Summary: Our lives are fundamentally changed simply by being in relationship w/ God the Father through Jesus Christ. But if the church is to continue to offer that life-transforming relationship, we have to run to the people who need relationship, love, and life.
I don’t know if there’s another story in the Bible that tells of such radical change as this story of the Prodigal Son. We will unpack the story more as we go along today, but here is this young man who, in the height of selfishness and stupidity, essentially steals his inheritance, runs off to a foreign land where he squanders what he has been given until there is nothing left, and ends up in a pig pen. He goes from riches to rags, just like that. Then, when he realizes just how bad off he is and that he would be better off working as a hired hand on his father’s land, he heads back home. And just like that, rags to riches. It is a story about the amazing, generous, forgiving, undeserved grace of the Father, and how that grace changes the life of his child. And I must admit to you that this parable intimidates me more than any other story in the Bible. It’s almost impossible to preach this story because it preaches itself. But no story better tells of the change in our lives when we enter into a relationship with the Father than this one.
We continue this week our look at the subject of change, how we approach change, how we are affected by change, and what the Bible tells us about change. When we, as Christians, talk about change, the first thing we need to acknowledge is the very fundamental change we undergo when we become Christ followers. This parable of the Prodigal Son is a perfect example of that change. Listen again to those beautiful words from the end of this morning’s reading, “[T]his son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!”
To more fully understand the transformation of the Prodigal, we need to understand the family dynamics at play at this time. To begin with, to ask for your inheritance from your Father while he is still living implies that you wish your Father were dead. You’d rather have his goods, his property than him. And secondly, the inheritance would not have been liquid assets, it would have been property. So, in order for the son to be able to go off and live licentiously in some foreign land, he would have had to sell the property he just inherited so that he would have some cash. A family’s status in this time was measured in great part by the amount of property it owned or controlled. For the son to go and immediately sell half of the family’s property would have brought a great deal of shame on the whole family. Quite simply, he was doing very evil things, and it was against his own family!
But it didn’t end there. The son’s actions furthered shamed his name and that of his family. He squandered all the money he had gotten from selling his family’s property to the point that he had nothing left. So he hires himself out to one of the locals who sends him out into the fields to feed the pigs. Here again, we need to understand the level to which this young man has stooped. As you know, Jewish dietary laws forbid the eating of any animal with cloven hooves. In fact, it was really looked down upon for Jewish people to have anything to do with such animals, much less to feed them. And not only is this man feeding the pigs, he longs to eat from their slop. I think it’s fair to say this young man had hit “rock bottom.”
But that’s not where this story ends. Eventually, as Luke tells us, the son came to his senses. He realized just how far he had fallen, just how desperate his situation really was, and he thought to himself that at least he would have food and shelter if he worked as a hired hand for his Father. So he began the long journey back to his home, and I image it was an incredibly long journey, with plenty of time to consider his hurtful and careless actions and to wonder if his Father would even speak to him, much less hire him to work on the family land. Then, as he trudges over the horizon, his Father sees him, and he is moved with compassion. The elder runs toward his defeated son, hugging and kissing him. The son doesn’t have to say anything, but he does anyway. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But in all his infinite grace, the Father doesn’t dwell on his Son’s mistakes, he calls for the fatted calf to be prepared and for all the people to gather to celebrate, for his lost son has returned home again, he was dead, but now he is alive.