By Arch Hoercher
We will first look at some analogies that exist as far as the characters in this story are concerned. Most agree that the father is a representation of God the Father. The younger son would be the Jewish people who’s lives are engulfed in sin and the older son would be the Pharisees and the teachers of the law and any other person who believes that they are righteous by their works. There are some commentaries that say the younger son would be the gentiles. That would definitely apply, but the context of this text would indicate that the entire audience Jesus is speaking to is Jewish.
So let us dig in! The younger son comes to the father and wants his portion of the inheritance. This is wrong on so many levels. First, the inheritance would not be available until the death of the father. This would be a highly unusual request by the son. The fact that the request was granted by the father is even more unusual. The younger son’s portion of the inheritance would be about a third of the estate. Second, the request is highly disrespectful to the father. It is almost like the son saying to the father; “I wish you were dead, give me my stuff”. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law would have reacted negatively to this request. They would have thought that there was something very wrong with the younger son and would have also thought that there was something wrong with the father for granting the request. It would have been difficult for them to understand why this occurred at all. Third, the younger son is wanting to be independent of the father. He wants to go out on his own without the oversight of the father. If he were truly wanting to be independent, he would have left with just the clothes on his back. Instead he wanted the wealth of his fathers. Wealth he did not earn. He wanted independence but on someone else’s dollar.
The father divided up his property and gave the younger son his portion. Not long after that the son took what he had and left for a distant country. We need to understand that most of the wealth of the father would not have been liquid assets. It would have been livestock and land. The son would have to sell the livestock and lease the land to acquire the liquid assets that he needed to leave for this distant country. The son left for this “distant country”. This “distant country” in the minds of the listeners in the context of the story would have been a gentile nation. The younger son is building up his sin points as far as the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were concerned.
In this distant country, the younger son squandered his wealth in wild living. Squandered basically means wasted in a reckless and foolish manner. He pretty much just threw it away, but he is throwing it away without anyone telling him that he shouldn’t. He is independent! The text says that he squandered his wealth in “wild living”. Another sign of his desire for independence. The specific sins which he had committed are not identified, but the context of the text means that his behavior was without any type of restraint (both moral and legal). He was going to be independent and do whatever he wanted to do without anyone telling him that he shouldn’t. With any kind of behavior, there is a consequence. His consequence finally arrived – he spent everything that he had. The younger son was now broke. He was in a distant land, a foreigner and broke. The text does not say how long this took to spend all that he had, but that is insignificant to the story. All it says is that he did. He spent all that he had. Now to make matters worse, “there was a severe famine in that whole country”. The Pharisees and teachers of the law would have thought that the famine was a direct result of the younger son’s behavior and sin, but again the text does not say that. It just says that there was a severe famine. Because of this famine there would be an economic impact (especially with a severe famine). The famine would affect all who lived in that country. The cost of food and supplies would sky rocket. Whatever was available would be much more expensive and there would be much less of it. The charity of the people would also decline, because more people would be affected. The younger son began to be in need. He was broke, had no job, and couldn’t buy any food or shelter. He then hired himself out to a citizen (probably a Roman citizen) of that country. The citizen sent him out into the fields to feed the pigs. Now, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law are keeping track of this younger son’s sins. They are piling up on him – his behavior while he still had money to spend and now he was caring for the “unclean” pigs. The younger son was so hungry that he was wishing to eat the pods that the pigs were eating. He was “coveting” the very food of these “unclean” pigs. His sin points are piling up to the point of no return as far as the Pharisees and teachers of the law would have been concerned. The “pods” he was desiring were the seed pods of the carob plant, which would not have been digestible for a human. The seeds were sometimes ground into a powder and used as a seasoning similar to cocoa. But as they were they were uneatable. And the poor boy was all alone – “no one would give him anything”.
He came to his senses. He was reminded of the fact that many of his father’s hired servants have food to spare – and here he is “starving to death”. The younger son decided that he would go back to the father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven (God)and against you (personally). I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of the hired servants. This is how a sinner is saved. He first realized that he was a sinner and that he not only sinned against God but personally against his father. He displays humility, that he is no longer worthy to be called a “son”. He accepts the consequences of his sin and will accept a position within the father’s home as just a servant (who would have no rights or privileges). “He came to his senses”, that is exactly what the salvation experience is. A sinner separated from God comes to his senses. He realizes that he is going to “starve to death” outside of God and desires a new and renewed relationship with God. Asking for forgiveness of one’s sins and offenses and relying on God to be merciful and restoring you into the household.
Now he is going to do something about his current state – “So he got up and went to his father”. That is also part of the salvation experience. One might have “came to their senses” but he also “got up and went”. You must enter God’s presence to ask for forgiveness and admit that you are a sinner.
"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. The younger son was a “long way off”. The Greek word used here that is translated “a long way off” means exactly that, “a long way off”. How would the father have seen him when he was such a “long way off”? He was seen, because the father was looking for him. The father is like that, he is always looking for those who have left and were lost to return. And he ran to the son (God ran to the son)! He will also “run” to you, when you have made the decision and acted on the fact that you are returning. When he got to the son he threw his arms around him and kissed him. The father had already forgiven the son without even hearing the words the son was going to speak. God knows your heart and he knows if you are being truthful or not. There is a song which has been performed by the group Phillips, Craig and Dean. The title of the song is “When God Ran”. The lyrics go something like this: “God ran to me, put his arms around me held my head to his chest and said, ‘My son has come home again’ – lifted my face, wiped the tears from my eyes and said, ‘Son do you know that I still love you’. If you notice in the lyrics to the song that “I still love you”, “still” means that he never stopped. God never stops loving you, no matter what.
"The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” Grace enters the scene. The son confesses his sin, but before he says anything about becoming “like one of the servants”, the father interrupts him and grace is given. Free gifts, that could not be earned, but were given because of the love of the father toward the lost son. The first gift is the “best robe”. This would be a garment that the father would wear on the most special of occasions such as a visiting head of state or a son’s wedding. That robe would be immediately recognizable as the robe of the father. The robe could also be interpreted as being Jesus Christ. When placed on the son the robe would cover his filth (sin) and he would be seen as someone of great importance – which he is not on his own merit but becomes because of the grace of the father. The second gift is “a ring on his finger”. The ring indicates that the wearer has the authority of the father. The son could command the servants and that command, because of the ring, carries the authority of the father. It would carry with it the same authority in any business dealings. The third gift was sandals for his feet. Sandals were an indication that the person was in the family. Servants did not wear sandals. So this son, who was dead (in his sins) and who is now alive (for his sins have been forgiven) and who was lost (separated from God) and now is found (restored as a child of God) is in a much better place than he was before his departure to that distant country. His sins have been covered by the best robe (Jesus Christ). He has the authority to speak for the father (so he better be careful of what he says) and he is a member of the family of God. He has become a child of God – because of the love of the father and the gifts of grace given him.
Now let’s party! The fattened calf was killed and grilled. The fattened calf, which is an expensive privilege, would have been reserved for very special occasions – such as a visiting dignitary or a son’s wedding. A fattened calf grows up – so one would always have to have one available. But the point is that the party is a great celebration. There is a celebration in heaven for every person who was lost and now found and was dead and now alive. God spares no expense. When you made the decision to join the family of God, there was a great celebration in heaven in your honor.