The Gospel According to Luke: Part 41 :: By Dr. Donald Whitchard

An Exposition

Luke 15:11-24: “The World’s Most Beloved Short Story, Part 1”

11 And He said, ‘A certain man had two sons, 12 and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ And he divided his wealth between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. 14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 He went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he was longing to fill his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.”

17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.’ 20 He got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him. 21 The son said to him, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet, 23 and bring out the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry, 24 for this son of mine was lost, and has been found,’ and they began to be merry” (Luke 15:11-24, NASB).

The story of the “Prodigal Son” is the best known of all the parables told by our LORD. Charles Dickens, the author of classics such as David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol, was to have called this parable “the greatest short story ever told.” Numerous sermons, doctoral dissertations, books, and studies have been based on this parable over the centuries. It is a masterpiece in describing the consequences of sin and the forgiving mercy of a loving God, but it has over time become so  familiar with people that we need to go back to the time when the Lord Jesus presented this story, which was in the presence of His fellow Jews and of the Pharisees, who always seemed to be in the crowd with the determination of finding some fault or wrong in Him, to no avail.

This story, when first told, shocked and startled His listeners and aroused the anger of the Pharisees for the situation Jesus presented. He gave an illustration in the selfish and foolish acts of the younger son that sin progresses from pleasure to pain and the isolation it brings.

Sin all too often results in the loss of everything, including family and friends. The desperate place in which the prodigal rebel found himself was basically rock bottom and could get no worse. God Himself would surely forsake this wicked individual and allow him to suffer and face impending eternal judgment for his reprobate lifestyle, or so it seemed. We need to go back to the start of the story and contemplate its increasing “shock value” as it pertains to Jesus’ audience and their moral standards that were based on the law of Moses.

Shock Value No. 1 – The Disrespectful Attitude of the Younger Son (vv.11-12)

A certain man has two sons. The younger of the two brazenly demands his share of the estate without waiting for the father’s passing as the law states. This young man is essentially telling his father that he wishes that the father was already dead in order to get his money and all legal possessions. This is a blatant and openly disrespectful attitude that should have gotten him thrown out of the house and disinherited at the least and stoned to death at the worst (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Certainly, those who heard this story for the first time thought so.

Shock Value No. 2 – The Arrogant Action of the Younger Son (v.13-14)

The arrogant little brat (this is the best way to describe him at this point) gets his inheritance, and he leaves his family and no doubt a distraught father behind. He wants to get as far away as he can, so he goes to a city or country far from familiar surroundings. For a Jew, this meant he was going to live among the Gentiles, whom they suspected and disliked, the Romans who occupied their land. In the Gentile land, he lives it up and spends his money foolishly and recklessly on things and obtaining what will be fair-weather “friends” who take advantage of his immaturity and gullibility. This young man, to the listeners of the story, has cut himself off for all time with his relations. There is no hope for him, and it gets worse.

Shock Value No. 3 – The Toxic Atmosphere for the Younger Son (vv.14-16)

The fun has come to an end, and this kid has no more money or possessions, and all his contacts and so-called “friends” disappear like the wind. He is all alone with nowhere to go. His sins have found him out (Numbers 32:23). He has removed himself off from all who might help him and now experiences hunger, want, and misery. He goes to a citizen of that town who gives him the task of feeding pigs, an unclean animal, and is so hungry that now the food he feeds to the swine begins to look good. This is rock bottom, and Jesus’ audience is certain that the boy was now beyond any redemption.

Shock Value No. 4 – The Repentance and Renewal of the Younger Son (vv.17-19)

Sometime, in the midst of the mud and dung of the pigsty and the gnawing of his empty stomach, this boy who had once been full of self-assurance, arrogance, greediness, and the feeling that there was not anything he could not do, has come to the realization that this is not what he expected when he set out some time ago. His mind and soul are now open and alert to the fact that he has no one to blame but himself, and he needs to make things right before God and his family. He has now come to the place where he is genuinely sorrowful for his sins and is repentant.

Repentance, simply defined, is the act of turning back to God. The Scriptures are filled with examples and pleas for repentance for both nation and individual. The rewards of genuine repentance are that prayers are answered (2 Chron. 7:14; 2 Chron.30:9; Nehemiah 1:9; Eccl.7:3), sin will be pardoned (Isa. 55:7; Jer. 3:12, 31:9), life will be attained (Ezek. 18:21; Zech.1:3), comfort from the LORD (Matt. 5:4; Luke 15:7), and the presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 3:19).

When you are genuinely sorrowful and grieved over your sins and come to the LORD for forgiveness and cleansing, real repentance has occurred, and that is what has taken place in the heart and mind of this wayward young man. He has been humbled and purged of the attitudes and actions that led him to the stench of the pigpens. Now he sets forth to go back home, even if it meant a permanent rift between himself and his family and to assume the role of a servant.

Shock Value No. 5 – The Return and Unexpected Reconciliation with the Younger Son (vv.20-24)

The crowd who heard this story now waited for what they believed was the son’s retribution and rightful, deserved punishment to end in the father formally disowning this rebellious child and casting him out of the village and everything with which he was familiar. This boy, in the eyes of proper Jewish society, had condemned himself and was worthy of nothing but death or at least abandonment. Certainly, this was the thinking of the Pharisees who had also been listening to Jesus’ story. What Jesus would present to all of them was the surprising response of the father towards this malcontent who now reeked of dung, mud, and sweat, and was dangerously thin due to starvation and want.

The father saw the boy from a distance and RAN to him, embracing him, stench and all. What? Surely this father was going to curse and reprimand this boy. No. Jesus was showing that this benevolent, loving father was not a representative of religion and custom, but of the compassion of God Himself. Did He not continually show His love towards the wayward and sinful actions of His people over the centuries? (Leviticus 5:10; Psalm 32:1, 65:3; 103:3-4, 130:4; Ezek.18:22.) Was not Israel a prodigal child in its past and even in the time of Jesus? This had to make some of the people think and be humbled themselves.

These verses show the Sovereign LORD Himself going after the lost. The father and his boy are together again. He does not hold any grudge against this repentant child, but gets a party started and places the son back into the graces of his family by giving him the love and blessing that he in no way deserves. When we humble ourselves before the LORD, repent of our sins, and come to Him for mercy and forgiveness, He puts the best robe He has on us, brings us into His family, rejoices with us, and the hosts of heaven shout their praises and joy that a lost soul has come home to the loving embrace of the LORD our GOD.

This story of ruin and reconciliation could end here if the Lord Jesus had spoken about “a son,” but He mentioned two. Jesus will now turn His attention to the son who stayed home yet was himself a prodigal. How so? What was the father’s attitude towards him and what lesson did the Lord Jesus wish to convey upon His listeners? This will be covered in the next study of this story.