It is probably fair to say that the parable of the prodigal son is the best known of all the New Testament parables. Even those with no religious affiliation often have some (even if only passing) familiarity with the story. Philip Ryken notes that the story is perfectly told with “not one single detail … wasted.” A series of devotions could easily be produced from this parable. I will avoid that temptation—though I will do at least two.
In the parable, a father had two sons. The youngest of the two harboured evident resentment toward his father and, eventually able to take no more, demanded his inheritance. Since inheritance ordinarily comes after death, his words should be interpreted as wishing his father’s death. He was clearly bitter and resentful.
The father relented and the young man immediately liquidated his assets to lavishly spend on extravagant living. His cash flow dwindling, the worst possible thing happened: Famine struck. Unable to support himself, he was forced to find work in the most demeaning of places for a nice, Jewish boy: with a Gentile pig farmer. With nobody willing or able to help him with food, he was even forced to consume pig slop.
After some time, however, he returned to his senses and crafted a plan to get back on his feet. He knew that his father paid a fair wage—sufficient for each servant to meet his needs with some to spare—and saw an opportunity. But it is the way that he expressed his intentions that should give us some pause.
While he was certainly moving in the right direction, there are some things about his expressed repentance that reveal a heart that was not quite in the right place.
First, his repentance was initiated “when he came to himself.” We want to be careful of making too much of this, but it is interesting that he repented in light of his own circumstances rather than God’s commands. It was his obsession with his own situation that produced the mess in the first place. He seems not to have moved beyond that.
Second, his primary concern was not about how he had sinned against his father, or indeed against God, but his hunger. His father’s servants were amply supplied while he had nothing. Physical sustenance appears to have been foremost in his mind.
Third, there is something interesting about the way in which he verbalised his intended repentance. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” While true, this seems insufficient. In fact, as Ryken observes, the only other person in Scripture who made this particular confession was Pharaoh when he wanted Moses to reverse the locust plague (Exodus 10:16). Pharaoh’s repentance was not genuine, and there may be a hint that the son’s was not quite genuine either. At least not yet.
Fourth, the son appeared to have crafted a well-thought-out plan to secure his own deliverance. If he could convince his father to treat him as a hired servant, he could begin digging his way out of the pit. His reliance was not, at this point, on the sheer mercy and ability of his father but in his own clever conniving to get back on his feet. But something interesting happened when he actually arrived home.
As he conceived his plan, he devised a carefully scripted confession: “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.” But by the time he met his father, his confession was cut short. He confessed his sin and unworthiness but stopped short of suggesting that he be hired as a servant. It seems that the father’s lavish love put an end to his own conniving so that he finally trusted entirely in his father’s mercy and forgiveness.
This is surely something of what Paul meant when he wrote of “God’s kindness” which is “meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). We are far too often like the prodigal son: We realise the mess our sin has created and then craft a way out of it ourselves. But when he come to realise the lavish kindness of our Father, our own planning falls away and we embrace the Father in true repentance.
As you reflect on the prodigal son this morning, allow the story to remind you of God’s kindness. Allow that reflection to once again cause you to embrace the lavish kindness that God extends toward you, which is designed to lead you to true repentance.