This is perhaps the most famous of Jesus’ parables in the Gospels. Yet it must have been utterly shocking to the Pharisees.
For here in this story was just the type of person they despised. Here was a young man, who turned his back on his father, and basically said to his face, “I wish you were dead.” (For only after a father died did his sons usually receive their inheritance).
He then went off squandering all his money on wild living. He was greedy, self-indulgent, and perverse in every way.
And then a famine hit, and the young man was left, poor, desolate, and friendless. Nobody would lift a finger to help him, and he was left trying to scrape by with the worst of jobs, taking care of pigs (an unclean animal by God’s law). Things were so bad, that he wanted to eat what the pigs ate.
That’s the deception of sin. It brings you pleasure for the moment, but in the end brings death.
Finally, the young man came to his senses, and he realized, “Even my father’s servants live better than this. There’s no possible way that he could ever accept me as a son. I’ve burned too many bridges. But if he’ll just accept me as a servant…”
And so he trudged home.
All along the way, he rehearsed in his heart what he would say to his dad.
Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men. (18-19)
Perhaps as the Pharisees heard this, they had one of two thoughts.
One might have been, “Well, if he grovels enough, maybe, just maybe the father would be kind enough to accept him as a servant, but I kind of doubt it.”
The other might have been, “No way! After all he did? There could never be forgiveness for that!”
They must have been shocked to hear what Jesus said next.
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. (20)
To a Jew in those days, it was considered undignifying for a man his age to go running pell-mell for any reason. To hear that a father would abase himself for such a wretched son was unthinkable. But that is exactly what happened. And when he reached his son, he threw his arms around him and kissed him. His son was dirty, his clothes were probably ragged, he probably smelled, and yet this father ignored all this in showing his love for his son.
And when his son tried to give his rehearsed speech, his father would even listen to it. Instead, he cried out,
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. (22-24)
Such is the extravagance of the grace and love of God.
The Pharisees never conceived of a God like this. And so as they looked upon the “sinners” around them they despised them.
But Jesus let them know that God longs for the sinners to return to him. And when they do, he doesn’t despise them. Rather, he embraces them and celebrates.
How do you view God? As a stern Father? As a critical God that is always lecturing? That will only forgive if we grovel?
That’s not the God Jesus taught. So as we look at the lost around us, let us take on the character of our Father, not the Pharisees.
And if you yourself are lost, and wondering if God could possibly accept you after all you’ve done, remember that he can and he will. Remember that his love and grace toward you is extravagant, and he’ll freely give them to you if you’ll only turn to him.