The story of the prodigal is not a story about sins it is a story about lostness. Lostness not badness -- awayness.
The true emphasis is not on the sons, but on the father. It is an unveiling of the heart of God. The central truth of the parable is the picture of the heavenly Father's heart of love toward undeserving sinners.
The younger son exploded in rebellion. He knew what he wanted. His desires led him to gamble all in getting what God condemned. He loved sin. It promised satisfaction to appetite and ambitions. Lured him by its promises. Its fascinations hypnotized him. He had his fling.
He rebels against the father. He shows that he is dissatisfied with his father's provision, his father's restrictions, and his father's guidance.
It was different with the elder son. He liked it at home. Not that he loved his father. Like the rest of us, he wanted to have his own way. He thought he was smart enough to manage his father and to get out of him what he wanted. He loved himself too much to be interested in pleasing anybody but himself. Pride born of self-conceit was his guiding star.
These are good pictures of sinful man - victimized by sin, deluded and deceived by sin, rebelling against the loving restraint of Father. This is also a great picture of a loving God who patiently and lovingly waits for the return of the prodigal.
My contention is that this story represents two wayward sons. They were not slaves, not servants, but sons. It is our story!
I. The far country was not measured by distance
Anywhere a man is away from God
A world without God or forgetful of God
Wherever you are not in fellowship with God your life is a far country. You do not belong there.
They both sought to please themselves -- that is essence of far country.
Listen to the descriptive phrases of these two prodigals:
Younger: "He said, Father give me…" vs. 12
He gathered all he had and traveled to distant country: vs. 13
He squandered his estate in foolish living: vs. 13
He spent everything: vs. 14
A severe famine struck: vs. 14
He had nothing: vs. 14
He went to work ... to feed pigs: vs. 15
He longed to eat his fill from the carob pods the pigs were eating: vs. 16
No one would give him any: vs. 16
He became angry: vs. 28
He did not want to go in: vs. 18
His father pleaded with him: vs. 29
He replied to his father, I have been slaving ... I never disobeyed your orders ... yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends: vs. 29
This son of yours (not my brother ... your son!): vs.30
Has devoured your assets with prostitutes: vs. 31
We have all been prodigal of the Father's gifts. We have all received of Him; yet we have lived as though Christ had never died, we have lived with self at the center, away from the compassionate loving heart and home of the Father.
II. The far country has many roads
Notice the two roads revealed these two sons took.
The Departure of the younger: vs. 12-13
Here is a type whose lostness is obvious. It is obvious to the son and to others.
He is not at home; he is in the far country.
He is not a worker; he is a waster.
He is not lifting up; he is dragging down.
He is not creating; he is destroying.
Why did this young fellow go into the far country? One reason. He went away because he was seeking to please himself. He was so intent on pleasing himself that he had no thought for any loss or pain that might come to himself or to anyone else.
Self-pleasing, then, is the very essence of sin. Now, self-pleasing is expensive. Nothing can be more so. He who is bent on pleasing himself is doomed to pay a terrible price. If self-pleasing is my god, it will hurt me. It will also hurt others. No man ever sinned without wounding somebody else.
It cost him the fellowship of his father, and all the joys of home.
It cost him his freedom. What tragic irony! For it was his freedom that he went out to seek. "Give me!" he said to his father in the hour of his self-will. When his heart was broken, he said, "Make me!"
It cost him the doing of a mean and sordid task. To the Jew, what a humiliation!
It cost him is very all. The story says that he spent all that he had.
The Demise of the younger: vs. 14-16
First, when he reached the far country, what did he do? "He wasted his substance with riotous living." The word riotous means without saving. He took the gifts his father bestowed on him, and spent them in the far country, without making provision for leaner days and the ultimate needs of life.
What did he waste? "His substance." He had come into possession of gifts from his father. So man is seen here going out from God to waste his substance, "God's substance.
He joined himself to a citizen, and what will the citizen do? Send him into his fields to feed swine. He prolonged his degradation; indeed, he deepened his degradation.
"No man gave unto him." Their only interest in him was that as a machine for feeding their pigs. Each for himself! If he fails, let him die. That is all the far country has for any man. The far country will give nothing, will have no pity, no sympathy, no help.
Certain things stand out about the elder brother.
His whole attitude shows that his years of obedience to his father had been years of grim duty and not of loving service.
His whole attitude is one of utter lack of sympathy. He refers to his brother, not as my brother but as your son.
He had a peculiarly nasty mind. There is no mention of harlots until he mentions them.
He, no doubt, suspected and accused his brother of the sins he himself would have liked to commit.
Notice his Industry: vs. 25
There are those who are lost as was this elder son.
His type is seldom counted as lost, either by himself or others. This makes his condition all the more hopeless.
He is not away in the distant land among swine as is the case with his prodigal brother, although he is just as lost.
He is in an environment that is wholesome and clean. "Now the elder son was in the field."
He was not a waster, as was his profligate brother. He was a worker. The fact that he was in the field indicates that he was there as a toiler.
The elder brother did indeed have some virtues which deserve respect. Socially he had not brought reproach upon his father. He had resisted all temptation to physical dissipation.
He was industrious and thrifty.
He despised slothfulness. He was the enemy of extravagance.
His conduct created no scandal.
He was the enemy of moral laxity.
He did not gamble.
He condemned lawlessness.
He required himself to abhor immorality.
He was entitled to all the credit that was due him.
Notice his Inquiry: vs. 26-27
This elder brother had missed the high qualities in his father's life. He simply could not understand his father's patience, forbearance, and grief over the younger brother's absence from the home. His heart had become so frozen by selfish conceit that he lacked understanding or compassion.
His brother was a notorious sinner; he himself was righteous. His brother deserved nothing except to be abused and upbraided; he deserved to be praised and honored. He was an utter stranger to what his brother had suffered because of his sin.
Notice his Indignation: vs. 28-30
He is absolutely out of sympathy with both his father and his brother. His father grieves over the fact that his younger son is in the far country. But this elder brother does not grieve. His being away is to him a matter of no importance whatever. Then when the prodigal returns his father rejoices greatly. But there is no joy on the part of this industrious son. He has no love for the father nor for his brother.
Notice his Instruction: vs. 31-32
It is interesting to note that of the seven deadly sins of tradition, four are of the mind and spirit and three pertain to the flesh. It was the sins of the flesh: lust, gluttony, and sloth that overwhelmed the prodigal.
It was the sins of the spirit: pride, covetousness, envy, and anger that took captive the elder brother. They are sins perhaps more deadly than the sins of the flesh.
Basically, these sins of the spirit are born of a conceit that makes all desires seem righteous and good. In the end they are repelled by the sins of others and proud of their own.
The sins of the spirit are insidiously scandalous. They easily deceive the public and those who are in their power into thinking either that they are harmless, or, as a matter of fact, they are most desirable. It is difficult to awaken such sinners to a realization of their sin.
Thus both sons had revolted against their father, the younger from parental control, the elder from parental love. Each wanted the same thing: to have his own way.
III. The far country is a land of poverty
Spent all...famine...want. It is always like that. It is costly to be in far country!
1. Cost both fellowship with the Father.
2. Cost both freedom -- ironic, that's what he left to find. Ended up a slave. The one who stayed home was a slave to his own desires.
3. Cost them everything – the younger spent all. The older never enjoyed what he had.
Jer. 5:25, "Your sins have withheld My bounty from you."
Prov. 22:8, "The one who sows injustice will reap disaster." Sow iniquity, reap vanity.
Cotton candy existence. Have you ever eaten cotton candy? I have, I think. Actually last time I put cotton candy in my mouth it seemed to disappear. It looked real pretty, it promised a great deal, but it didn't deliver. The far country is a land of deception.
IV. The far country is a land of deception
He came to himself. Before that, he was out of his mind. Sin had distorted his vision, clouded his mind. Sin is insanity. This same irrationality characterized the older brother.
As long as man is away from God, he is not really himself! Only himself when he is on his way home!
V. Returning home from the far country
The older brother never came back. The younger did.
1. He recognized his desperate condition.
"My father" -- sweet memory!
"I perish with hunger" -- confession that has sobbed its way through the centuries. Meet it everywhere. Find it in church and out of church. High and low, rich and poor, famous and obscure, young and old, cultured and common, educated and illiterate. Peers from eyes tired of trying to satisfy self with husks of far country. Pathetic cry, "I perish with hunger."
2. Recognized father's sufficiency
"How many of my father's hired hands have more than enough food."
3. Determination to return: vs. 18-20a
"I'll get up and go to my father…so he got up and went to his father." He arose and came to his father.
Could have recognized his condition and never returned. But he arose and came! Having come to himself, he came to a decision. And what a decision it was! Listen to it,
"I will arise and reform." No, that is not what he said. Reformation is good, but it is not enough.
"I will arise and join the Church." No, joining the Church is altogether right and worth while, but joining the Church is not enough.
"I will arise and go to work." That, too, is good. Working is altogether right and proper, but the resolution of this pleasure-seeker is more fundamental still.
"I will arise and go to my father. I will never stop," he declares, until I come face to face with God."
And, having resolved to go to his father, he further decides to tell him the plain truth about himself. Having made his decision, he put it into effect. He arose and came to his father.
4. Reception of Father: vs. 20
Looking for him: "Saw him"
Had compassion: LOVED HIM
Ran to him: eager to restore him.
Fell on neck & kissed him: sign of restoration.
5. Confession of the son: vs. 21
Forgiven but still had to confess! That is the spirit of repentance. God forgives, but man does not forget. After the kiss of reconciliation, the confession takes place. The more he knows of father's love, the more he grieves ever to have sinned against that love.
Sinner -- come home. God loves you!
Ps. 103:11-12, "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His faithful love toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us."
The ordinary slave was in some sense a member of the family, but the hired servant could be dismissed at a day's notice. He was not one of the family at all. So he came home; and, according to the best Greek text, his father never gave him the chance to ask to be a servant. He broke in before that.
That robe stands for honor; the ring stands for authority, for if a man gave to another his signet ring it was the same as giving him the power of attorney; the shoes stand for a son as opposed to a slave, for children of the family were shod and slaves were not.
Robe, ring, and royal sandals await the lost one. These three things answer exactly the prayer which he meant to have prayed.
The robe is the answer to "I have sinned."
The ring is the answer to "I am no more worthy to be called thy son."
The sandals constitute the answer to "make me one of thy hired servants."
These symbols are Eastern. Put the robe on him, the robe that befits the father's house. The ring was the sign of relationship, of sonship. "Put a ring on this finger." He is my son. Give him the sign of sonship. Put shoes on his feet. The slave was never permitted to wear shoes. The badge of slavery was the absence of sandals.
One of the hardest things in the world is to stop being the prodigal son without turning into the elder brother. - John Ortberg