Any teacher who tells a story takes a risk with the person who hears it. Jesus was such a storyteller. He knew that His stories would be received with mixed reactions. Some people would simply not understand and would go away scratching their heads. Others would misunderstand and twist the meaning to justify what they were doing rather than changing, as Jesus intended them to do. Still others would understand exactly what He was saying and react with anger for, they would realize, He was threatening their lifestyle, doctrine or traditions. A few, however, would understand and be inspired to change their way of life and therefore become more like God. Jesus wanted everyone to respond that way, but He was wise enough to know the majority would respond in one of the other ways.
One day Jesus was sitting with a group of tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were Jewish citizens who took advantage of the Roman occupation of Palestine for their own financial gain. For a fee they had purchased a franchise which authorized them to collect taxes but, using threats and extortion, collected huge sums apart from due taxes, which they kept for themselves. In return they received personal protection from the Romans.
It was late winter, just a month before He would be crucified. Jesus was in the region of Peraea on the banks of the Jordan River near the town of Bethabara. That afternoon the group that gathered around Jesus was relaxed, eating and drinking together. These “undesirables” were listening intently to what Jesus was saying about the Kingdom of God. Remember, He did not teach like the scribes and Pharisees, who quoted the ancient rabbis as their authority. Those who heard Him knew He was an authority within Himself.
However the Pharisees and teachers of the law were offended. Angry. Not so much with what Jesus was saying, for they weren’t listening. They were angered that He, a recognized Jewish teacher, was eating and drinking with people they considered to be riff-raff. They called them “people of the land”-non-religious types.
In response to their anger Jesus told three short stories. All had to do with things that were lost and the joy that should accompany the finding. The first story was of a shepherd who lost his sheep. Then He told a story about a woman who lost a silver coin. His final story featured a lost son and his relationship with a loving father and a jealous, self-righteous elder brother.
The Bible is a mirror. When we read these stories, we don’t see the characters in the parable. We see ourselves. That’s painful. Carnival mirrors can make you look fat or distort you. Even so the mirror of Jesus’ parables is a true reflection of our spiritual condition. The characters we find in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son are classic representations of mankind. It’s the story of a family, a father with two sons. We know nothing of the mother, as she is omitted from the story. A lot of Jesus’ parables have to do with women. In this particular story however, He did what every good storyteller does, He edits out all the characters that would get in the way of the story itself.
Besides the three major players, there a supporting cast of servants, bartenders, a pig farmer, plus the shadowy figures of harlots, barflies and street people. Please read Luke 15 verses 11 to 32 by yourselves, and as you do, allow the following pointers to enable you, to see yourself clearly in the mirror that Jesus is holding up to you.
1. Under Jewish law a father was supposed to divide his inheritance after he died, with two-thirds going to the elder son and one third to the younger. However, the younger did not want to wait, he wanted it all now! God seldom says no or blocks our way when we start out to do foolish things. Like any wise Father, He allows us to find our own way. The possession of material things, while important to mortals, is never a priority to God.
2. Youth often see everything “in the now.” They have little past to draw from. They have virtually no concern for the future. If they have money in their pockets, it is there for one reason and one reason only, to spend as quickly as possible. The young son was no exception. Selfish and impatient, he could hardly wait to get away from home to spend his inheritance on wild riotous living. In the process he loses everything. Someone said, ”Money talks – it says, ‘good-bye!” Famines-hard times are part of nature. Youth seldom plan for the future. Money is a tool. Youth seldom understand the concept of stewardship.
3. When he got hungry he was faced with two options: get a job or starve. Something happened as he started working with his hands. Again the mirror is held up to each of us. The Bible has a great deal to say about work. Man is fulfilled only when he is working. It is honourable to work. We’re created to work. It is part of God’s plan for our lives.
4. Sometimes hardship and poverty are God’s way of bringing us to the place of seeing who we really are. If you don’t go through these things, you never reach the place where you say; “This is who I am.” The prodigal hit rock bottom when he wound up feeding pigs. (No disrespect to the pigs intended) When he did, the reality of his situation became apparent.
5. For the first time, he could say, “Man, I’ve made a mess of things.” That allowed him to see other truths like, “I don’t belong here. I’m not created to slop pigs. I have a better purpose in life than this. The major turning point was when “he came to his senses.” He began to think clearly, with the mind of God, He evaluated his current situation objectively and thought of what was necessary to change his situation.
6. First he would have to go back. Secondly, he would have to repent and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” When a man can say, “I am no longer worthy,” God is able to say, “I give you My worthiness.” You don’t have to change clothes to go home. You don’t have to wash off the pig smell. Home is where you are accepted even though you smell like a pig. (Sorry pig!) You can go home dirty. You can go home broke. You can go home diseased. The only thing necessary to go home is a heart that says, “I am no longer worthy.”
7. From afar his father sees him and runs to meet him. This is the only time in the Bible that God is depicted as running. No tapping foot or folding of arms, no word of rebuke, just wide open arms. Jesus wanted to show what God is really like. A loving Father rushing to meet a wayward child.
8. A robe, a ring and sandals all speak of total restoration. The fatted calf speaks of being the guest of honor, not a servant as he intended. Totally restored in the eyes of God.
9. Jesus of course is not yet finished with His story. He has yet to deal with the Pharisees, so he describes the attitude of the elder brother, which was the exact attitude of these super-religious people. The elder brother was a hard-working, loyal law-abiding legalist. He knew as soon as his younger brother asked for the inheritance that he was going to waste it. Then he adopted the "“wait and see"” attitude, followed by the “I told you so!” attitude. God did not condone what the prodigal did. Jesus called his life-style foolish and wicked. Nevertheless, equally foolish and equally wicked was the attitude of the elder brother.
10. Both sons’ were PRODIGAL. One squandered his father’s inheritance and was miserable; the other stayed at home, kept the rules and was miserable. The father had to go out to them both. Jesus is pointing out that simply keeping the rules does not make a man happy. He is only happy when he has eyes to see as God does. The elder brother was like those Pharisees, who were offended because Jesus ate with “sinners.” He refused to acknowledge the boy was even his brother. He was offended by his father’s actions, wasting a fatted calf on such a deadbeat. He forgot the whole herd was his. He thought his father was rewarding irresponsibility. Neither son fully understood mercy. One was trapped by sin-the other by religion. God is bigger than both. He is the God of second chances. All he requires is a broken heart, admission of our sins and a willingness to come home. He takes care of the rest.
Have you taken a good look at yourself in the mirror lately? ……...Gorgeous! Remember the only one who was really unhappy that the prodigal had returned, was the fatted calf!