he story of the prodigal son, as told by Jesus and recorded in Luke 15:11-32, has been called the greatest short story ever written1—and with good reason. It’s meant to impress us with the loving grace of God. The father, who represents God in the story, shows outstanding forgiveness toward a son who has squandered a huge amount of his money. The young man had disrespected his father and had engaged in everything that the father wanted him to avoid. Yet, the father forgave him—truly forgave him.
According to Scripture, this younger son should have been taken outside the city and stoned to death (see Deut. 21:18-21). What love the father showed in not taking this course of action!
The story runs along normal lines in its early part—it wasn’t unusual for a father to divide his estate before he died if he wished to retire from actually managing his business. Yet, there is a certain heartless callousness in what the younger son asked. He said, in effect, “Give me now the part of the estate I will get anyway when you are dead, and let me get out of here.”
The father did not argue. He knew that if the son were ever to learn, he must learn the hard way.
I should like to note three of the major truths in the story:
Truth No. 1
—Even though this story is often called the parable of the prodigal son, it is clear that the son is not the hero. It should be called the parable of the loving father, for it tells us more about a father’s love than a son’s sin.
Truth No. 2
—Jesus paid us sinners the greatest compliment we can be paid when speaking of the young man in this story. He said, “When he came to himself . . .” (KJV). Jesus seems to be saying here that when a person is away from God, they are not truly
themselves. People are truly
only when they are on the way home
Truth No. 3
—This story tells us much about the forgiveness of God. The father must have been waiting and watching for the son to come home, because he saw him a long way off. When he came, the father forgave him with no accusations. There is a way of forgiving in which forgiveness is granted as a favor and the person’s sin is held over them—by hint or by word or by threat. But that is not what this father did.
Abraham Lincoln was asked how he was going to treat the rebellious Southerners when they finally had been defeated and had returned to the union of the United States. Instead of expressing words of vengeance, he answered, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.”2 It is the amazing love of God that treats us like that.
The Self-righteous Older Brother
The older brother in the story represents self-righteousness. Note his utter lack of sympathy and his maliciousness. His lack of sympathy is apparent when talking to his father and he refers to his brother as “this son of yours” (Luke 15:30) and not my brother
. His maliciousness is seen when he is the person in the story who mentions prostitutes. The early verses in the parable speak of the younger son’s wasteful living, but make no mention of prostitutes. The older brother was the one who suspected his young brother of this sin (see verse 30).
The love of God is far broader than our love. God forgives when people refuse to forgive.
King Manasseh, in the Old Testament, committed even more wickedness than the young man of Luke 15, yet he was forgiven—by God Himself.
Manasseh became king of Judah in 687 B.C. and conducted a distinctly evil reign. He rebuilt places of worship to pagan gods. He set up altars to Baal—a god of the Semites. The worship of Baal was likely accompanied by gross lasciviousness—that is, worship of an overtly sexual nature.3 The young man of Luke 15 apparently associated with prostitutes, but Manasseh went further. He had erotic sacred poles made for the worship of a heathen goddess. He worshipped planets, dealt in spiritualism, had innocent people killed. Yet, God forgave him.
Manasseh’s reign is mentioned in both 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33. For the purposes of seeing God’s grace in forgiving Manasseh for the wrongs he had done, 2 Chronicles provides the more informative reading.
Manasseh eventually was taken into captivity by a foreign king. He was led away in chains and with a hook in his nose.4 But it was in this disgrace that he accepted the reality of his sin, apologized to God, and “humbled himself greatly” (see 2 Chron. 33:12, 13).
The son in Jesus’ parable also humbled himself before his father. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”5 And his father forgave him.
So what about us? Just as the son apologized to his father and Manasseh repented before God, we too can apologize to God for our sins.
Those of us who work in pastoral ministry, and those who are not in paid ministry but who care deeply about the responsibility we have to share the gospel message, know how difficult it is to convince people today that there is such a thing as sin. In theaters, on television, and in newspapers we’re told not to feel bad about anything. “Live like you want to live,” they say. “Set your own standards.”
So how can I move a largely
Seventh-day Adventist group to admit its sin before God? We should, after all, become more holy every day if we are truly opening ourselves to God.
If I actually thought it was my responsibility to convince people of their sins, I could go mad. It’s the Holy Spirit who convicts people of sin—not me. John 16:8 reads: “When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.”
However, I take the instruction given and invite us, as individuals, to bring to God our apology for our sins. I give this invitation to everyone.
Ellen White writes in the book Steps to Christ
: “When Satan comes to tell you that you are a great sinner, look up to your Redeemer and talk of His merits. That which will help you is to look to His light. Acknowledge your sin, but tell the enemy that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ and that you may be saved by His matchless love” (p. 36).
This is what we mean by “the grace of God.”
1 William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Luke, p. 204.
2 Ibid., p. 205.
3 The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 104.
4 2 Chronicles 33:11.
5 Luke 15:21.
John Ferguson, pastor, Grantham
and Skegness Adventist churches, North England Conference, United Kingdom.