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Everyone who has even a cursory understanding of the Bible has likely heard the parable of the prodigal son. It can be found in Luke 15:11-31 and is one my all-time favorite stories that Jesus shared with his followers.
It’s about a restless young man who dreams of a better life and demands his share of the inheritance while his father is still alive. Then he squanders it all on parties and things that don’t have lasting value. Eventually, he goes broke and can only find work feeding pigs on a farm.
One day, he realizes servants at his father’s house live better than he is living at the time. So, he devises a plan to return home and beg his father to hire him as a servant. The son starts the long walk home and carefully memorizes his speech along the way.
While the young man was still a long way off, his father sees him on the horizon. Why? Because his Dad never stopped looking for and longing for his son. The father runs out to meet his son and embraces him warmly. Just as the young man starts to recite his memorized speech, the father orders servants to put a coat on his son, gives him a family ring and throws a barbecue in his honor.
“For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they begin to celebrate.
But, the young man’s older brother is incensed at his father’s generosity, even though it cost the older brother nothing and did not impact his own inheritance in any way. That’s how jealousy and coveting works to leave people unsatisfied and always desiring more.
The story of the prodigal son is one of Jesus’ most poignant messages about God’s love, and the extent of his willingness and ability to forgive. As soon as we come to our senses, realize we made a mess by doing things our way, turnaround and just take one step toward God, he runs toward us even though we are still a long way off.
Pastor Tim Challies, one of my favorite Canadians, wrote an article in which he wondered what would have happened had the younger brother encountered the older brother first on his way home to make amends with his father.
I love Challies’ perspective because it’s not just an older sibling who often stops us from returning to God, but rather our own false beliefs and attitudes about what we’ve done and the mess we made.
“What on earth are you doing here? After all you’ve done, how dare you set foot on this land?,” the older brother asks the younger.
“Do you know what you did to dad when you left? Do you know how badly you shamed and embarrassed him in front of the entire community? He wants nothing to do with you,” he adds.
“He doesn’t love you anymore. He doesn’t want you anymore. You’re dead to him,” the brother proclaims. “You’re an absolute disgrace. You disgust me and you’ll disgust him. You’re filthy. You stink.”
“You know how just and fair dad is. He can’t just pretend you didn’t betray him. And he certainly hasn’t forgotten what you did to him. He won’t forget. He can’t forget.”
“None of us will ever forget what you did. None of us will ever forget who you are.”
Sadly, because we listen to and agree with this type of negative self-talk in our heads, many of us would likely respond the same way to a similar assault on our character and reminders of our sinful past — just like the younger brother did in Challies’ story:
“You’re right. I’ll go. I’ll try to clean myself up. I’ll try to earn it all back. And if I do, I’ll return and prove myself to dad,” the younger brother told the older before hopelessly walking away, completely defeated.
Many of us don’t attempt to return to our heavenly father’s loving and waiting arms just because we think we are unworthy and must first clean up our act or prove ourselves worthy of his love. Or we’ve been gone too long or done things for which we could never be forgiven.
Some earthly fathers may respond that way, but I assure you our heavenly father never does.
Forgiveness, unconditional love and complete transformation is available to us the moment we decide we need God in our lives. All it takes is one step in his direction. God will meet us “while we are still a long way off” and celebrate our return.
The Bible promises that in the sentence before Jesus shares the story of the prodigal son. Luke 15:10 notes, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Don’t wait! Take that first step right now. Welcome home!
Tim Challies’ story can be found at www.challies.com.