Most pastors are well acquainted with the Parable of the Prodigal Son, so much so that its familiarity may supersede the richness of its evangelistic message. As Alistair Begg explores the story’s recognizable images and events, he highlights the essence of Christ’s teaching not only in this parable, but also in the stories that surround it: Drawn by the hope of mercy, we must ask ourselves where we stand regarding the mystery of the Good News.
Let’s turn again to Luke chapter 15. Luke chapter 15:11:
“Jesus continued: ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them.
“‘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. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“‘When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. [I’m] no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” 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.
“‘The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. [I’m] no longer worthy to be called your son.”
“‘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. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.’”
Now, we should pray together before we look to the Scriptures. May I just say that in following on from where we left it yesterday, I actually have gone through a royal battle thinking about doing what I said I would do, and was tempted even this morning to change my mind; you couldn’t do anything about it, and I was free to do that. And then I thought, “No, I shouldn’t do that.” But let me tell you the sense of diffidence, and that is in saying, it was one thing to do David and Goliath, but to preach an evangelistic sermon, as it were, to a group of converted pastors, it seems to me to be a peculiar challenge. And added to that challenge, I determined that it wouldn’t be right for me just to turn to any of the other fifteen times that I’ve ever preached the passage, which meant that between yesterday morning and this morning, I had to come up with a completely new approach to the material, which I’ve endeavored to do—which, in the early hours of this morning, was a second reason for me wanting not to teach the passage. But we will proceed, and with God’s help, we will prevail.
Let us pray:
Our gracious God, we come to you in the quiet and peace of this morning hour, thankful for your mercies to us in the night that has passed, for awakening us to a new day; thankful for the reminder that your Word gives us that you hedge us in, you hem us in behind and before, you’ve set your hand upon us; thankful to remind ourselves that you know when we sit and when we stand, you know the words of our mouths before we even speak them; staggering at the thought that we were intricately wrought in our mothers’ wombs, that we are not here by chance but by design and by your divine appointment; and further, amazed at your love towards us in Jesus, so that our eyes were open to the truth of the gospel and our ears, which were firmly plugged against your voice, were enabled to hear you speak, and you spoke, and listening to your voice, new life the dead received, and our humble hearts rejoiced, and the poor believed; and marveling this morning that you have made us the bearers of your good news—that you have made us ministers of this good news to tell others about the Lord Jesus Christ.
And we want to say with the hymn writer that we affirm the fact that it is “all [our] business here below to cry, ‘Behold the lamb!’” and to say, again with the hymn writer,
Happy, if with my latest breath,
I [might] but gasp His name,
Preach Him to all, and cry in death,
“Behold, Behold the Lamb!”
Or with Spurgeon on his tombstone,
E’re since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die.
So then, we seek your grace and your help that we might speak and listen and understand and think and apply and proclaim your truth. For we pray in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.
One of the salutary features of growing old, I think—or older, at least, although at what point we cross that divide I’m not quite sure—is that you hear yourself sounding dreadfully like your parents, and that the clichés that once rang in your ears now flow from your lips. I was in a home earlier in the week; I think it was maybe… actually, it was last Friday. And I noted that the structure of this newly built home had some lovely stonework in the entryway. And the little boy of the home had a head that was just at the perfect height for the stone balustrades that had been constructed in the front hallway. And I caught myself saying, “Oh, you’re going to have to be careful with this stonework, because that little boy’s head is just…” And then just as I heard myself saying it, I said, “Oh dear, oh dear, do I sound like my father! Why am I so concerned about the little boy’s head and the stonework?” Well, it’s the feature of age. When you’re young, you don’t think like this. You’re as silly as the wee boy. You’re banging your head regularly. And the clichés of maturity still haven’t become part and parcel of your own routine statements.
How many times as a child were we told by our parents, “Walk, don’t run!”? “Walk, don’t run!” It was apparently in order to ensure our safety, in certain circumstances to ensure a measure of decorum, and almost inevitably the directive was given at the most awkward and inappropriate time: the arrival of your grandmother, and you wanted to run to her, and you were told, “Walk, don’t run!”; or the emergence of a puppy out of a news agent shop, and off you go, but it’s “Walk, don’t run!” And suddenly you’re older, and you’re with your father at the railway station, and you’re a little late for the train, and your father sets off. And you say to him, “Now, Dad, walk, don’t run! The train will wait for us. Just walk. There’s no need to run. There’s no need for haste.”
And your father turns and says, “Well, you may think that, but I think there is need for haste, and I think we both need to run.”
“Well,” you say, “it’s funny you should say that, because that’s how I used to feel when I was small and you said, ‘Walk, don’t run!’ And I couldn’t run, and now I’m telling you, and you…”
But the fact of the matter is, this directive “Walk, don’t run!” has within it the almost inevitability of the fact that there are times in life when all that the individual can do is run. There are circumstances that confront us that inevitably, if you like, break the bounds of propriety and send somebody off in a run when decorum or safety would be marked by walking.
I mention that because we have such a scene in the story that is recorded for us here in Luke 15. We have somebody running in a context when walking would seem to be more appropriate; running in such a way as to cause onlookers to say, “What’s up with this fellow?”; tucking his long, flowing robes, as we thought about earlier in our conference, into his belt and heading off down the road, so that one of his neighbors says to someone over the garden fence, “Was that Mr. Benjamin I just saw running down the street?”
“Yes,” says his friend, “I think it was! And quite undignified, I must say. Surprising! What would’ve made him run like that?”
Now, when I tell you that the story that Jesus provides for us here is a story in which the father represents God, you may have occasion then to think about God in a way in which you have never, ever thought about him: the idea of a running God; the idea of a God who runs. What would ever make God do such a thing?
Well, we’ll come to that, but first we need to look at the story. So let’s just look at it. And I say “look at it”—of course, we hear it, we read it, we listened to it, but it really is a wonderful series of pictures. It would make a terrific home video, wouldn’t it? And on our digital cameras are a number of snapshots that we would love to be able to provide up on a screen.
Perhaps if we were making snapshots, the opening picture that we would want to make sure we had would be in verses 1–2, because there Luke, who writes this gospel, sets the scene for us. And he provides there a group context where there are a variety of individuals—essentially, saints and sinners, or at least those who regarded themselves as saints and those who knew themselves definitely to be sinners.
Jesus, Luke tells us, had on a previous occasion caused quite a commotion because he had chosen to eat dinner at the home of his latest disciple. And back in chapter 5, after Levi had left everything to follow Jesus, he had a great party at his house—a wonderful banquet—and he brought his friends in. Well, of course, his friends were the tax collectors just like himself. His friends were the sinners. His friends were the people he used to play sport with and hang around with at the end of the day. His friends were his friends. And so he said, “I have met this Jesus, and I’d love for you to meet him too, and why don’t you come over to our home for supper at seven o’clock on Thursday, and I’ll introduce you to him?”
Well, of course, the religious folks got wind of this. They were trying to understand who this Jesus of Nazareth was, and when they discovered that he was acting in this way, they said, “This is completely incongruous. If this man was really interested in being a religious figure, if he really was the Messiah of God as he seems to be suggesting, then presumably he would be around with the saints, he would be with us, he would be at our Bible conference, and he would be reading the Scriptures, not going over to some tax collector’s house for a party on a Thursday night.” There was great commotion.
And Jesus on that occasion—in responding to the question that was asked, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners?’”—Jesus had said, “[It’s] not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Of course, that makes perfect sense. It’s really not wise, or it’s not necessary, to go to the doctor if you’re perfectly healthy. But if something happens, something emerges—a lump, a feeling, a sensation, the swelling of the tonsils—then you go along. And Jesus uses that picture and he says, “I actually haven’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And there was a commotion.
And that notion has continued as Jesus has followed his path towards Jerusalem. And here it is in Luke 15. We discover that the Pharisees are now muttering away, similar to what was going on in chapter 5, and their concern was the same concern: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Well, what was bad news to the supposed saints was good news to the sinners. The Pharisees were enraged by what Jesus did, and these tax collectors and sinners were intrigued by what Jesus did.
And it’s in that context that Jesus tells these stories—three in a row, and the first concerning the lost sheep, and then concerning a lost coin, but all we’ll focus on now is this third story concerning the lost son. It’s a story that crosses barriers of time and race; it’s a story with which most people can identify. It’s actually the kind of story that you’ll find today in the local newspaper, no matter what city or town you may find yourself in. It’s a story of broken relationships, it’s a story of the kind of disgruntlement that easily settles in a family, it’s a story of rebellious children, and it’s the story of the estrangement that emerges as a result of bad choices.
In the passage that we read, we dealt only with the first of two sons. There is more to this that we may come to on another occasion; the second son is actually estranged from his father just as much as the first. But the first one is more obviously estranged.
Now, I should tell you that Jesus is pointing out to his listeners here that they will actually see themselves, if they’re honest, in one of these two sons —that if they listen carefully to what he’s saying, if they observe the description that he provides of both of these individuals, then they will actually see themselves, as if they were looking in a mirror. They will see themselves separated from God—perhaps obviously and defiantly, like the first son; perhaps secretly, quietly, coldly, like the second son. But they will see themselves. And if you’re here tonight—today—wondering about God and who he is and what he’s done and what he’s said, if you look carefully, you’ll see your face in this too.
Now, rather than dwell on the details, which, in stories of this kind—namely, parables—are usually not to be emphasized, we’re going to provide just a series of snapshots. If you look at the text, I think you’ll find them. I may identify them in a slightly different way, but certainly these issues are there.
Now, the first picture that I would want to put up on the screen is a picture of an empty bedroom. An empty bedroom. Perhaps a couple of posters left on the wall, maybe sandals lying under the bed, an old pair of trainers, but by and large, the bedroom absolutely cleared.
Well, it’s the bedroom of the son. We’re told in verse 13 that this younger son had “got together all he had.” He had packed it up. He had spent time making sure that all of his possessions, by and large, were in his custody so that when he left, he left without any prospect of return. He left with a resolve never to return. And the empty bedroom was a signal to the family that he had left behind that he was clearly gone.
He’d asked his father in this story for whatever was due to him. It was really quite arrogant and presumptuous. It wasn’t normal to do such a thing. Usually this would only come his way once his father had died. And in one sense what he was saying was, “I wish you were dead. I wish you were dead, and then I’d have what I want. But since you’re not, will you give it to me now? Because I want to leave.” And there his empty bedroom sits as a testimony to the fact that he has turned his back on his father.
In my files I have a poem that someone sent to me years ago concerning the prodigal son, and it opens like this:
The story begins with a boy gone bad.
Faces in the audience light up.
The boy takes full advantage of his father,
an ancient, kindly man;
he wants the inheritance—everything.
“An upstart!” someone says. “Horsewhip him!
Teach him some manners!”
Some young men smile.
But they all wait, eyes fixed on the face of Jesus.
The father lets him go after giving everything,
the whole inheritance: the gold, the silver,
the favorite horse, the treasured cloak, the ring.
Faces show surprise.
“This father’s a fool,” someone whispers.
“The son’s a cheat.”
But they bend forward to listen.
Second picture is not, now, an empty bedroom but a lonely bedsit. A lonely bedsit. The kind of place that a young man would go and find himself in a city—perhaps a rented accommodation, more likely than not.
Because that’s essentially the picture that we have in verse 14—contemporaneously expressed, albeit, but nevertheless, there it is: “After he had spent everything…” Verse 13: he had “squandered his wealth.” He had pushed the limits in his wild living. And if we could’ve had just a snapshot of the place, I don’t think it would’ve looked very nice. I don’t think it would’ve been color-coordinated. I don’t think it would’ve been expressive of anything else than profligacy—just the excess, the expenditure of resources, the profligate use of time and talent and money and that which his father had given him, and the obvious continual expenditure of it, leading him eventually to the place where he was almost in a circumstance that was similar to the one that he had left behind. An empty bedroom, and now, a lonely bedsit.
Now, we ought not to think of this young man as being unique. We ought not to think of this individual as somehow being lost in a story in Luke 15. This young man is present in our lives routinely. Contemporary poetry and songs express the kind of emptiness and loneliness that is marked in the life of such an individual. Years ago, Paul Simon writes,
Up a narrow flight of stairs
To a narrow little room
As I lie upon my bed
In the early evening gloom
And impaled upon my wall
My eyes can dimly see
The riddle of my life
And the puzzle that is me
Can you imagine this young fellow dragging himself up the stairs at the end of a night, now? Where will he be next?
Well, the third picture is even worse. It’s a pigsty, isn’t it? From an empty bedroom to a lonely bedsit to a dreadful place. We had a piggery near my home in Glasgow. I was thinking of it just this morning. In fact, I can’t imagine why it was there. It was up the side of a railway line in suburban Glasgow. And we used to go there to look at the pigs. But we didn’t stay very long, because it wasn’t pleasant. I remember we remarked on various things; I think we threw things at the pigs—clods of things, as boys would—and then hastened off before anyone came to chase us. But if anyone had said, “How about maybe we could go back tomorrow and have a little picnic there? Maybe we just sit down amongst them and share our food with them?” we’d said, “You’ve lost your mind, haven’t you?” Well then, of course, we would.
Well, fortunately, this young man had not lost his mind, we’re about to see, but he had lost everything else. “He began to be in need,” it says in verse 14. It’s a kind of pregnant statement. It’s almost litotes. It doesn’t cover everything. He goes to get a job, hires himself out to a citizen of the country, is given the responsibility of feeding pigs.
Listen to my poem again:
He spends it all on prostitutes,
wine, gambling, the best hotels, loose living.
An old man looks down at his friend and winks.
“He should have invested it,” he said. “That’s the wise way.”
“But this one’s a fool!” another says.
And heads nod in agreement.
Soon the boy hits bottom, nothing left;
he ends up slopping pigs.
Faces flinch, stunned.
But some smile: “He got what he deserved.”
An old man says, “This is a good story.”
When he’d left his home, confident in his ability to go it alone, presumably with all of his money in his pocket or secured in some way, with a spring in his step, he could surely never have imagined that he would end up in this situation. Look at him there in your mind’s eye as he’s described for us. Jesus says, “He went and did this; he longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, and tragically, no one gave him anything. Look at him, shoeless and ragged and drawn and hungry and, frankly, humiliated. He would’ve been so embarrassed if anyone from his community could ever have come around and seen him there. After all, look what he had left behind, and look at what he thought he was going to, and look at where he had now found himself. He’d gone off, if you like, searching for it all, down the road to freedom, down the road to liberation, down the road to opportunity. And here he is in this most helpless and humiliated condition.”
You remember Paul Simon again, in “America”?
“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
[We]’ve all [gone in search of] America
The dream. The fulfillment. The opportunity. It is born into the consciousness of many a young man and many an individual who has said to themselves, “If I could be free of these restraints, if I could be out from underneath this burden—then and in that circumstance, I will find what life is all about.” That was largely this man’s endeavor. And look at where he ends.
And it’s in this sorry predicament that he begins to think, isn’t it? Verse 17 is a terrific turn in this story.
But then the boy remembers home—
the feasts, the plenty, the laughter.
He sits and weeps, his head in his hands.
He decides to return, to ask for a bed in the barn.
“A twist!” he says.
Faces show intrigue.
Where’s this story going now? What’s happening in this story? The boy is coming to his senses. There’s a realization that marks him. There is a resolve that follows upon his realization: “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare? I’m starving to death.” He thinks! And his resolve gives way to action, so that in verse 20 he gets up and goes to his father.
Now, at this point, let’s take the camera and turn it in the other direction. Let’s no longer look to the son and have these snapshots in our mind. We’ve got an empty bedroom, we have got this lonely bedsit, and we have the pigsty clearly in mind. The son, now, has turned and he’s said to himself, “This is absurd and ridiculous and wrong, and here I am, and I shouldn’t be here. I think I’m going to go back up the road.”
Now, let’s look at the snapshots that are given to us of the father. Well, we have this picture of the father waiting, I mean, it doesn’t say that he was waiting—not explicitly—but implicitly, he had to be waiting. If he wasn’t waiting, he wouldn’t have been watching and caring and so on.
Of course the father waits! Which father worth his salt would not wait and wonder? There can’t have been a day that he didn’t think on his boy—long days, turning into weeks, and weeks rolling into months, and every morning waking up and saying to himself, “I wonder where he is? I wonder how he is? I wonder, is he in health? I wonder who his friends are? I wonder as to his well-being?” And it is that sense of waiting which reveals itself in watching. For if he weren’t watching, he couldn’t see. So we know that he watched. But that’s no surprise.
Did he walk out each day to the bend on the road? Did he walk out each day to the brow of the hill and look down at the point on the horizon where in the rising of the morning sun there was that misty distance, imaging for a moment that he saw something, and that he saw someone, and then that the someone might have been the one for whom he looked, and then, as the person emerges out of the shadows and into the morning brilliance, he realizes, “No, it’s not him. It’s not him.”
Now, we don’t want to fill ourselves with conjecture, but you can image, in a circumstance like that, that he would become a figure of some notoriety within the community. The people said, “You know, every morning when I go for my newspaper, he’s out there. I don’t know what time he gets up in the morning, but I see him routinely. His hand is shielding his eyes against the morning sun, and he’s looking way out into the distance. Why does he keep doing that? What does he expect?”
“Well,” says someone, “he’s thinking that his son may return.”
“Fat chance,” says someone else. “That boy left, and he’s gone. He’s gone for good.”
The old man sees him on the road from his chair on the porch, where he has sat waiting each day;
he recognizes the walk, the long hair, the shoulders.
He jumps up and stumbles out to him,
his heart thumping, his eyes wet.
He runs to the boy while the boy stands, his head down.
The old man gathers him into his arms and
holds him long,
and he weeps!
Faces are stern now, their eyes slit.
“This father’s a fool,” they murmur.
But still they wait.
The boy begins his speech, but the old man has suddenly gone deaf.
He throws a cloak over the boy’s rags,
pulls off his last and best ring,
slides it onto the boy’s finger,
and then begins calling for his servants:
“Kill the fatted calf!” he shouts. “We’ll have a feast!”
Faces are hard now. Many of them shake their heads.
Pharisees always shake their heads at scenes like this. The smug, self-sufficient, cold, heartless, indifferent, legalistic sons living as slaves will always have difficulty with the snapshot that now emerges: a waiting, watching, running, loving, dancing father . Is there to be no end to this display of exuberance? What else are we going to have to endure? Look at him! We can almost see his heart beating out of his chest. With a heart of compassion he goes to his son, he embraces him in arms of welcome, he kisses him as an expression of his tenderness and his kindness, and having set the party in motion, he leads in the dance, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof—not some pathetic, late-twentieth-century silly dancing, but real Judaistic dancing, the dancing of a man sharing in the joy of what has taken place. What an amazing picture this is! What a happy reunion!
Yeah, okay. But what’s the point? Why is Jesus telling this story? Why do we have this here?
Can I give it to you in just one phrase? Can I suggest to you that this actually gets to the essence of the reason for this story, the preceding stories—indeed, the story of Luke 15; indeed, the story of Luke’s Gospel; indeed, the story of the Bible! God loves saving sinners . God loves saving sinners. That’s what Jesus is saying! That’s why Jesus is laboring to bring this story to bear upon the minds of his listeners: so that saints may be made uncomfortable in their rigid orthodoxy and sinners who feel themselves beyond the pale and hopeless and useless and with no possibility of a future may discover that in this waiting, watching, loving, running, dancing God there is the answer to their deepest predicament . That’s the story!
May the Lord, incidentally and parenthetically, forgive us for monkeying around with parables the way so many of us do and getting ourselves so tied up in knots that neither we nor anybody else knows what it’s about by the time we’ve finished.
But isn’t there something wrong with this picture? Isn’t there something wrong with this picture? That’s certainly what the Pharisees felt. Hadn’t the son forfeited his only claim to his father’s goodness? Isn’t the son now given what he doesn’t deserve? I mean, how can you empty your bedroom, clear the place, go to a bedsit, bomb it out, spend everything, mess the whole thing up, spend time in a pigsty, and come up the road and get a party and a whole new set of clothes, and dancing shoes, and a ring? How did this work?
Well, you see, religious people—and some of you may be religious here today; you don’t have a place for this in your computer, do you? You do not have a file anywhere that you can bring up that makes sense of this. Well, you may actually find your face in this story of the older brother, but you’re gonna have to wait till next Sunday for us to tackle you. But if you’re honest and you look at it, you say, “It’s almost as though there’s a missing piece in the jigsaw.” You know, when you take all the pieces and you look at the picture on the front of the box, and then you try and put the pieces in the parable together, you say, “Well, we don’t have all the pieces in this parable in order to complete the picture on the front of the box.” No, that’s exactly right. Because it is a parable. And because not everything is contained in a parable. And most parables are making one essential truth. And the absence of truth in a parable actually is irrelevant, provided we teach the parable within the controls of the surrounding Scripture—indeed, within the control of all the Bible.
And the great truth that is here conveyed cannot be understood—the compassion of God as he is expressed in the father cannot be understood—apart from the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because there is a missing piece from this jigsaw. The missing piece is that it doesn’t explain to us how it can be that the father can show such magnanimity towards the son—how he can move to such a place of compassion. There is a sense in which you could actually say that it is not simply that there is something missing from the parable, but that there is someone missing from the parable. And the one who is missing from the parable is actually the one who is telling the parable. And the one who is telling the parable is telling the parable in light of the fact that he has already set his face steadfastly towards Jerusalem, and he will go up to Jerusalem, and he will be mocked by cruel men, and he will be scourged, and he will be nailed to a cross, and he will rise on the third day. And he who tells the parable of the compassion of the father is he who understands, in the mystery of it all, in the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, that it was the Father’s will to crush him. The teller of the story recognizes that he is the one who is to be crushed in order that those who are crushed in their own state of rebellion and emptiness before God may be set up on their feet.
Now, we have to do this if we’re gonna teach the parable. We need to turn—at least parenthetically, tangentially—and say, “God commends his love towards us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”; that God did not spare his only Son, but delivered him up for us all; that he has made him who knew no sin to be sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God; that “surely he ha[s] borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.”
Now, it is at this point, it seems to me, that the thing can go badly wrong, if I can step out of it for a moment and come back to it. Because if we get all convoluted and confused here in our own minds, then we will fail to be able to bring the point of application to the minds of listeners. And what we really want to say to men and women is, “Have you ever heard this amazing good news? Have you ever understood? Has anyone ever explained to you what God has done in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ? Oh, you may have read philosophy. You may have been schooled in a variety of notions. You may be trying as best you can to make sense of your life. You may have had occasion to ponder why it was that Pascal said that every human philosophy or every religion will lead to pride or despair, and how he went on to say that only the gospel is able to deal with both, because the gospel shows us a law that must be fulfilled, which we cannot fulfill, thereby destroying our pride. And the gospel shows us a Savior who has fulfilled it completely on our behalf, thereby destroying our despair.”
In fact, if you look at this story, you could actually summarize what has happened in the young man’s condition in terms of two verbs: the story began with “give me,” and the story is about to end with “make me.” The defiance with which he has left—the spring in his step, the bounce in his shoulders, the back exposed to his father—is now totally different. Now his face is towards his father, at least as he looks up to him, casting himself on his father’s mercy. And as he does, what a transformation! What a transformation! Who else could ever change a life like this?
Well, let’s conclude by just asking the question, “Where do we stand in light of this story?” What the Bible tells us is that like this boy, we too are by our very nature separated from God, who is our Father. We may sense that at times more than at others. We may feel ourselves to be alienated sometimes as a result of maybe being away on our own, perhaps being made aware of that as a result of material difficulties or personal concerns or even a sense of psychological dissonance. And what the Bible actually says that all these kinds of alienations are simply representative of our great alienation, which is from the living God who made us; that like this boy, we too have deliberately left our Father’s house; that like this boy, we have deliberately turned our backs on our Father’s laws; that like this boy, we too have deliberately sinned our consciences; and like this boy, we too have made foolish choices. And the real question is whether any of us have uttered the first phrase of a repentant sinner: “I will arise and go to my Father.”
How does that ever come about? Have you come to your senses? Have you come to the point in your life where, quite honestly… Oh, you may not say you’re in a pigsty. Who would describe your corner office as a pigsty? I mean, you would be offended to think you’re living in a pigsty. But sometimes you think it stinks, don’t you? Your dishonesty with your books? The thoughts that fill your head as you look at your secretary and other female companions that come into your office? The fact that deep inside of you there is a sense of dissonance with even your own sense of moral propriety? And when you think about the fact that you’ve only seven years to go before finally you enter into this great, fantastic retirement package that they have for you, and you’ve already decided that you don’t know what you’re going to do with your life, and you can’t play many more rounds of golf; your golf is so bad as it is, the thought of playing it for the rest of your life is almost a tyranny. And you may even feel—despite the fact that your friends and neighbors look at you as you drive to your special place in the office—you may actually feel that your life is all wrong. And you don’t know where to turn, and you don’t know what to do.
Well, can I ask you: Why don’t you look, as it were, up the road? Why don’t you look up and see the Father? Would you show contempt for the riches of his kindness and tolerance and patience? Would you fail to realize that it is God’s kindness that leads you towards repentance?
See, it would’ve been possible for the man in the story to feel badly about everything, as he did. It would’ve been possible for him to make all kinds of resolutions: “I’m going to get out of here, I’m going to start saving my money in the future, I’m going to get a different group of friends, I’m going to change my external circumstances for another set of external circumstances, I feel bad about my life, I have regrets and I have disappointments, but I can do this, I can fix this.” That’s not what he says.
And as one commentator puts it, “The prodigal went back to the father not primarily because he was tormented by a guilty conscience but because he was drawn by the hope of mercy.” The desire to turn from our sin is born in our hearts when we realize that in coming to the Father, we will receive mercy and forgiveness. And the reason that we may is because his Son takes our rags and our tatters on himself. Because in the mystery of this amazing story of good news, God has promised that he would forgive all those whose rebellious rags were placed on his Son, the one who bore our iniquities and clothed and covered himself with our sin.
Now, in this story, the son realizes that there is only one to whom he could go. And he goes offering nothing in his defense: “I have sinned. I am not worthy. Please make me.” Can I ask you, have you ever come to God like that? I’m not asking you now whether you have had a religious experience. I’m not asking you whether you’re interested in getting a little purpose in your life or trying to find out a way of putting the pieces together. I’m asking you, have you ever come to God like that—in the awareness of all that he is to us in the Lord Jesus, in the awareness of the fact that there is no one else to whom we can go? Who else can blot out our past? Who else can give us a fresh start? Who else can pardon us and cleanse us and relieve us? Who else can drown our sin in the sea of his forgetfulness?
Let me finish my poem:
Says someone, “Nothing has gone right in this story.”
They stalk off.
“A bad story,” one says.
“Stupid,” another says.
“Not one of his best.”
But some from the crowd linger:
a tax collector,
They glance at Jesus furtively, they wait,
they approach shyly, slowly;
one by one they fall at his feet
And so I say to you, run, don’t walk. Run! Run into the arms of God, expressed to you in his cross. Run into the embrace of God, offered to you in his kiss. Run into the refuge of his mercy.
Father, we thank you for the Bible, and we thank you that it shines into our lives and holds up a mirror to our circumstances. And we pray that as we look at it and as your Spirit works within our hearts, so we might run into the safety of that which is made available to us in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. We thank you for the vastness of your love for us in Jesus, and in his name we pray. Amen.
 Psalm 139:5 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 139:2 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 139:4 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 139:15 (paraphrased).
 Charles Wesley, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (1739).
 Charles Wesley, “Jesus! the Name High over All” (1749).
 William Cowper, “Praise for the Fountain Opened” (1772).
 Luke 5:30 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 5:31 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 5:32 (paraphrased).
 Luke 15:2 (NIV 1984).
 Paul Simon, “Patterns” (1965). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Paul Simon, “America” (1968).
 Isaiah 53:10 (paraphrased).
 Romans 5:8 (paraphrased).
 Romans 8:32 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 5:21 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 53:4 (KJV).
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. William Finlayson Trotter (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1910), 173.
 Romans 2:4 (paraphrased).
 Attributed to Donald Macleod. Source unknown.