It is probably the younger son who gets most of the attention when this story is talked about. We’ve even come to know the story as the story of the Prodigal Son. The aspect of grace that we learn about from him is its scope.
His story is in two parts. In the first part he leaves home and in the second part he returns. It is when we see how far away he gets that we begin to have a better idea of how far grace reaches.
The journey out.
Rock bottom for the boy was life among the pigs: starving. When he had set out on his journey he had no idea that that is where it would take him. Sin is like that: it takes us farther than we plan to go.
But before we see how far the boy went, we need to spend some time thinking about what went on in his relationship with his father.
To our ears, a son asking his father for his share of the inheritance while his father is still alive sounds like insolence. To the ears of Jesus’ audience, such a request more or less amounted to the boy telling his father that he wished he was dead. This was not just being impolite. This was an utter rejection of his father; the only use he had for his father was to get his share of the inheritance.
Before the boy brought disgrace on himself, on his father and on his family by the reckless living that eventually ruined him, he had rejected his father.
This reminds us that sin is relational. Sin is also behavioural: it works its way out in the things we do and say. We probably have our lists, perhaps even in ranking order, with the big sins at the top and the “lesser” sins – the sins which Jerry Bridges refers to as “respectable sins” towards the bottom. All we know for sure about the boy’s behavioural sins is that they were summed up under the term “reckless living”: his brother seemed to think that there were women involved. There may well have been, but on the other hand the older brother may just have been repeating local gossip. But we get a front row view of his relational sin: the way he rejects his father.
Someone once said that there is a difference between parking on a double-yellow line and parking on the foot of a traffic warden. You can expect the traffic warden to come after you if you have parked on the line, but once you park on his foot it gets personal. Sin is personal because it involves a rejection of God.
There is a sense in which is true that you break the first commandment (“no other gods”) every time you break one of the other nine. Sin is a rejection of God. We choose to find our fulfilment or our identity or our security in something else. We sin when the only use we have for God is to allow us to get our hands on our “inheritance.” We want the things that God gives us but we don’t want God himself. Sin doesn’t start when we waste our money in a reckless lifestyle: it starts when we tell God that we don’t want him.
Once the boy rejected his father, he headed off for what he thought was freedom. It was, at least for a while. But it ended in ruin.
He probably had fun as long as the money lasted and there was plenty to eat and drink. No doubt there were plenty of people who were happy to help him spend his money while he had it. But money is not eternal. Nor do the things that money buys last forever. Eventually the cupboard was empty and the party was over. To make matters worse, there was a famine. Most people would have felt the effects of the famine, but famine tends to be harder on people who have nothing to fall back on. In our century famine may mean higher bread prices in the West; in parts of the developing world it means death.
The young man was hungry. From a situation of surplus, he no longer knew where his next meal would come from. He started to hang out around a local pig farm where the farmer gave him some work to do feeding pigs. There still was not much to eat because the boy was so hungry that even the pig pods seemed appealing. Any friends he had had vanished. There was no one to help him.
It was no fun for a rich boy whose father owned a significant estate to find himself working as a hired man on a pig farm. At home, it would have been the job of others to clean out the animals. Now he was the one who was being sent to feed pigs. Add to that the fact that he was Jewish and that pigs were therefore unclean animals and the picture gets worse.
He had never thought that freedom would come to this. How could freedom mean having neither money nor friends? How could freedom mean starvation? Or having to endure a dirty, demeaning job? Freedom was meant to be an unending party. Freedom would mean being able to do what he chose. His wealth would mean being able to have what he wanted. Freedom would have no limits.
He discovered, as many other people have, that while he was free to make choices about his behaviour, he was not free to determine the consequences of the choices he made when things started to go wrong.
In much the same way the man who starts to flirt with an office colleague never imagines that one day his family will be in tatters, or that he will end up living alone in a tiny studio, getting to see his children for a few hours on the weekend. The homeless addict who spends the last few months of his life propped up against the wall in a city centre street never intended to end up there. He never thought that he would die unknown and that no one would turn up at his funeral.
Sin takes a person farther than they ever planned to go.
That’s the journey out. That’s the dark bit.
The journey back.
In the second part of his story, the boy comes home. It turns out that while there was nothing in the pigsty there was more grace than could have been imagined at home.
Verses 17ff. describe how his mind started to turn:
But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here 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. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘
That is the point he eventually reached. But it took him a while. It is often true that until we hit rock bottom we try to do everything we can to save ourselves. Back at the end of verse 14 and start of verse 15, when the problems were starting to pile up for him, he wanted to find a solution that did not involve going home or needing to have anything to do with his father. Perhaps he was afraid of rejection; or perhaps he was too proud. It would not be easy to return home in disgrace.
In verse 15 things are bad; in verse 16 they are desperate. It is when things are desperate that the boy starts to think about home.
He says nothing about his father’s love. What seems to have his attention is his father’s wealth. Even the low-ranking casual workers were so well looked after that they had more than enough to eat. What is the point in him lying starving in a faraway pigsty when there are farm labourers at home who have more food than they can eat? All he had to do was get home.
There is an interesting difference between the speech he crafts in verses 18 and 19 and the speech he actually makes in verse 21.
He planned to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”
He actually said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
He never reaches the suggestion that his father could take him on as one of his hired servants, one of the casual labourers on the estate. Why did he not reach that part?
There is sense in which when the boy crafted his speech, he was still working on a scheme of self-salvation. But obviously the father interrupted him and once he had embraced him and called for the robe and sandals, the boy realised that he was not going to have to work his way into his father’s favour. His father had already accepted him. Grace reached him and the need for self-salvation was done away with. All he had to do was allow himself to be lost in the father’s embrace.
The popular folk band, Mumford and Sons, include this little gem in one of their songs:
It seems that all my bridges have been burned
But you say ‘That’s exactly how this grace thing works.’
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart.
Grace was not really on the boy’s radar as he made the journey home. Perhaps he did not even want it. Grace would put him in his father’s debt. A job as a part time worker on the farm would give him his wages and allow him to continue his independence.
But grace is what he found. And he surrendered to it.
…unconditional kindness given to an undeserving recipient at an uncomfortable cost.
The scope of grace was such that it gave an unconditional welcome home to this boy who had got so far away.
There are two things that keep people from surrendering to grace. One is pride and the other is despair. Proud people dont think they need grace. Free handouts are for the wretched; and the wretched don’t even deserve it. Grace, for the proud, is a bad idea.
But despair also keeps people from grace. There is a fear that the story of grace could not possibly be true; or that it may be true for some but not for others, who are have gone too far.
In his book The Father Heart of God, Floyd McClung tells the story of a young Asian man called Sawat. He came from a Christian family in his village. When village life became dull Sawat headed to the city where he became involved in a sordid lifestyle. He prospered for a time but, like the Prodigal, hit on hard times. He ended up living beside a rubbish dump.
When he had left home, the last words Sawat’s father had spoken to him were these: “I am waiting for you.” Would these words still be true after all that Sawat had done? He decided to write a letter in which he asked for his father’s forgiveness. The next Saturday night he would be on the train that stopped in the village. If his father was still waiting for him, he was to tie a piece of cloth on the tree at the front of their house.
As the train approached the village, Sawat became increasingly anxious. What if there was no cloth? He told his story to a fellow passenger who had noticed his agitation. The passenger agreed to look for the cloth on the tree: Sawat could not bear to look.
The whole tree was covered in pieces of white cloth. The old father was dancing up and down, waving a piece of cloth. When the train stopped and Sawat got out, he threw his arms around him with tears of joy: “I’ve been waiting for you.”
All of which brings us to the second character to occupy the spotlight in the story: the Father.