SWINDLE COLUMN: The Prodigal Son

Published 9:30 am Thursday, July 6, 2023

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“The most valuable things in life are the things we cannot buy or replace.” –

The title to this column is somewhat misleading. This parable from Jesus does not focus on a son. The focus is on the father and the powerful impact of grace.

The Younger Son

A Long Time Ago – The younger son of a well known man brashly asks his father for his share of his estate. He has a right to ask. But, it implies that he thinks of his father as just a source of money and wealth. The son does not love his father. Not yet. Instead of rebuking his son, the father patiently grants him his request.

The younger son travels to a distant country while his brother stays home and works. The physical departure is a display of his willful disobedience to all the goodness his father had offered and given. In the foreign land, the prodigal squanders all his inheritance on degenerate strangers, those who tempt him to never return home, and fulfilling his shallow desires. He loses everything. His financial disaster is followed by a natural disaster in the form of a famine.

At this point, he hires himself out to a man and finds himself feeding hogs; a detestable job to the Jewish people. Once the money and material possessions were gone, so were his friends.

Soon, the prodigal son begins to reflect on his miserable condition and mistakes. His painful circumstances and awakening help him to see his father in a new light. Hope begins to dawn in his hardened heart. There is still good in him.

The son devises a plan of action, and it shows that his repentance is genuine. He will admit his sin and he will give up his rights as a son and take on the position of a servant. He realizes he has no right to a blessing from his father, and he has nothing positive to offer his father.

The Father

Every day, the father painfully waits for his son to return. When he sees him on the horizon, he runs to his wayward son, embraces him, and kisses him. The returning son begins his prepared speech, but his father cuts him off and begins issuing commands to honor his son. He gives him the best robe, the best ring, and the best feast! The father does not question his son or lecture him; instead, he joyfully forgives him and receives him back into fellowship with full privilege of being his father’s son.

The Older Son

The final, tragic character in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the older son. As the older son comes in from the field, he hears music and dancing. He finds out from one of the servants that his younger brother has come home and that what he hears is the sound of jubilation over his brother’s safe return. The older brother becomes angry and refuses to go into the house.

His father goes to his older son and pleads with him to come in. “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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’”

The father answers gently: “My son, . . . you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. We must celebrate and be glad at your brother’s return.”

Did the older brother have a reason to be angry? Yes. But, did his anger and bitterness serve him and others well? No.

The older brother’s focus was on himself and his own service. As a result, he had no joy in his brother’s arrival home. He was so consumed with justice and equity (as he saw them) that he failed to see the value of his brother’s repentance and return.

The older brother had allowed bitterness to take root in his heart to the point that he was unable to show compassion toward his brother. 

The bitterness spilled over into other relationships, too, and he was unable to forgive the perceived sin of his father against him. How sad to choose misery and isolation over restoration and reconciliation. The Parable illustrates that we are all prodigals. Even the kindest, wisest, and most moral people have run from God and sinned. But, God is ready to forgive. He has already saved us, not by works, but by His grace, through faith. That is the core message of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.