And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. “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.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luk 15:11-24)
This passage in Luke 15 is the story of the prodigal son. The word “prodigal” is not actually in the Bible, but it has become the term commonly used for this particular passage. The word itself means “recklessly wasteful”. To put this story in its proper context we see that the first part of the chapter is what leads Jesus into telling the story of the prodigal son. In the very first verse we read that “tax collectors and sinners” are coming to Christ. It was these types of men, men aware of their sinful state, that were…and are…particularly drawn to Christ. At the same time that these men are drawing near to Christ the Pharisees begin grumbling about Jesus receiving and eating with sinners. These Pharisees were the religious leaders in Israel, and they didn’t consider themselves as having the same condition as these dirty sinners. They thought themselves righteous because they practiced rituals…the same rituals that were meant to point to Christ, whom they denied. They embraced the symbols and shadows of ritual while rejecting the righteousness that those same rituals pointed to, the righteousness that comes only through Jesus Christ. Not only did they consider themselves righteous, they also considered others beneath them. When we consider others who have particular sins beneath us and put them in a separate category of sinners, we act just as the Pharisees did. Homosexuality, rape, murder, pedophilia…these are some of the sins that we tend to consider so bad that those who fall into them must be kept away from the Church, just as the Pharisees thought the sinners that were coming to Christ should be kept from the Church. This attitude comes from nothing less than the most terrible sin of pride. It’s when we think of ourselves more highly than we should…when we think that our sins are covered but others are beyond the power of Christ’s redeeming blood.
So we see that it is as the conflict between Christ receiving sinners and the religious leaders grumbling about it that we find Jesus revealing heavenly truth to them through parables. He speaks of the lost sheep, then lost coin, and then tells the longer parable of the prodigal son. Looking at the passage in this context we can see that it’s less about the son who went astray and more about God who accepted him back. The first two parables tell of God seeking out the lost, going after them. The parable of the prodigal son tells of God accepting the repentant into His family. So we see two directions or perspectives given. God comes to the sinner in searching and finding him – this is from God’s perspective; and the sinner repenting and coming to the heavenly Father – this is the sinner’s perspective.
The selfishness of the prodigal son is seen in his words “give me.” Though this was a natural son of the father, he didn’t love his father. Now, when I use the word “love” I use it in the sense that God uses it, not in the way that the world does. The world tends to call love that warm fuzzy emotional feeling that we can have for something or someone. God’s Word uses love in the sense of giving oneself to another. That’s why God doesn’t just tell us to love those who evoke a fond emotion from us, but to even go so far as to loving our enemies. Clearly if we are to love our enemies, love is not some emotion that happens to us, but rather a willful act of putting another above ourselves.
The prodigal son saying “give me” shows that his concern was for himself above his father. We have very similar signs of selfishness in today’s Church.
In marriages that are falling apart we hear things like “I want this from my spouse” or “I want this out of my marriage,” but we rarely hear “I need to do this for my spouse” or “I need to do this for my marriage” or “in what ways can I do more to put my spouse’s interests above my own.”
In church membership we hear things like “how can this church bless me” and “what programs are in this church for me”. When what we should be hearing is “how can I bless this church” and “how can God use me here.” The Scriptures are where we get God’s idea of what a Church is supposed to be, and He doesn’t mention programs at all. A Church is really about the communion of the saints, the preaching of the Word of God, and the administration of the sacraments.
As parents, many of us have witnessed selfishness in our children. They are very bold to make selfish statements like “I want”, “give me”, and will even throw temper tantrums when they don’t get their way. Let’s not fool ourselves, adults aren’t much different – we just hide it better. It’s really only as we grow in God’s grace that we’re able to be less interested in our own desires, and more interested in the desires of God and others.
As we look at the selfishness of the prodigal son and the results of that mindset, let’s not forget to take a close look at our own hearts and see where in our lives we are still like the prodigal son.
So we know that this selfish mindset led the prodigal son to want things other than the Father’s love. Instead of saying to the father, “give me your love” he said, “give me my inheritance.” And because this son took the inheritance and left the father to go spend it on himself and his lusts, he also said “give me my independence.” How many times do we fall into this same pattern with our heavenly Father? How many times do we ask our Father for things so that we can spend them on our lusts? How often do we approach our glorious heavenly Father with worldly requests? Instead of being transformed by God’s presence so that we seek His holiness and piety in our lives we try to pull God down to our worldly level. In James 4 we have this warning…
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (Jam 4:3-4)
This prodigal son was not only selfish, but he was also rude and unkind. He didn’t say “please give me” or “may I please have”, he simply said “give me.” As a matter of fact, he told the father to give him the inheritance as if it was his right. He said, “Give me the share of property that is coming to me.” The idea behind what he’s saying here is basically, “give me what belongs to me.” As if the father had no right to the son’s inheritance before his death. Some commentators have even gone so far as to say that the son asking for the inheritance in this way is tantamount to saying that he wished his father was dead so that he could have his share in the inheritance.
This rudeness is a direct result of a selfish mindset. When we are consumed with ourselves we treat others as mere objects in our quest for self-satisfaction. We use them and think of ourselves and our own interests as being more important than theirs. This self-centeredness is evidence of a worldly mindset. The selfish are interested in what the world has to offer. They are consumed with coveting and lusting after what the world seems to offer them. The Scriptures have many things to say about this kind of self-centered, worldly mindset:
It chokes out the Word of God that’s planted in our heart:
but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. (Mar 4:19)
It gives the wrong idea of what our lives are all about:
And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luk 12:15)
It is the root of all kinds of other evils:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Ti 6:9-10)
These passages are a strong warning for us against such a mindset. We’re not to be worldly minded, but spiritually minded. We’re not to put ourselves above others, but others above ourselves.
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. (Rom 8:5)
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Phili 2:3)
So the Scripture doesn’t leave us wondering what mindset God desires for us to have, He tells us quite plainly in His Word. So the question we should ask ourselves is, “how are we conforming our lives to the Word of God in terms of our mindset?” Are we setting our minds on the things of the flesh or of the spirit? Are we putting ourselves above others or do we esteem others as more significant than ourselves?
Let me point out that the term “conceit” in Philippians 2:3 is more accurately “empty conceit” and the term “humility” is more accurately “humility of mind.” The only reason that I point this out is to show that whatever conceit we have is empty; there is nothing in us that is worth being exalted. We are just fooling ourselves when we are conceited and think of ourselves above others. And that’s why we are called to have humility of mind. If we don’t understand our true state of lowliness any humility that we acted out would be just that, an act. But when we truly understand how lowly we are, our humility is naturally manifested. This is only done through a work of God as it is only in the light of His countenance that we can be truly mindful of the nature of our own lowliness.
Fruit of Selfishness
This empty conceit and selfishness that are seeds in the prodigal son’s character leads to a particular fruit, even as all seed leads to its own kind of fruit. This particular kind of seed produces the fruit of suffering. We see in our passage that the prodigal son suffered in five ways.
Each of the five ways that he suffered in is a different way in which he experienced being destitute. He spent all that he had; he wasted his entire inheritance and had nothing to show for it. He lost his:
All of these things were used by him to fulfill the lusts of his flesh. All of these things that should have been a blessing to him turned into a curse because he fed his flesh and not his spirit with them. This son misused the gifts that his father had given to him and it lead to utter poverty. This son rebelled against his generous father and the gifts that the father had given him. These gifts that should have been used to bring honor to the father were used to further sin by feeding the son’s manifold lusts.
How many times have we used the gifts that our Heavenly Father has given to us for our own lusts? How many times have we used money, property, talent, and opportunities to further our own little kingdoms instead of using them to further the great and awesome kingdom of our God? I fear that it’s too many times to even count. Do we spend our gifts on the God who gave them to us or do we spend them on ourselves? Do we walk in the Spirit in all that we do or do we walk in the flesh, which lusts against the Spirit?
One of the greatest gifts that God gives us is time. I realize this more and more as I see people who die in their prime of life. Time is a gift that we must use while we have it because every moment that we neglect is a moment that we have lost, we can’t get it back. God tells us in His Word to:
Look carefully how we walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. (Eph 5:15-16)
Are we making the best use of our time? Are we living the life that Christ died for us to live; a life that is patterned after Christ, not the world? Or are we living a life that looks no different from those whom Christ has not redeemed? How much time do we devote to work, watching t.v., going to sporting events, going to movies, and on and on? Compared to that, how much time do we spend in prayer, reading the Scripture, evangelizing, communing with the saints? I would encourage all of us to take a serious look at how we spend our time, that we may learn how to better use it for the glory of God.
This prodigal son clothed himself with the world. He tried to find satisfaction in the world and to be comforted by the world. Make no mistake – we can’t be clothed both by the world and by Christ. Being clothed by the world leaves us just as it did this prodigal son, alone and destitute. Being clothed with Christ leaves us always in the blessings of God because in Christ we are:
Blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3)
If we truly put on Christ we would look less like the world and more like Christ Himself. Our Lord tells us to
walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Rom 13:13-14)
Can any of us accomplish what God demands of us here? Can we work to make no provision for the flesh? We are helpless and completely unable to do this, but that is why we are first told to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” For though it is impossible with man, all things are possible with God (Mk 10:27). There is one thing that we are called to do in order to make no provision for the flesh…put on Christ. Some may say, “But wait…what about the armor of God? Surely that’s many things that we must put on.” Well, let’s look at that. In the armor of God we have the:
- Belt of truth – Jesus is the truth
- Breastplate of righteousness – Jesus is our righteousness
- Shoes of the Gospel of peace – the Gospel of peace is the work of Christ
- Shield of faith – our faith is in Jesus
- Helmet of salvation – salvation comes from Christ
- Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God – Christ is the Word, and He will slay His enemies with the sword of His mouth
So you see, the armor of God is nothing less than Christ Himself!
Realization that this way is not working
Instead of clothing himself with Christ, the prodigal son clothed himself with the world. He left his father and his father’s protective covering by going to a far country. This far country was very different from the place that his father had prepared for him. It was full of sin, shame, and death. In this foreign land he lived a worldly life, a life where the lusts of his flesh could be gratified. The “riotous living” that he took part in probably included things like:
- Reckless spending of his inheritance
- Telling and laughing at off-colored jokes
The Scripture gives us an idea of what he might have been doing when they tell us what the works of the flesh are. In Galatians we read:
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:19-21)
So what made the prodigal son realize that this way of life, the way of life that he had probably dreamed of while still with his father, wasn’t working?
The day came when he met with suffering and loss. Sometimes suffering and loss can bring us much closer to the truth than complacency or satisfying our lusts can bring us.
He suffered destitution spending “everything.” His…
Everything that he had was misused to satisfy the lusts of the flesh. That’s what the world, the country that is foreign to our God’s heavenly kingdom, teaches us to do. But God tells us:
…to present our body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God….Not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind… (Rom 12:1-2)
When we seek to satisfy ourselves outside of God’s design we end up destitute and frustrated. Those very things that held out the promise to satisfy our flesh proved to be completely unsatisfying.
Do we pattern ourselves after the prodigal son in this way? What do we spend everything that we are and have on? We may not spend “everything” on satisfying our lusts, but do we spend “anything” on it? We are called by God to be 100% sold out for His purposes and not to spend anything that we have or are on the lusts of our flesh, which work against God. The Scriptures tell us that the desires of the Spirit and those of the flesh are actually opposed to each other. In Galatians we read:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Gal 5:16-17)
So when we see that in our lives we have areas where we are walking in a way to gratify our fleshly desires, what do we do? Well, as the prodigal son did when he realized that the world’s way just didn’t work, so must we do. He realized his sin and went back to his father in repentance.
Repentance/Return to the Father
The order that this return to his father takes place is important. First, his mind is convicted that the life he is living is not the life that he should be living. Second, he decides to makes things right. Third, he turns from his sinful lifestyle. And fourth, he makes his way back to the father in humility and repentance.
We notice that it is as he returns to his father, even before he confesses, his father accepts him back. This is the love of a father towards his child…always ready to accept the prodigal back into the family.
Why did the father accept the prodigal son before he confessed? Well, I believe it is because there was repentance. There was a turning from sin and a turning toward the father; and the father new that the son had turned from his sinful life and came back to life with his father. In the same way our Heavenly Father seeks true repentance more than the words of a confession. He wants us to turn from sin and to Him in every area of our life. Notice that the prodigal did not take anything back from the sinful country, from the ways that he repented of. He simply came back to the father, empty handed, relying completely on the father’s mercy. And it is in the same way that we must approach our Heavenly Father. We must not hold on to our favorite sins when we come to Him, nor must we hold onto anything that we might consider righteous in ourselves…any kind of self-merit to come into the presence of our Father must be relinquished. We must come with nothing, relying only on His grace and mercy to restore us.
Though true repentance is of utmost importance, confession is still an important part of the process. The Scriptures tell us that…
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1Jn 1:9)
Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. (Pro 28:13)
Though the prodigal did not confess directly to his father, he did confess prior to turning and walking back home. He confessed that he had done wickedly; that he rebelled, rejected, and sinned against his father. He went against all that his father stood for, and all that the father wanted for his son.
In my experience I have found that so many times in the Christian life we confess on a much more surface level than this prodigal has done. We say we’re sorry for our sins, rarely specify what those sins are, and then go about our business like nothing important just took place. Then we wonder why the same sins keep giving us trouble even though we have confessed them. Well, maybe it is because we are not treating them as seriously as we should. Perhaps we think that our sins are just small ones, not even worthy of confessing specifically. Sure, if we killed someone we would be brought to tears in confessing to God, but we are not that bad. Brothers and sisters, our sins are not so terrible because of the action itself, but because of whom the action is committed against. Every sin is against God, and as such they are very serious. Here is an example that I like to use to drive home this point:
If someone walked up to a man and punched him in the face that would be bad. If someone walked up to a baby boy and punched him in the face that would be much worse. It is the same act, but it is directed towards a different person. So too, when we realize that our sinful acts are against One who is morally pure, perfect in all that He is and does, we realize that our sin against Him is so terrible because of who He is.
I have also seen the other extreme. I have seen folks be so consumed with the guilt of their sin that they never feel forgiven. They think that their sin is so bad that not even God Himself is able to forgive or make it right. We must remember that the Scriptures tell us:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1Jn 1:9)
So in the one extreme we fail to see the seriousness that God puts on sin. In the other extreme we fail to see the seriousness that God puts on forgiveness.
In our passage the father forgave the prodigal son. He not only accepted him back into the family and into his household, but he restored what the son had left behind when he pursued his own selfishness. He was given the best robe, a ring, and shoes.
When we turn to our heavenly Father in repentance He forgives us in the same way. We are truly clothed with the best robe as the Father clothes us with Christ Himself. The Scriptures tell us to put on Christ just like this prodigal put on the best robe (Gal 3:27). This robe that we adorn is the very righteousness of Christ. You see, Christ did more than die for our sins; He also lived a righteous life for us. When we put on Christ our sins are forgiven because of His sacrifice and His righteousness is given to us. This robe is a garment of salvation; it is our wedding garment, pure and spotless in the presence of our bridegroom. This robe is not merely to cover our outward shame as we use clothing to cover our bodies. Rather, it covers our naked souls from the wrath of God.
This robe is called the “best robe” in our passage. It can also be translated as the “first robe” pointing to the fact that the robe of Christ was secured in the Covenant of Grace even before Adam walked in the robe of innocence. This is why the Scriptures tell us that we are blessed with spiritual blessings even before the world was founded (Eph 1:3-4). So this robe is not only the best, but the first, and it is God’s whole purpose in creation so that He will bring Himself much glory through it.
Besides a robe, the prodigal also has a ring put on his finger. This is a family ring signifying that the son is a true child of the father. With it he is able to carry on business for the family and act in the authority of his father. This ring signifies a believer’s adoption into God’s family. Once we are clothed with Christ we become fellow heirs with Christ, and members of God’s family.
After the ring he is given shoes for his feet. When this story was told by Christ slaves didn’t wear shoes. As such, the shoes for his feet signify that we are not mere slaves of our heavenly Father, but also His children. It is also a sign that God gives His children the means to walk in holiness. We are brought into the Father’s family for a purpose, and that is to walk in holiness with the shoes that He has prepared for us in the Gospel of Peace (Eph 6:15).
So we are clothed with Christ, being made right in the sight of our Father, we are given authority as His children, and we are given a purpose – to live holy and acceptable lives before God. Not only does God give us purpose, He also provides the means for us to attain that purpose.
The complete restoration of the prodigal son leads to a great celebration. Just as our Lord tells us of the joy the angels have over one sinner who repents (Lk 15:10), so too this household comes alive with celebration at the reconciled son. His brother is the only exception. We don’t have time to get into that aspect of the parable in detail. I will simply say that the son who stayed with his father could represent Israel. This son is brought to jealousy with how the prodigal son is treated, who represents the Gentiles. Paul tells us in Romans that God told Israel He would make them jealous and angry with a foolish nation, and that this would lead some to salvation (Rom 10:19).
So what principles can we take away from this to guide us in our daily lives?
The Pharisees were so wrapped up in the letter of the Law that they missed the spirit of it. They used God’s Law to condemn people; they used it to make themselves feel holy while they could look at others with contempt. We should be careful to follow the example of Jesus instead of the Pharisees.
There is a saying that goes, “Law to the proud, grace to the humble.” The Pharisees were only about the Law. Even when sinners would be crying at their feet they wanted to stone them. Yet Christ over and over again shows us that we are to be gracious to the humble. Not to kick them when they’re down, but rather to point them to Christ and the hope that is in Him.
Repentant sinners are not to be looked down on, as if we were somehow better than they. As if our sins aren’t as bad as theirs. We are to welcome them and treat them as brothers and sisters in Christ. If our holy God can accept us, who are we to deny others?
If you lost your wallet or purse you would probably search feverishly for it. Do we search out the lost with the same immediacy? Do we care more for what’s in our wallets than for the souls of others? So let’s work on loving people more, valuing them more than we value material things.
And how do we love God? Do we love Him in the same way the unrepentant prodigal son loved his father…loved him for what he could get from him just so that he could spend it on what the world has to offer? I’m not talking about lip service here. Anyone can say that they love God more than the world, but does our walk match up with our talk? Do we yearn for time to spend with our loving Father, or would we rather spend time on what the world has to offer? How much time do we spend in prayer and Scripture versus sports, TV, and all the other worldly things that attract us? Are we going to spend the Lord’s Day with Him in worship, or are we going to be consumed with worldly pursuits? And if we can’t spend even 1 day out of a week with our Lord, how will we be able to stand Heaven?
Let’s ask God to renew our love for Him; that we would love Him with a devotion that is second to nothing else in our lives. Let’s make a commitment to fall out of love with the world as we fall into love with our Heavenly Father.
For those who have not come to Christ because you think that you are not wanted by God, you can see that God will welcome you back if you turn from your lifestyle of sin and turn to God and His lifestyle of holiness in Christ. Come to God and be clothed with Christ, put on your family ring, and walk in holiness through the Gospel of Peace.
Let’s check ourselves to see in what ways we might be acting selfishly and ask God that we would seek after Him and not after ourselves. We must realize that our selfish yearnings are nothing more than longing to work with pigs and their slop. Even those things that appear desirable in this world are but a shadow of the blessings that we have with our heavenly Father.
When we stumble and sin, we can be assured that coming to God in true repentance will restore us. Not because of anything we have done to earn His forgiveness, not because of anything that we bring to the Father, but because He loves His children and wants us to come back into communion with Him.
May God grant us a heart that seeks to be Christ-like. May He give us the realization that we have nothing to be proud of, and humbly submit ourselves to His will, loving others and forgiving them when they wrong us just as God has forgiven us.
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