he parable of the prodigal son has been called the greatest short story in the world.1
The kindness of the forgiving father astounds us. But have we neglected the courage of the prodigal? Granted, he was a little slow to catch on to life’s actual realities. He had to sink low before reality struck. He had to reach the end of his resources before he noticed that they had been steadily diminishing. He had to be homeless, friendless, and forsaken before taking action. But then he did a number of remarkable things.
What the Prodigal Did
First of all, aided by the pangs of a gnawing stomach, he sat down to think. He took inventory of his life, where he had come from (an honored position in a well-to-do home), his past course of action (squandering his living by all out-go with no in-come), and his present situation (in a pigpen). He “came to himself”! Where had he been before? Honesty with self is a great and painful virtue, and altogether too rare. Few people have or care to develop it. Most will smother any thoughts of regret in a host of escape mechanisms, pop psychologies, or rationalizations that keep us from making a candid appraisal of our lives. But the prodigal faced up to himself. He even prepared his confession: “Father, I have sinned.” Brave words! For it takes courage to admit, “Guilty as charged.”
“I have sinned against heaven and against you
” (see Luke 15:21). Amazing words! A sinful life, he sensed, is directed against both God and others. Even then, he little understood the pain he had caused his father and all those who loved him. He had not stopped to consider the emptiness he had left behind, the worry and fears, the sleepless nights, the anguish and tears, he had caused his parents. But now he accepted the verdict of an accusing conscience. It is hard to accept friendly counsel, advice, or reproof. Too often we throw up a wall of resistance instead of admitting, “That sounds like me. You are right.” But if we keep hearing the same complaints about ourselves it may be time to own up.
The prodigal’s next virtue was to leave the pigpen and start the journey home. Not very many people do this. I once heard a drunk alcoholic berate himself for all his faults. But repentance did not come with sobriety. Smokers are forever wishing to quit—but not now! Immoral relationships need to end—yes, but not now. We can’t leave the “far country” and its pigpen yet.
Not understanding the depth of his father’s love, the prodigal had no idea what kind of reception he would receive. He was sure he would have to work his way up from the lowest rung, that of day laborer,2
but he was willing to start at the bottom. He admitted that he deserved no favors.
He also must have sensed that he would have to face his older brother. Having stayed home and faithfully worked the farm, expecting to inherit it all when his father died, big brother would not be happy to see him return. Churchgoing older brothers may resist returning prodigals. They may question whether the repentance is genuine. They may hang on to their hurts and refuse to forgive. But throwing all caution to the winds, expecting nothing but judgment, conscious only of his guilt and unworthiness, the prodigal went home. This is the essence of true repentance.
Repentance and More
How little we hear of repentance today. Once a major emphasis of evangelical preaching and Bible study, we now jump over it to dwell on God’s forgiveness. Yet all the blessings of heaven are conditioned upon repentance. “Father, I have sinned,” we need to concede, and hear Jesus’ answer: “There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” (see Luke 15:7).
Repentance requires that we take responsibility for our sins. Terrorists take responsibility. They are unrepentant, proud of the appalling destruction they cause. But repentance means being sorry for the evil we have done. It means to come to God admitting our guilt and unworthiness, and throw ourselves upon the mercies of God. Repentance means a change of heart, a turning away from the past with revulsion.
Following repentance comes confession. The prodigal not only prepared a confession, he delivered it. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). One of the hardest things to do in life is to go to someone and confess the wrong we have done and the pain we have caused. We may confess to God, but rarely to a fellow human being. Instead, we smooth over hurts by resuming a friendly attitude as if nothing damaging had occurred. If we do apologize, our apology is often hedged with qualifications: “If you hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have done that.” By contrast, the prodigal freely acknowledged his guilt, blaming no one but himself.
Erring politicians have at times given us examples of confession. They have acknowledged the deep hurt their cheating has caused their wives, children, associates, and constituencies, and have asked for forgiveness. Like the prodigal’s, their confession may come from dubious motives—a form of damage control, a search for sympathy, a desire to continue politically. The prodigal was going home because he was hungry. Part of his initial decision to go home came from thinking about his empty belly. But his repentance must have deepened and his motives been purified as he experienced the welcoming love and acceptance of his father. As he understood the depths of his father’s love he could better appreciate the magnitude of the suffering caused by his rebellion. Living in the father’s presence increased the sense of the father’s generosity and his own unworthiness.
The prodigal teaches us many lessons. If we are dissatisfied with our lives, he encourages us to sit down and take an honest look at the past, admit our failures, and repent. He tells us to have the courage to confess to those we have wronged. We may help heal broken relationships. Above all, even if our motives aren’t the best, the prodigal urges us to come back home to the God who loves us. The warmth of His embrace will overwhelm us! His free forgiveness will relieve us of a burdened conscience. He will restore us to an honored place in the family. He will rejoice over us with singing and celebration. Living close to Him will purify our motives, restore our relationships, and impel us to sing the praises of Him who “called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
1 This parable can be found in Luke 15:11-32. Unless otherwise indicated, biblical quotations in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 A day laborer was less secure than a slave. The slave had room and board and the “guarantee” of a job, such as it was. The day laborer had employment for only a day.
Beatrice S. Neall retired after a career serving as a missionary and college professor. She and her husband, Ralph, live in Ooltewah, Tennessee. This article was published December 8, 2011.