Summary: A look at the Father, the rebellious son, the eldest son and possible endings to the story.
Jolene Horn, in writing for Today’s Christian Woman magazine, tells about reading her daughter the story Jesus told, which we have just read together. She writes, “While putting my 4-year-old daughter to bed one evening, I read her the story of the Prodigal Son. We discussed how the young son had taken his inheritance and left home, living it up until he had nothing left. Finally, when he couldn’t even eat as well as pigs, he went home to his father, who welcomed him. When we finished the story, I asked my daughter what she had learned. After thinking a moment, she quipped, ‘Never leave home without your credit card!’”
That is one way to try and make leaving home work. And I’m sure that some people wish it was that easy to leave the Father’s house, but anyone who really has run away to the far country knows that it is not that simple. The results of living away from God are always disastrous, and nothing can prevent the ultimate consequences from catching up with us. The reason is that God’s ways are the way of life and joy, and the way of rebellion is the way of self-destruction and ruin. The farther away we run, the worse the destruction becomes. As exciting as the outside world appears, the Father’s house is where real life and love are experienced. The world is the illusion; the Father’s home is the reality.
Let’s take a look at this very interesting story that Jesus tells. I want us to look at the three main characters of the story, and learn something about ourselves and our heavenly Father as well. First, let’s look at the father in the story. The father represents God, our Father. But we are surprised that God would act like this father. He does nothing to stop the son from taking advantage of him. He does not lecture him or warn him. He doesn’t even try to keep him from leaving home and engaging in behaviors he knows will be destructive to the young man’s life. In no way does he keep him from doing anything he wants to do. When he asks for the estate to be settled before the father’s death — the ultimate insult in that culture — the father says nothing by way of objection. He simply gives him what would have eventually come to him in the estate, knowing he will waste it entirely.
This is one of the disturbing things about God, for some people — his refusal to step in and stop us, or others, from doing what is wrong. He has a non-interference policy. We hear people say, “Why doesn’t God do something about the evil in the world? Why doesn’t he stop people from hurting other people or doing evil things?” But God has given us the awesome gift of free will. If he interfered in any way, it would no longer be free will. We think we would like God to be more controlling — that is, when it comes to other people. We would like to have him force them to do the right things and stop them from doing wrong things. But when we want to rebel and have our way, we don’t want anyone trying to control us. However, God knows that the moment he forces us to do his will, it is no longer we who are obeying, and therefore it means nothing. If obedience is something that happens because we are coerced, then it is pointless. If we do God’s will willingly, from the heart, then we delight the heart of God.
One thing that is important to understand in this story is that in the culture of Jesus’ day, children did not leave home when they married and became adults. The father simply added on to the house, especially if the estate was larger. To leave home was to leave everything — your extended family, relationships, work, and future.
The father in the story did not want his son to stay home if the son did not want to stay. He did not want him to be there out of some kind of obligation. And the father certainly did not want his son to be there just waiting for him to die so that he could get his hands on the inheritance. The father did not acquiesce out of weakness. He was not just being a permissive parent. He was giving the son what the son thought he wanted, in the hope that someday he would want something else — something better. Only if he saw the emptiness of living away from the father would he want to return to the father willingly. Only if he experienced what it was like to be away from the father’s love would the desire for that love begin to grow. But this might work and it might not — those are the stakes.