Luke 15:11-19 records the beginning of the parable of the lost son (which is often referred to as "The Prodigal Son" parable). Jesus declared:
"A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.' So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.'"
This parable has three main characters: a father and his two sons. The father represents God, and the sons, both of whom are sinful, represent humanity (cf. Rom. 3:23). The younger son represents those who openly--and rebelliously--depart from God (e.g., the tax collectors and sinners; cf. Luke 15:1). The older son represents those who are self-righteous and want nothing to do with the salvation of sinners (e.g., the Pharisees and scribes; cf. 15:2). It should be pointed out that this father loved both sons despite their faults (likewise, the heavenly Father loves all humanity).
Let us now consider some specific details of this great parable and point out some worthwhile applications.
"Father, give me the potion of goods that falls to me" (15:12). The younger son (who turns out to be not very wise) makes this request and the father grants it. The father was willing to give him his "inheritance," before it was actually due to him.
Under Hebrew law, the older brother would have received a double portion and the younger brother would have received one-third of that which belonged to the father (cf. Deut. 21:17). It is assumed that this is how the father's "livelihood" was divided on this occasion (although it appears that the older brother has not yet claimed that which he would inherit; namely, everything else; cf. Luke 15:31).
The younger son "wasted his possessions with prodigal living" (15:13). The father didn't force his son to stay (and neither will God force any of his children to be faithful). Once his request was granted it wasn't very long before the younger son packed up and left of his own free will. He went to a "far country" (i.e., a place of complete separation from his father). Those today who live in sin have gone into the "far country" and have separated themselves from God (cf. Isa. 59:1,2; Eph. 2:12,13). Why would the younger son leave his father (and why would anyone today leave the Father)? There are a couple possible reasons: (1) Perhaps he thought those outside the family were happier than he was. There are many who feel the pull of the world very strongly and who naively believe the "grass is greener on the other side" philosophy. (2) Perhaps he thought his father was too strict and thus left home to be free. Many people despise having to keep rules; they desire to be their own authority although this inevitably causes them to be enslaved to sin.
What did the younger son do in the far country? He wasted his possessions with prodigal living. If the assumption of the older brother is correct (cf. Luke 15:30), then he didn't just spend his money foolishly; he used it to live immorally. Sin will always cause one to waste his resources. When we sin we waste our talents, our time, our money, and our life. We need to realize that no life is worth living if it is lived outside of fellowship with God! A life without God is a waste! It doesn't matter how powerful or rich or famous or beautiful we become physically, without God, life is futile (cf. Matt. 16:26)!
The younger son went through a cycle similar to what we see in the Old Testament book of Judges concerning the Hebrew nation (cf. Jud. 2:11ff). He began by indulging himself, and this lead to misery. His suffering helped bring him to repentance wherein he found forgiveness.
The younger son used poor judgment in spending his money so wastefully, especially since he had no source of income! After a while, because of depleted funds and a famine, the prodigal son began to be in want. He suffered as a poor, hungry man. Sin will always fail to satisfy sooner or later. When one makes a mess of his life with sin, a spiritual famine will result. The son was merely reaping what he had sown (cf. Gal. 6:7,8)!
Although he once had it all, the younger son now finds himself friendless, penniless, without good times, hungry, and with not much of a future. He had hit "rock bottom," so to speak. All sinners do this sooner or later (whether in this life or the next). Sin had robbed this young man! It had taken away his dignity, his self-respect, his good name, his purity, his good conscience, and his happy home. He needed help, but he tried to get it in the far country. Some today make the same mistake. They realize their need to do something, but they don't come to the Father! Only when we come to God in repentance can we truly find peace and joy.
The prodigal son tries to help himself by getting a "job." Actually, the wording indicates he "glued" himself to a citizen of the far country. In other words, he forced himself upon the citizen. The man was unwilling to hire him and took him into service only because of his persistence. This unhappy and miserable young man is now a useless accessory to a stranger who does not care about him. He was given the task of feeding pigs and has obviously lost his self-respect. This would be a humiliation to any Jew since they considered swine to be unclean animals.
Let it be pointed out that even after he humiliates himself further in the far country, he is still no better off! Those in the far country did not care about him (once his money was gone), but his father still did.
The master he had forced himself upon didn't even consider his services to be worthy of enough food to sustain his life. The young man is starving. He desires to eat the "husks" that he is feeding the pigs (though such was hardly fit for swine, let alone a human). The prodigal son is now as low as he can get.
"When he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!'" (Luke 15:17). Reality has finally set in! He realizes the terrible position he is in. It is difficult for some to repent until they "wake up" like this young man finally did. He examined himself and realized that his former home was so much better than this. He knew that his father's servants fared better than this.
He "came to himself." I find the implication of this statement to be powerful. When one separates himself from God the Father, he is simply not thinking clearly. We should give this son some credit here because he did not attempt to blame his situation on others nor did he fall into self-pity. He was willing to be responsible for himself! For the first time he now sees his foolishness in taking his inheritance and going into a far country and spending it in prodigal living. He knew his father's servants were better off than he, so he quickly determined what he would do.
"I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you'" (Luke 15:18). The younger son resolves to go home! Although he is just talking about it currently, he has already taken the "first step" (which is the most difficult). He is willing to admit that he was wrong and has sinned. Sincere and humble confession is connected with repentance (e.g., II Sam. 12:13). Also consider Proverbs 28:13 - "He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy." Additionally, children of God should learn from I John 1:9,10 - "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us."
The younger son's confession of sin seems to be more than just a confession of a reckless expenditure of money ("I have sinned against heaven and before you"). Sins that are committed may be against oneself or others, but they are also always against God.
"I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants" (Luke 15:19). His hope is to become one of his father's servants. He evidently believes that his father will receive him back as a servant or else he wouldn't have made the journey (cf. 15:20)! He believes that his father loved him enough to help him out of his miserable state, though he didn't expect to be treated with the privileges of sonship anymore. Although he was a son, he would not claim that relationship for he believed his sinful behavior had made him no longer worthy of such. He would gladly act and be treated as the other hired servants. It should be observed that it is difficult for anyone to repent of sin today without having confidence in the love of the Father. The thought of being embraced by God's love and taken care of is certainly a motivation for repentance.
We will conclude our study of this parable in our next feature lesson. Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.