A Plan Interrupted by Grace
When I was a small child, like all small children, I would often misbehave.
I would disobey my parents by lying, by refusing to do my chores, and by complaining about the little things. Although I was rebellious, there was a part of me that always wanted to make up for what I had done.
I might have made up for the wrong I did by volunteering to do the dishes, or perhaps by over-promising I would never do what I did again (although those promises were usually short-lived).
We all do this at some point or another. We feel that what we did was awful, and that we should have to pay for whatever it was we did. This was the situation of an unnamed man Jesus tells us about as recorded by Luke.
This man, however, discovers that he’s met with something much different than a parent’s demand. He’s met with his parent’s grace.
THE BOTTOM OF THE BUCKET
“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
— Romans 3:22-25 (ESV)
The parable of the prodigal son has been nothing less than a life-changing read for countless Christians everywhere. It has affected me in and my faith perhaps more than any other parable Jesus told. There are a lot of moving parts, and the parable is so deep that it’s easy to miss some of the gold contained in it.
You might recall that Jesus begins the parable with the younger son’s dialogue, almost immediately. The son said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that is coming to me (15:12).”
It’s important that we stop and understand the gravity of the statement that has just been uttered by the son. It’s a terribly dark sentence. In fact, the words contained in this sentence hardly have equal when it comes to offense in personal relationships. Tim Keller writes:
Here the younger son asks for his inheritance now, which was a sign of deep disrespect. To ask this while the father still lived was the same as to wish him dead. The younger son was saying, essentially, that he wants his father’s things, but not his father.
There wasn’t a more selfish thing the son could have said. This statement reveals, not only the sin in the son’s heart, but the sin in each and every one of our hearts. If you’re a Christian, your heart has been changed. You have been “born again.” If you’re not a Christian, the evil present in the younger son is present in you.
When the son received his inheritance prematurely, he ran off to another country and squandered everything he had received. This too shows a deep disrespect for his father. The father had worked for everything he gave the son, yet the son’s regard for his father’s labor was non-existent. He would eventually find himself in a state not much better than the local pigs.
In fact, Scripture seems to suggest his state was even lower than the pigs. Luke writes, “And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything (15:16).” He was desperate enough to feast amongst the swine. The younger brother was at the bottom of the bucket.
A PLAN TO WIN
The younger son, as Jesus tells us, proceeds to formulate a plan, a plan to earn his father’s forgiveness. He thinks that if he goes back to his father he will receive better treatment as a servant. Luke writes:
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants (Lk 15:17-20).’”
He settles for a servant’s life because any life, at this point, is better than life with the pigs. He is sure that if he goes to his father, whom he previously took for granted, he would be offered forgiveness under the prerequisite of servitude. The younger son, it is thought, will be a servant for life, working to make up for what he has done.
This, as compared to his situation with the pigs, is a step up. It’s better to be a servant, and have his necessities taken care of, than to beg for pig food for the rest of his miserable life.
We shouldn’t, however, think that the younger son has entirely come to his senses. In fact, the motivation for his return to the father is sinful in nature. His reasoning is completely egocentric. If we follow his thought process from his remembrance of his father’s servants, and their better life, to his planned offer, “Treat me as one of your hired servants,” we find that he is motivated by self-interest.
It’s akin to someone saying ‘sorry’ merely to escape the punishment of being caught in some kind of sin. The only reason the son desires to go back to his father is not because he’s genuinely sorry for his actions, it’s because he simply doesn’t prefer the conditions he finds himself in.
He, therefore, plans to win his father’s forgiveness. This is the heart of legalism being played out in Jesus’ parable. The legalist, in order to escape conviction of sin and other effects produced by it, tries to work his way into the grace of God instead of resting in Christ. “If I do this, God will see me in a better light,” it is thought.
INTERRUPTED BY GRACE
First, upon the son’s return, being at a distance from his father, he experiences something he never foresaw. His father, instead of ignoring him, instead of merely waiting on him, runs toward him!
The father came to him.
Secondly, it’s helpful to notice that, though the younger son had sinful motivations for returning to his father, God was using those motivations––in His providence––to draw him to Himself.
If the son would have returned to a father who accepted the son’s terms––that he would work as a servant as repayment for his sinful actions––the son would have either worked as an unrepentant servant for life, remaining a servant for purely selfish reasons. Or, he would have neglected the family again at some point in the future.
However, the son is interrupted by the father.
Compare vv. 18, 19 to vv. 21, 22. The second passage is different from the first. The second omits “Treat me as one of your hired servants.” This omission occurs because the father cuts in saying, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet (v. 22).”
The goods bestowed upon the son were the father’s very own possessions. They weren’t duplicates of something the father already had, they weren’t bought from a store for the occasion, they were original to the father.
The father gave him his treasure at no cost. All this after giving the younger son a third of his property prematurely.
A PORTRAIT OF GOD’S WORK
To summarize the story Jesus tells us in Luke 15:
The younger son selfishly desired his share of the family property more than he desired his father. He squandered his inheritance on sinful pursuits and arrived at the destination of total despair. In an attempt to better his situation, he decided to apologize to his father and offer a payment for his sin.
I submit that this was not a sign of genuine repentance, but an egocentric decision engineered to do nothing but relieve the suffering which resulted from his sins. As he approached his home he saw his father break into a sprint, he experienced his warm embrace, and was showered with gifts not his own.
The son was a rebel against the father until the father came to him. It was the father’s work which resulted in the son’s true repentance. “He was lost, and [was] found (v. 32).”