Then [Jesus] said: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal (wasteful) living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am no longe worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants. And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son. But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”Luke 15:11-27
The story of the prodigal son is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. I can’t help but tear up when I read about the father running to meet his wayward son as he returns home from his reckless life of sin. And although this story is referred to as the prodigal son, it is really the father of the prodigal son that Jesus intends to teach us about. The context of the story relates back to the beginning of Luke chapter fifteen, where the pharisees complained that Jesus had been eating with ‘tax collectors and sinners.’ The Jews didn’t think this was the right course of action for a godly man. Why was Jesus sitting and speaking with people who had cast off the law of God?
The Jews of that day had gone from the ditch of forsaking the Lord for idol worship and loose living in ancient times (which eventually led to the Babylonian captivity) to strict and harsh rule-keeping. Before they neglected God’s law for pleasure, but now they added to God’s law for pride. They laid unrealistic burdens upon the people that God never commanded and alienated those who didn’t keep them. Their religious strategy was to avoid and shame those who didn’t keep the law of God. This was not a biblical strategy, however, for the Jewish prophets always appealed to the people, beseeching them in tears to repent and turn back to God, warning them of judgments, yes, but also promising forgiveness. Jesus came in the spirit of these prophets (or more correctly, His spirit was in them) beseeching those away from God to repent and come back. He wasn’t sitting down with these people just to kick up his feet and have a good time. He was speaking to them solemnly about their soul, the danger of their sins, and the desire of the Father to have them return.
On a different occasion, when accused of the same thing, He replied in this manner:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”Luke 5:31-32
Jesus elaborates upon this sentiment in the story of the prodigal son. The story is meant to relay to these Jews why He spent time conversing with ‘tax collectors and sinners.’ This story was meant to reveal to them the heart of God. Jesus knew well the heart of God, but these Jews did not.
In the following, I will proceed to bring out key passages from the text of the story of the Prodigal Son to help you also to understand what God is like.
First I will begin with this fact:
God is Selfless
“A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, “father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.”Luke 15:11
The father in this story was faced with a son whom he knew was going to make some bad decisions with the money he had spent his life earning. He was under no obligation to give this money to his son, but he was faced with a difficult decision. Would he allow his son the money so he could leave and waste it on the world, or would he force his son to live at home and risk harboring greater resentment in his heart? In those days, it wasn’t as if the son could easily up and go to another city, find a job, and start a new life. He would only end up a laborer or something worse. Without the money from his father he was stuck. In his wisdom, the father decided that the only chance of saving his son was to give him the money. He was willing to lose it all for the sake of his child.
An important truth to remember about God the Father is that He is selfless. Another way to say this, and how some theologians from 19th century stated it, is that God is disinterestedly benevolent.‘Disinterested’ refers to having no personal interest in a matter, seeking no advantage for one’s self. ‘Benevolence’ is just a fancy word for being good and kind towards others. So a person who is disinterestedly benevolent is simply a person that cares about others because they care about others, without any secret selfish motive. There aren’t many people like this in the world. Most people you encounter will generally do good things and be a good person if they can benefit from it or, at the very least, not suffer because of it. I liken human benevolence to the willingness of people to give up their parking spot at the mall during Christmas. We feel good about helping that person who has been driving around for 20 minutes looking for a spot. Of course, this is only when we are leaving the mall. There’s no way on God’s green earth that we’d give up a space when arriving to the mall. Hell knows no fury like a woman whose parking spot was stolen at the mall during Christmas. But God doesn’t just care about people when it benefits Him. He, like a good father, cares about people because He cares about people. Period.
This is why God has fashioned Himself as a Father. Any good father (and I know there are many bad ones) would do anything for their children to help them succeed or to keep them from danger. And this they would do with no concern of any kind of personal gain. In fact, a good father would give up anything and everything for his children. God is like that. He is a good Father that deeply cares for His children. This is important to understand.
God is a God of law.
“And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions on prodigal living”Luke 15:13
The next thing we learn about God through this story is that God is a God of law. We see this because the prodigal felt the need to leave his father’s house to engage in the sinful behavior that he longed for. The son knew that his father (who represents God in this story) had rules that must be kept. And he knew that his father would not budge on these rules. His only recourse was to leave.
But why is God this way? Isn’t it these rules that keep people away? I suspect that the prodigal son arrived in this new country he fled for, sat down a bar, and struck up a conversation with the person next to him. He probably said at one point, “Yeah, my dad is an old-timer puritan type guy–just kind of behind the times. I love him and all, but he still thinks it’s wrong for people to live together without being married and stuff like that. Maybe he’ll come along one day.”
But what the prodigal son did not understand was that these rules proceed out of a heart of wisdom and disinterested benevolence.
For God, disinterested benevolence requires that He institute law among the people. A king that loves his people will give them a good law. A father that loves his children will have a good law in the home. Good law promotes ultimate happiness and well-being.
Those of us who have had good fathers in our lives remember that there were household rules that we didn’t like and didn’t want to follow. We didn’t understand the wisdom of those rules as children, but as adults we recognized that those rules were for our own benefit more than anything else. It didn’t benefit our dads any if we brushed our teeth, did our homework, ate our peas, or brushed our hair. He didn’t tell us to do those things for his sake, but for our sake. God is the same way. All his laws are given in perfect wisdom for the betterment of mankind. To disobey them does no damage to God (besides breaking His heart), but to ourselves and those around us. It is for reason that God requires us to keep them.
Some might argue that we are ‘no long under law, but under grace.’ This is true, of course, but this passage isn’t referring to law in general, but to the law of Moses. There is still law for the Christian. Paul calls it the ‘law of Christ’ (See 1 Corinthians 9:21, Galatians 6:2), and we are all under that law. This law is the law of love: love God and your neighbor as yourself. Or, treat God and others with disinterested benevolence. The New Testament, in many places, helps us to know what this law looks like. (See Matthew chapter 5-7, Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:16-20, Ephesians 5:3-7)
God is patient
“But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in the land”Luke 15:14
The story of the prodigal son seems to indicated that the father waited for sometime before his son finally returned. It is likely that the son had a very large sum of money which lasted for quite some time. We aren’t told how long, but it was not just a few days, or even a few years. Perhaps five years passed, or more. But whatever the case, the father was waiting for the son to return. He exercised great patience, hopeful that the son would come home.
Contrary to what pop-culture believes about God, His judgments in the Bible aren’t as frequent as one might think. I sometimes hear people say that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are much different. They say that the Old Testament God was vengeful and full of wrath, yet the New Testament God is merciful and full of compassion. This assessment couldn’t be further from the truth. God is the same and never changes, He was the same God in the Old Testament that He is now. When people assert this idea of God, I wonder if they’ve ever seriously read the Bible. No student of the Bible would come to this conclusion. The Old Testament is full of God’s patience, often waiting hundreds and hundreds of years before finally, after many, many warnings and pleadings with His people to repent, brings judgment upon them. He would give them chance after chance to turn from their idolatry and evil practices, sometimes delaying judgment for the sake of one person before bringing judgment.
When reading with my children about the rebellion of the people of Israel in the desert, after God has saved them from Egypt, after about the fifth time they complained about something, my daughter Katee commented: “If I were God, I would just wipe them out. I wouldn’t be so nice.” Even my 11 year old daughter recognized how patient God was being towards His people. It wasn’t until after 10 major incidents that God finally put His foot down. And even then He was merciful, sparing them from complete destruction because the of prayers of Moses.
It is important to understand this because Satan has two great lies that he speaks to people regarding the nature of God. He either tells them that God is simply a great big cuddly daddy that would never bring judgment on anybody, or, on the other extreme, that God is a strict judge that has cast them out as a lost cause. His favorite thing to say is, “You’ve already messed up too many times, you might as well quit trying.”
No, my friends, God is patient with you. Don’t quit because you think you’ve messed up too many times. Ask God for mercy and set your heart right before him. Keep going, and remind the devil that you’re not a quitter like he is. He can only defeat you if you give up. Stand up and fight another day.
‘[God] is longsuffering towards us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’2 Peter 3:9
God is forgiving
“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”Luke 15:17-24
Finally, we must understand that God is forgiving. He has no desire to condemn anyone, but, rather, He DELIGHTS in mercy. He has no greater joy than lavishing His love upon a humble heart. When we finally bow our head before Him, acknowledging our sinful, fallen state, and our need for Him, He moves. God splits the heavens and comes down, He rides on the wings of the wind, vanquishing foes on the right and the left. He crosses every ocean and traverses every mountain. He leaves no stone unturned. He finds us where we are and upholds us with His righteous right hand. He breathes life into our lungs and strengthens us by His Spirit. He puts the robe on our back and sandals on our feet. He puts a ring on our finger and calls for the fatted calf: “This my son was dead and is alive again! He was lost and is found!” And He, and all of heaven, will rejoice, for heaven rejoices greatly over just one sinner that repents.
Your sin is not so great that His mercy is not greater. He is not so concerned about your past as He is concerned about the present. He doesn’t ask, “What have you done?” but, “What will you do now?” If you’ll turn from your sin, He will wash you clean and your soul will be like that of a child. If you put your faith in the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus, He will make you a new creation. Your old life of sin and darkness will be behind you and a new life of glory and light will be before you. Satan will finally lose his grip on your soul. Hell will lament and heaven will rejoice. Demons will shriek and Angels will shout. A son or daughter has come home!
God is a Father, the greatest father that can be conceived. When we know Him as a Father, we know Him most perfectly, for that is what He desires to be to us. But not all men will know Him as Father. Some will only know Him as judge. This is not His desire, and not His choice, for He desires only mercy. Judgment is called His ‘strange work,’ meaning that He only brings it when He must. He patiently waits, staying His judgment for as long as He possibly can. He invites us all into His family. Everyone can be safe within His walls. Those who choose to stay without only do so to their own peril. Among them shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.