him to be a servant.
He obviously has a sense that his Father is good and merciful; he has no idea how good or how merciful.
The son gets home, and the Father not only receives him, but runs to him, hugs him, kisses him.
The Father’s compassion and love were greater than he imagined!
And the son goes into his speech – “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…..’ (v.21).
But the Father will have none of it.
“Quick!” he interrupts (v.22). “Give him the best robe! Give him the family ring! Make a feast!”
“My son is home!”
The son was wallowing in his unworthiness. But when he gave voice to that unworthiness, the Father wouldn’t even let him keep speaking.
The shame-filled son confesses, “I am no longer worthy to be your son.”
The Father’s response?
“You’re my son.”
“But I did horrible things, I dishonoured you, I did really evil stuff…”
“You’re my son.”
“I blew every penny you gave me, I chose to reject you, I must have disappointed you so badly…”
“You’re my son.”
And that is it.
The son came home with sin; the Father met him on the road with grace.
The son came home with shame; the Father gave him back his sonship.
The son came home feeling unworthy; the Father proclaimed him worthy to be restored.
This is Good News!
Many Christians struggle with the same attitudes of the son – shame, unworthiness, helplessness, distancing themselves from God.
Some preachers and churches and theologies even emphasize this, feeling that we must constantly remind people of how they disappointed God, of how unworthy they are.
But that’s not the Father in this story.
Yes, sin is real, and the son acknowledges it and repents of it.
But the Father won’t let his son’s feelings of worthlessness remain.
He must correct them.
He won’t let those attitudes into his house.
They won’t be able to stick around when so much joyful feasting is going on!
We have all turned away from God, rejecting His rule, spurning our place at His table, abdicating our role as His child. We have indeed become unworthy, as the son acknowledges in the pig pen.
But when we turn away from sin and come home, the Father has proclaimed us worthy, not because we’re so great in ourselves, but because He’s so good, and so gracious, and because He loves us that much.
And how dare we try and undo what He has done?
Wallowing in our shame and worthlessness is understandable, but it’s the attitude of the pig pen.
Like the Prodigal Son, we need to leave the pig pen behind, and the shame and worthlessness that go with it, and gratefully take our seat back at the table that the Father invites us to, leaning into who He says we are, and where He has placed us.
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