Reading Time: 23 minutes

Which son are you?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Luke 15:11-32

Thesis: We are each welcome in the Kingdom of God

One of the most encouraging readings I have ever found is this adaptation from Henri Nouwen’s classic book The Beloved:

I have called you by name

from the very beginning.

You are mine and I am yours.

You are my beloved,

on you my favor rests.

I have molded you in the depths of the earth

and knitted you together in your mother’s womb.

I have carved you in the palm of my hand

and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace.

I look at you with infinite tenderness

and care for you with a care more intimate

than that of a mother for her child.

I have counted every hair on your head

and guided you at every step.

Wherever you go, I go with you,

and wherever you rest, I keep watch.

I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger

and drink that will quench all your thirst.

I will not hide my face from you.

You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.

Do these words touch you at a deep place in your soul? Why?

The most popular hymn in America is “Amazing Grace.” This is the conclusion of a survey of more than 10,000 newspaper readers. Others on the top ten list: “How Great Thou Art”; “In The Garden”; “The Old Rugged Cross”; “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”; “A Mighty Fortress”; “Blessed Assurance”; “He Lives”; “Victory In Jesus”; and “Holy, Holy, Holy.” What do our most beloved hymns have in common?

Blaise Pascal was by every measure a genius. He is considered the father of the modern computer, and was famous in his day for his work on probability theory and the problem of the vacuum. He devised Paris’s first public transportation system. And he was a man of remarkable insight into the human condition.

Consider his diagnosis of our basic problem: “All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in two different ways. The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man. . . .

“Yet for very many years no one without faith has ever reached the goal at which everyone is continually aiming. All men complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, strong, weak, learned, ignorant, healthy, sick, in every country, at every time, of all ages, and all conditions. . . .

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object.”

What is this “infinite and immutable object”? What is it that we need most in our lives? This week we are privileged to walk through “the greatest short story in the world” (Barclay 204). Here we’ll find the answer to our souls’ deepest longing, the hub into which all the spokes of our lives fit. Here is the “true north” which makes sense of our chaos, the discovery which alone can give life genuine significance.

This key to the meaning of life is found when you answer one question: which son in our story are you?

Leaving the home of grace

“There was a man who had two sons” (v. 11). And so our story begins. The man was presumably a Palestinian Jewish farmer or landowner. His “many” servants (v. 17) attested to his wealth. He was a man blessed with lands, possessions, and sons. Until today.

This day, “The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate'” (v. 12a). Nothing in the story indicates that either son was married, yet both were wealthy and would likely wed when reaching the marriage age of 30. And so they were both under this age; the younger son is perhaps closer to 20 (Fitzmyer 1087). And their father was still a relatively young man.

Nonetheless, his younger son wanted the part of the state which customarily came to him at his father’s death. Assuming there were only two sons, the older would receive 2/3 of the estate, so-called “double share” (Deuteronomy 21.17), while the younger received 1/3. Such a request was not impossible legally, but it was as much an outrage as a similar demand would be in our society today.

Despite this grave insult, the father did as his younger son asked: “So he divided his property between them” (v. 12b). This decision marked a formal and legal division of his goods (Rienecker 186), a binding action for them all. It would appear that the younger son received his part of the estate in money or moveable property, while the elder received the lands and fixed property (Barnes 102). If this is true, the father must have given a great deal of his personal possessions to constitute the estate owed his younger son. Every day would bring a fresh reminder of all he no longer owned—in his property and in his son.

Here we see the first appearance of that grace which is the central focus of Jesus’ parable. The father was not bound to grant his son’s disrespectful demand. He was not bound to give such personal possession to constitute an estate he did not owe until his death. But he gives what the son asks, with no word of complaint or censure. How many parents would do the same for one of their sons today? Would you?

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living” (v. 13). What a turn in life and fortune Jesus captured in these few words. The young man had more than most of the world could dream of owning. After converting flocks or grain, possessions and property, he owned 1/3 of a wealthy estate. To a world populated primarily by slaves and impoverished serfs, such a man was standing at the top of the social ladder. Given the popular belief of the day that wealth is proof of divine favor, this man has been blessed by heaven and earth.

But not for long. He left his Palestinian home to see the larger world. And it saw him coming. Soon he “squandered” his wealth—the word means to scatter in various directions (Rienecker 186). Jesus used the same word in Matthew 25.24: “gathering where you have not scattered seed” (Robertson 208). Picture a farmer throwing his seed to the wind, and you see the younger brother at work. His father’s lifetime of earning and savings was nothing to him. Easy come, easy go.

Had he invested poorly, we would criticize his foolishness but not his goals. But no: he squandered his wealth in “wild living.” The word means to “live prodigally,” to engage in debauched living (Rienecker 186). It stands for reckless waste with free reign given to every passion, the height of undisciplined freedom (Bruce 580), the “limit of sinful excesses” (Robertson 208). This word, found here only in the New Testament, names its owner for all time as the “prodigal son.”

What happened next is the way of our fallen world: “After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need” (v. 14). Famines were common in the ancient Near East. They were caused by crop failures, want of rain, strong sun, or prevalence of plagues or pestilence (Barnes 102). At the worst possible moment, such a famine struck the “whole country” where he now lived. The young man had lost all he owned, and now had no way to earn it back.

So he stepped from the immoral to the unthinkable: “he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs” (v. 15). “Hired himself” means to glue together, to join. He appears that he forced himself on a citizen of that country (Rienecker 187; Bruce 580). And not just any citizen—a pig owner, thus a Gentile. Remember that the Jews were taught to believe that God made Gentiles only so there would be firewood in hell. No self-respecting Jew would go into a Gentile home, or touch Gentile possessions. And above all, no Jewish boy would feed a pig.

Pig herding was the most degrading occupation known to the Jews (Rienecker 187). Pigs were “unclean” for the people (Leviticus 11.7); they were “not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses” (Deuteronomy 14.8). One of the rabbis said, “Cursed be the man who raises pigs” (quoted by Fitzmyer 1088).

Barnes gives us the spiritual sense of Jesus’ picture: “The object of this image, as used by the Savior in the parable, is to show the loathsome employments and the deep degradation to which sin leads men, and no circumstance could possibly illustrate it in a more striking manner than he has done here. Sin and its results everywhere have the same relation to that which is noble and great, which the feeding of swine had, in the estimation of a Jew, to an honorable and dignified employment (103).

The “prodigal” has taken his father’s estate as though he were dead. He has left his home for the “far country.” He has “squandered” possessions his father spent a lifetime earning. Now he has forced himself on a Gentile to feed pigs. But there is one step lower into the abyss: “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything” (v. 16).

These “pods” were horn-shaped parts of the carob tree (Bruce 580), sometimes called “Saint John’s Bread” from the notion that the Baptist ate them in the wilderness (Robertson 209; cf. Barnes 103). Some read the text to suggest that the prodigal could eat these but nothing more (Bruce 581). But the more likely meaning is that he could not have even these (Barnes 103). In such depressed times of famine, this food had been measured out for the swine and there was nothing to spare.

Here is what it is like to leave the home of grace. It is to refuse your Father’s plans and purposes, dreams and goals for your life. To take gifts, abilities, possessions and opportunities which he intends to be used for his glory and your good, and use them for your own selfish ends. To waste them. To give yourself to people or purposes which demean him as your Father, and dishonor his family and you. To find yourself starved and abandoned alone.

It is your story and it is mine. It is the story of every person who rejects the love of God, who leaves the home of grace. But the story didn’t end there. It never does.

Coming home to grace

“When he came to his senses” (v. 17a)—the second chance of grace. The Greek says literally, “coming to himself.” It can mean that he realized his situation, but more likely it indicates that he came to “his true self, his sane mind” (Bruce 581). The phrase was commonly applied to one who had been deranged but recovered his mind (Barnes 103). In this case, his soul.

No matter where you find yourself today, it’s not too late. You can stop feeding the pigs, and craving their food. You can stop working for the pig owners. You can come to yourself. You can come home to grace.

The prodigal said to himself, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” (v. 17b). “Food to spare” translates a phrase which means to be surrounded by loaves as by a flood (Robertson 210). So, “I will set out and go back to my father” (v. 18a). But how could he? The legal documents were signed and executed. He had no further claims on the estate, no rights to his previous status. The father had no reason or obligation to receive such a sinful, dishonorable prodigal.

The young son knew it was so: he would declare to him: “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” (vs. 18b-19). He “sinned”—the word means to miss the mark (Robertson 210), to miss the purpose and meaning of life. He sinned against heaven, against his heavenly Father. This recognition is the first step to genuine repentance, for all sin is first and foremost against our holy Father (cf. Psalm 51.4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight”).

And he sinned against his earthly father: “and against you.” He missed the mark with his family, with this man who loved him so much. And now it was too late to earn it back: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He could do nothing to deserve restoration. He was right, and repentant (Geldenhuys 408; Fitzmyer 1089).

So, his repentance sincere and his resolve sure, “he got up and went to his father” (v. 20a). But his father was not done with grace. The same grace which gave the inheritance the son did not earn, now refused to give the punishment he deserved. Refused to continue the consequences for sins his son confessed. He is just like our Father in heaven.

Here is one of the most poignant verses in all the word of God: “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” (v. 20). The father had been looking for his son, from the moment he left to the moment he returned (Robertson 210). He was “filled with compassion” for this son now limping back in rags and repentance. He “ran” to his son, regardless of Eastern dignity and the proprieties of advancing years (Bruce 581), exactly the opposite of the way his son has come home to him (Barnes 105).

He “kissed him,” in language which means to kiss fervently and frequently, over and over again (Bruce 581; Robertson 210). This act was the ancient sign of forgiveness (Rienecker 187; Fitzmyer 1089). When King David kissed Absalom, his wayward and sinful son, he extended to him this same forgiveness (2 Samuel 14.33). Now the father gave such grace to his shocked and sinful boy.

The prodigal started his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). But his father wouldn’t let him finish. He heard enough. He heard words of repentance from a heart of grief and guilt and genuine sorrow. And that was all he needed to hear.

The father welcomed the boy as his son. He was “justified”—”just as if I’d never sinned.” He was restored, publicly and powerfully. He received “the best robe” (v. 22a), a stately garment coming down to the feet, worn by kings (Robertson 211), replacing the wretched rags the boy wore home (Bruce 582). A ring was placed on his finger (v. 22b), Jewish tradition for one honored as his father’s deputy (Rienecker 187; Esther 8.2). The son was not only received, but promoted. And he was given “sandals on his feet” (v. 22c). No slaves wore sandals, only sons (Bruce 582).

But the father was not done with grace: “Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate” (v. 23). Wealthy landowners kept a calf fattened for festive occasions. And so the father kept the calf, perhaps hoping for his son’s return and the party he would give in his honor (Robertson 211).

Why the celebration? “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 24a). “This my son” is the literal wording. The father claimed his boy publicly, introducing him to attendants who did not know him from before he left for the far country. And telling the world that he was proud of his boy. He had been “dead” spiritually (cf. Romans 6.13; Revelation 3.1; Ephesians 2.1-5), but now he was alive. He had been lost, but now he is found. “So they began to celebrate” (v. 24b).

The prodigal thought he was coming home to face wrath and works, and deservedly so. But he found instead grace and gifts. Not grace he must earn, for that is no grace at all. Grace he could only receive in wonder, faith, and joy.

Theologian Paul Tillich described such an encounter with true grace, in words so meaningful they deserve a slow and careful reading:

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.

“It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’

“If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”

The father in the story did not love his son because he came home. His son could come home because his father loved him. Our Father does not give us grace if we believe, or repent, or trust. We can believe, and repent, and trust because he gives us grace.

The prodigal “came to himself,” then came home. Is there a Father waiting for you to do the same? Looking even now at your soul in the far country? Waiting, robe and ring and sandals in hand? Ready to give what you cannot earn or deserve? Ready to welcome you home?

Giving what we have received

But the story is not done. We know what happened to the younger brother. But what of the elder? He was “in the field” (v. 25a), hard at his job, doing work his younger brother had abandoned to him. Coming near the house “he heard music and dancing” (v. 25b). “Music” translates the Greek word sumphonos, from which we get “symphony.” The musicians were entertainers hired by the father for his son’s party.

And everyone danced to their music. Dancing was common at Jewish feasts (Judges 21.21), at times of triumph (Judges 11.34), and at times of joy (Psalm 30.11-12; Jeremiah 31.4, 13). But why? The older brother “called one of the servants and asked him what was going on” (v. 26). And he got his answer: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound” (v. 27). Note Jesus’ explicit words: “your brother, your father.”

But his brother “became angry” (v. 28a)—the words mean he “flew into a rage” (Robertson 212). Long resentment towards his wayward brother, coupled with work done to compensate for his failures, was combined with the public humiliation the prodigal has caused them all. Wanting no part of this celebration, he “refused to go in” (v. 28b).

So his father came to him, rushing out just as he had rushed earlier in the day to his younger brother. He “pleaded with him” (v. 28c), the tense indicating that he “kept on beseeching him” (Rienecker 188; Robertson 212). But the older would have none of it: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders” (v. 29a). We wonder if his “slavery” indicates a secret desire to do what his younger brother had done. He “never” disobeyed—the tense means that he did not err even once (Rienecker 188).

“Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends” (v. 29b). To hear him tell the story, his life was nothing but drudgery and work, slaving for a father who was little more than an employer. We cannot believe that it was really so, or that it was the father’s fault if it was. No father could extend such marvelous grace to one son without offering it to the other.

Now we see into the older brother’s true soul: “But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (v. 30). Not “my brother” but “this son of yours,” a Greek expression of great contempt (Rienecker 188; Barnes 106). No one mentioned prostitutes before he made his accusation, a charge for which he could have no support. Barclay may be right: “He, no doubt, suspected his brother of the sins he himself would have liked to commit” (206).

But the father showed his older son the same grace he has given to the younger: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (v. 31). Despite his reproofs, his accusations, his charges, this man was still his son. The estate belonging to him was still his. Nothing had changed. Though the father had the right to reprove and reject such a malicious and slanderous boy, he refused.

Instead he explained: “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 32). “We had to celebrate”—there is urgency here, for whenever a child comes home, his family must celebrate. The Greek says “to be merry”—deep-seated joy, hilarity beyond words (Robertson 213). “This brother of yours”—the father’s point is clear. The father’s son, and his son’s brother, was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

The older brother offers us two lessons. The first: keep working in the fields. But not as a slave but a son. Motivated not by obligation to our Master but by gratitude for his grace.

Legends always grow up around famous people. Here is one of my favorite Paderewski stories. A mother took her young son to hear the famous pianist, so as to encourage him in his own progress on the piano. After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend in the audience and went to greet her. This was her son’s chance. He bolted for the curtains obscuring the stage from the crowd. The house lights dimmed, the concert was about to begin, and the mother found her son missing. In the next moment the curtains parted and spotlights focused on the Steinway on the stage gleaming with polish.

In horror, the mother saw her little boy sitting at the keyboard, innocently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” At that moment, the great piano master made his entrance, quickly moving to the piano. He whispered in the boy’s ear, “Don’t quit. Keep playing.” Then leaning over, Paderewski reached down with his left hand and began creating a bass part. With his right hand he added a running obligato. Together they performed a duet for the ages.

So it is with our performance on the instrument built by our Father. As we work he works. What we create is far less our ability and far more his. He does so much more with us than we can do for him. Our job is simply to be obedient, to play in gratitude for his grace, and to trust his hands to do the rest.

The father gave to his older son what was not his, just as he did so for the younger. Neither of them earned life, care, or compassion. Neither created the wealth he inherited. Neither deserved the compassion he received. Both were called to work with the father—not from obligation but gratitude.

What motivates you to teach your class? To give your time and abilities and finances to God’s Kingdom? To study this lesson?

The second lesson: give to others what you have received. Extend to others the grace God has given to you. You have received the blessing of God. Now give to a prodigal what the Father has bestowed on you.

Grady Nutt was a wonderful Christian comic and a deeply devoted believer. In college I heard him tell this week’s parable, and ask this question: If you were the prodigal, who would you want to greet you at the gate—the father or the older brother?

We have studied the two sons of Jesus’ famous parable. Which are you—the prodigal in the far country, squandering all God has given you in rebellion? Perhaps. But it is more likely that someone reading this commentary to prepare a Sunday school lesson is tempted to be the older brother. Serving in the fields, working for the Father. Will you give the grace of God to those entrusted to your care this week? Will they see the compassion, acceptance, and love of your Lord? Will you give what you have been given?

The famous preacher Samuel Chadwick once announced to his congregation, “I am going to preach on the third Son in the parable of the prodigal son” (cited in Morgan 266). Who is the third? The one who taught this parable. The one who sings with his Father when a prodigal comes home. Will you join his song?