The Parable of the Prodigal Son: On Repentance

January 16, 2022 ()

Bible Text: Luke 15:11-32 |


The Parable of the Prodigal Son: On Repentance | Luke 15:11-32
Brian Hedges | January 16, 2022

Let’s turn in our Bibles to Luke 15.

Have you ever lost something valuable? Maybe it was a valuable possession or something like that. I remember when I was growing up that my mom lost her engagement ring, her diamond ring that my dad had given her years before. She was absolutely distraught, heartbroken over that. She searched the entire house, high and low; couldn’t find it, and was without it for some time. Then one day she was sweeping out the coat closet right in the entrance of the house and she found it. She was absolutely overjoyed and wept tears of joy. Maybe you’ve lost something valuable like that.

Maybe it’s a pet. Years ago, when Holly and I were living in the “big country” in Texas, which is basically out in the sticks—rattlesnake country, coyote country—we had a cocker spaniel named Madison, and she escaped one day, ran off, and we were going to neighbors’ houses, we had church members looking for her. We were doing everything we could to find this dog; couldn’t find her. She was gone for a couple of days, and we thought she was gone. We thought she had been killed; maybe a coyote had gotten her, or something like that.

Then late one night there was a scratch on the door, and we wondered, “Is it her?” We went to the back door, and there she was. We were so thrilled; we cried tears of joy, because this pet that we loved was back.

Maybe you’ve lost a person, lost a child. We have some friends who shall not be named, but they actually lost one of their children in an amusement park, a theme park, one time. That was a scary experience until they found that child and were reunited with him.

When we lose something, we think it’s lost, and then we find it again, we are thrilled, right? We are overjoyed. We cry tears of joy. There’s a lot of emotion.

That emotion, the emotion of joy because something lost has been found, is the emotion that dominates Luke 15. This is really a chapter about the lost being found, and it unfolds in three parables. I want to give you just an overview here before we dig into the parable of the prodigal son.

The context of this chapter is given in verses 1-2, where Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees. They are the religious, self-righteous people, and they are criticizing Jesus because he eats with sinners and with the tax collectors, the prostitutes. He’s eating with them, he’s receiving them, he’s friends with them; so the self-righteous, religious folks are looking down their noses critically at Jesus. That’s the context.

In response to that, he tells them three parables. The first is the parable of the lost sheep (verses 3-7); secondly, the parable of the lost coin in verses 8-10; and then you have the parable of the lost son, or the prodigal son, in verses 11-32.

The main lesson of this chapter—it’s the same in each parable—is simply this, that heaven rejoices when sinners repent. The Father is thrilled to his very heart when the lost son comes home. That’s what this chapter is about.

Now, this is the third message out of eight on parables in the Gospel of Luke, and what we’re doing is looking at these stories that Jesus told, and we’re looking at each one with a practical focus on some particular practical aspect of the Christian life. The first week was on the parable of the soils and we talked about receiving the word. Last week was the parable of the persistent widow, and it was all about prayer. Today, as we look at the parable of the prodigal son, the focus is on repentance, something that all of us need.

As we work through this story this morning, I want you to see three things, and we can outline it in terms of the narrative itself, the story, but also in terms of repentance.

1. The Far Country (our need for repentance)
2. The Prodigal’s Return (the steps of repentance)
3. The Father’s Welcome (the motive for repentance)

Okay, these three things. I’m not going to read the passage all at once, because it’s so long; I’m going to read as we work our way through it.

1. The Far Country

First of all, I want you to see the need for repentance as we see this wayward prodigal son in the far country. Let’s begin by reading verses 11-16.

Jesus here is speaking, and he says, “‘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.’”

This is a very vivid portrait, a very vivid picture of the person who is lost, the person who is without Christ, the person who is far from God. We have to understand the context of this story. What this son does is absolutely outrageous. It’s outrageous what he asks for. He asks his father to give him his inheritance, and it was essentially (especially in the day and time) saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead. Just give me my money. I’m done. I’m leaving.” That’s what he’s doing. It was crazy for someone to ask for his inheritance before his parents had passed away, and that’s what he’s seeking for.

So he takes his money and he runs. He shakes the dust off his feet, he leaves town, probably intends never to return, and he goes off to seek his fortune in a far country. He squanders it all; he wastes it. That’s what the prodigal means; it’s wasteful spending. So he spends it all, all of his inheritance, squanders it on reckless living. He’s living the good life—he thinks—searching for satisfaction, but then famine comes to the land, he has spent everything, and he finds himself in desperate need.

By verse 15 and 16 he has reached the bottom. He’s at the end of his rope. He goes and he hires himself out to one of the citizens of the country; he’s doing hard manual labor, and especially scandalous for a Jewish boy, he’s working with pigs. He’s herding pigs. He sees what the pigs are eating and he’s so hungry that he’s longing to be fed even with the pods, the husks that they are eating. There’s no one there to help him.

It’s a picture of the person who has strayed far from God. Maybe this morning that’s you. Maybe today you find yourself in the far country. Maybe it’s because you’ve never really trusted in Christ, you’ve never really believed the gospel. Maybe you were exposed to it as a child, but you’ve never really believed it, but for some reason, either here or online, you’re listening, you’re hearing the gospel.

Maybe you’ve taken the gifts that God has given you, gifts of potential, gifts of family, of relationships, of opportunity, maybe of education—you’ve taken those gifts and you’ve squandered them, you’ve wasted them, you’ve ruined them. Maybe you leave behind you a trail of broken dreams, broken relationships, and now you find yourself in spiritual famine. You’re hungry, you’ve not found satisfaction in the things you’ve been looking for, and you find yourself at rock bottom, hopeless when you think about the future.

Maybe you think that you have exhausted God’s grace and that there’s no hope for you, that God quit forgiving you 10,000 sins ago. I just want you to know this morning that this story in the words of Jesus remind us that God loves prodigals, and that heaven rejoices when sinners repent.

Maybe you’re in the far country this morning not because you’re an unbeliever. Maybe you profess faith in Jesus Christ, maybe you believe the gospel, maybe you’ve been a Christian. But it could be that you are in the far country because you’ve backslidden, because you’ve fallen into sin, because you have strayed, drifted from your first love. You remember what it was like when you first became a Christian, when you were hungry for God, when you delighted to read the Bible. You didn’t even understand it all, but you just enjoyed reading the words of Scripture and learning about Jesus and filling your mind and your heart with truth. You remember what that was like.

You remember what it was like to want to pray, to get on your knees and to speak to God; to be able to lose yourself in worship, where you weren’t thinking about people around you. You weren’t even conscious of that, you were just worshiping God. You remember what that was like and the joy and the thrill of walking with him.

But that was a long time ago. Because of some great sin you’ve cut yourself off, and you feel that God has abandoned you or that you have abandoned him. Or maybe it’s not one great sin; maybe it’s a thousand sins, and it’s like death by a thousand paper cuts, and the spiritual life has just bled out of you, and there’s no joy left.

You might relate to the words of that old hymn-writer William Cowper, who wrote of his experiences with God, and he put it this way. He asked,

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus in his word?
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed;
How sweet their memory still;
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.

Wherever you are this morning, however deep in the far country you are, however far you have wandered from the fold of God, however dirty and filthy you’ve become, wallowing in the muck and the mire of sin, I want you to take heart, because, as we’re going to see this morning, God always welcomes his returning children.

You see our need for repentance, because when we wander far from God we find ourselves in the far country, and eventually we see that the things we were looking to for satisfaction don’t satisfy. We find ourselves in need, in famine, in want, bankrupt, without hope; and the only thing that will fix that is returning to God.

2. The Prodigal’s Return 

That leads to the second point, the prodigal’s return, which really has to do with the steps of repentance.

Maybe I should define that word, “repentance”. We hear that word and it’s kind of an intimidating word. We associate repentance, perhaps, with fire and brimstone, preachers. We think about a guy standing on the corner of a sidewalk downtown in a big city; he has a megaphone, he has a sandwich sign that says, “Turn or burn,” “Repent or go to hell,” and we think that that’s the image of repentance.

Or maybe we think of repentance as being applicable to only a certain class of sinners. Repentance is for the pimps and the prostitutes, it’s for the drug addicts; but we don’t really think of repentance as something for us. But we need to understand that repentance is a biblical word, it’s an important word. This word really means to change your mind. A change of mind—that’s what the word repentance, metanoia, means. A change of mind.

One person defined it like this: “It is a change of self (hardened mind), and an abandoning of former dispositions that results in a new self, new behavior, and regret over the former behavior and dispositions.” To repent is to change your mind, it’s to change your heart, your disposition towards God.

We need to understand that repentance isn’t simply turning from sin. It is that, but it’s also turning back to God. It’s a return to him. It has to do with restoring the broken relationship.

Listen, all of us need repentance—saints and sinners, lost and saved, everybody needs repentance. You never outgrow your need for repentance.

You remember that Martin Luther, in his famous 95 Theses, in the very first one he said, “When our Lord and Master said, ‘Repent,’ he meant that the whole life of the Christian is to be one of repentance.”

What does that look like? What does it mean to live a life of repentance? What are the steps of repentance?

I think we see them very clearly here in the prodigal’s return. Look at verses 17-20a. He’s in the far country, he’s in famine, he’s hungry, there’s nobody to help him; he’s at the end of the rope. Verse 17 says, “‘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.’”

It’s a beautiful picture of what repentance looks like. There are really three steps to this. I’m drawing this from James Montgomery Boice and his little book on the parables, but this is pretty self-evident. I think anybody could see this. Three things are involved in repentance.

(1) The first thing is awakening to one’s true condition. “He came to himself,” right? That was the first thing.

This is always the first step when serious, dramatic change is needed in a person’s life. This can happen, say, in the realm of health. Maybe you have a heart attack and you find yourself in the hospital, and the doctor says, “Listen, your cholesterol is out of control, you have heart disease—you have to change your habits. You have to change your diet, you have to exercise, you have to lose weight. You have to get healthy, or you’re not going to be here five years from now.” It’s a wakeup call, and all of a sudden you’re taking account. You’re taking inventory of how you’re doing physically.

When somebody overcomes an addiction to drugs or alcohol or an addiction to food or anything else, it always begins with this kind of wakeup call, coming to your senses. That’s what happens for this prodigal son. He came to himself. There was an awakening.

Repentance begins with a kind of spiritual awakening, this dawning realization that, “I am far from God. I need help! I need forgiveness. I need a change in my life. I need to be rightly related to God.” It starts with that.

(2) The second thing is an honest confession of true sin, which you see in verses 18-19. He says, “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.’” Here’s someone who humbles himself, he recognizes his need, and he’s ready to confess his sins.

Notice he’s confessing his sins to God and his sins to his father. Repentance involves that. It involves recognizing how we’ve sinned against God and how we’ve sinned against people; how we’ve grieved the heart of God, we’ve grieved the Spirit of God. If we’re Christians and we’ve backslidden, we’ve turned into sin, how we’ve grieved God, but also how we’ve sinned against others and how we’ve hurt other people with our selfishness and our sin. It’s honestly confessing that.

(3) There’s a third step, and that is the actual return to the Father. You see that in verse 20. “And he arose and came to his father.” There was action, there was movement, there was change.

That’s also required in repentance. It’s not enough to just acknowledge that we’re sinners and see our need; we actually have to move, we have to go to God.

What does that mean for us practically? What does that look like?

If you’re an unbeliever, if you’ve never trusted in Jesus Christ, you’ve never become a Christian, to repent means this. First of all, recognize your spiritual need, that you’ve been in the far country, that you’ve been separated from God, that you’re lost and need to be found, that you’re dead and you need spiritual life. That’s the language that’s used by the father at the end of the story. “My son was lost, but now he’s found; he was dead, but now he’s alive!” You have to recognize that, and like the prodigal you have to come yourself, come to a realization of your need for God.

Secondly, it means to acknowledge your wrongdoing, to confess your sins; and thirdly, it means to humbly return, to leave the far country and turn to the Father; to leave the land of famine and go where there’s food and feasting; to abandon trying to fill the void in your heart with the husks of sin and self and the world, and to seek a place in the Father’s house. You actually have to turn, you have to leave the old life and begin to live in a new way in the fellowship of the Father.

Listen, if you’re a backslidden Christian, repentance takes the same shape. It’s the same thing; it’s doing it all over again. It’s recognizing again your need for God and confessing those sins and then turning in your heart to the Lord. It means that you then pray with William Cowper in the next verses of that old hymn. Having recognized that you’ve lost the blessedness you knew when you first knew the Lord, now you pray this:

Return, O holy Dove;
Return, sweet messenger of rest;
I hate the sins that made thee mourn
And drove thee from my breast.
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.

It’s turning from those idols, it’s acknowledging that you’ve grieved the Spirit of God, and you turn back to God.

If you’re in the far country this morning, let me urge you, when you go home today, before the day is up, get alone. Get in your room, shut the door, get on your knees before God, and tell him all your heart. Tell him that you need him, confess the ways you’ve sinned against him, and ask him to forgive you.

3. The Father’s Welcome 

What will you find if you do that? You will find the Father’s welcome. That’s point number three, and it is the gospel motive for repentance. There are, I supposed, a number of different motives for repentance, but the one I want you to see in this story springs from the heart of the father himself. You see it in verses 20-24, the middle of verse 20.

“‘But while he was still a long way off [that’s the son], 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.’”

What an amazing, beautiful picture of the heart of God, who loves his wayward children and loves to receive them when they come home!

Scholars tell us in the commentaries that what the father does here would have been very unusual in the ancient world. It was very undignified for a man of this status and this stature and of this age to run. It was hard to run wearing a robe anyway, so it would have been really undignified to do that. But here he is, the father, and he sees his son on the horizon in the distance.

Have you ever wondered how it is that he sees him right when he’s coming home? I think it’s because every day he was out there, watching for his son, waiting for him to return. That’s the posture of God towards you and I, the welcoming heart of our Father.

I’m reading a book right now by a man named James Smith. It’s a book called On the Road with St. Augustine. It’s a spiritual reflection on Augustine’s Confessions. You may not know this, but when Augustine wrote that famous spiritual autobiography, The Confessions, he actually structured it, in many ways, using the story of the prodigal son. Scattered throughout Confessions there are many references to this parable.

James Smith is observing that and then talking about the relevance of Augustine to spiritual life today, our own restless hearts, and I want to read you something that he said that really struck me. This is James Smith. He says about God, “God is not tapping his foot judgmentally inside the door as you sneak in, crawling under the threshold in shame. He is the father running towards you, losing his sandals on the way, his robes spilling off his shoulders, with a laughing smile, whose joy says, ‘I can’t believe you came home!’ This is what grace looks like.”

If you ask, “How does that grace come to us? How is it that God pursues us like that?” the answer is, through Jesus.

Smith continues and quotes Augustine. “Meditating on the incarnation, on God becoming human in Jesus, Augustine describes the God who runs to meet us. He lost no time, but ran with shouts of words, acts, death, life, descent, ascent, all the time shouting for us to return to him. Jesus is the shout of God, the way God runs out to meet us.”

Brothers and sisters, that’s the gospel. God runs to welcome us home, and the way he ran to meet us is through Jesus, by sending Jesus to be incarnate among us, to live a perfect and obedient life, to live the life that we should have lived but didn’t, and then to die for our sins on the cross, and then to be raised from the dead. He’s there welcoming us, he’s there ready with open arms to receive us and to embrace us. It’s the heart of the demonstrated through his running to meet us and to rescue us in our need.

There’s another way we see the heart of the Father, and that’s in the response to the older brother. The parable doesn’t end there. That’s the story we know, but the parable actually continues in verses 25-32 with the response of the elder brother and the contrasting response of the Father. This is important. It’s important when you remember the context, because Jesus here—as I said at the beginning, Jesus is speaking to the scribes and the Pharisees, who were griping and complaining because Jesus was hanging out with the riffraff, with the sinners. So Jesus says to them in their self-righteousness, “There was a man who had two sons,” and he tells this story.

The parables of Jesus are not just clever stories meant to teach his disciples, they are insightful, razor-sharp stories. They are stories that have a sting in the tail, like a punch line of a joke that is meant to pierce through the self-righteousness and the sin and the assumptions of the people who are listening.

What Jesus wants these Pharisees to see as he holds up this mirror before them is he wants them to see their own response in the response of the older brother. Let’s read it, verse 25.

“‘Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.” But he was angry and refused to go in.’”

So what does the father do? Look at this in verse 28. “‘His father came out and entreated him [he pled with him, he begged him!], but he answered his father, “Look, these many years I have served you [literally, I have slaved away for you], and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours [not this brother of mine] came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”’” He’s feeling sorry for himself, he’s looking down his nose at his brother, doesn’t want anything to do with him, angry at his father. And the father responds in verse 31. “‘And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”’”

You know what this is showing us? It’s showing us that there’s more than one way to be lost. It’s showing us that the elder brother was also in the far country, not because he was far from home, but because he was far from his father’s heart. The sting in the tale in this parable is this, that those who think they are better than others, those who look down their noses at those they consider to be the dirty, rotten sinners of the world, they also are far from God. They are far from the heart of God.

This story gives us a picture of God and his posture towards both the prodigal in the far country and the elder brother, who’s far from the father’s heart even though he’s right at home. He runs to meet the returning prodigal, and he goes outside to plead with the self-righteous older brother.

Let me ask you, where are you in this story? Who do you identify with in this story? It may be for some of you that you identify with the parent, the father, because you are the parent of a prodigal. If you are, I want you to see this story as a word of hope. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop loving. Don’t stop standing and watching the horizon for the day when your prodigal returns. When your prodigal does return, meet him or her with open arms, not with a sermon, not with a lecture, not with rules and terms and conditions, but with love, with celebration, and with joy.

It may be that you see yourself this morning in the elder brother. You feel like your relationship with God is one of slaving away for him, always working, always performing, always on the performance treadmill, but there’s no intimacy, there’s no joy, there’s no love, there’s no real relationship. It’s not that you’ve strayed far outside the church, it’s not that you’ve strayed far into moral sin, but your heart is far from him. If that’s where you are this morning, turn from your self-righteousness and embrace the loving, compassionate heart of God.

It may be that this morning you see yourself especially in the prodigal, because you’ve been in the far country. Either you’re not a Christian or you’re a backslidden Christian. If so, the message is, return to the Father.

I want to end by reading something to you from the author Max Lucado. He tells this story in his book No Wonder They Call Him the Savior. It’s beautifully told; I’m just going to read it to you.

“Longing to leave her poor Brazilian neighborhood, Cristina wanted to see the world. Discontent with the home having only a pallet on the floor, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove, she dreamed of a better life in the city. One morning she slipped away, breaking her mother’s heart.

“Knowing what life on the streets would be like for her young, attractive daughter, Maria (the mother) hurriedly packed to go find her. On her way to the bus stop she entered a drugstore to get one last thing: pictures. She sat in a photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all she could on pictures of herself.

“With her purse full of small black and white photos, she boarded the next bus to Rio de Janeiro. Maria knew Cristina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. But when pride meets hunger, humans will do things that before were unthinkable. Knowing this, Maria began her search.

“Bars, hotels, night clubs, any place with a reputation for street walkers or prostitutes. She went to the mall, and at each place she left her picture, taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, fastened to a corner phone booth. On the back of each photo she wrote a note.

“It wasn’t too long before both the money and the pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The weary mother wept as the bus began its long journey back to her small village.

“It was a few weeks later that young Cristina descended the hotel stairs. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken; her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times over she had longed to trade these countless beds for her secure pallet, yet the little village was in too many ways too far away.

“As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Cristina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back was this compelling invitation: ‘Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.’ And she did.”

I want to say to you today, whatever you are, whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve become, it doesn’t matter. Come home to the Father. He is waiting with open arms. Receive his grace. Let’s pray.

Our gracious Father, how we thank you for your profound love for sinners. It’s beyond our understanding, but we thank you that you have loved us so much and you have shown so much grace, and you demonstrated that through sending your Son to be our Savior, our substitute; to pursue us, to call us back to yourself. We thank you that you receive every returning, repentant sinner with mercy, with grace, with love, with compassion, with open arms.

Father, I pray this morning for each one of us, that we in this moment would turn from our sins, that we would turn from self, and that we would turn back to you as our Father. Lord, help us see the goodness of your heart. Help us see and believe this good news, that you love us so much that heaven rejoices when sinners repent.

I pray, Father, for anyone who does not know Christ this morning, that today would be the decisive day, the day of salvation. If there’s been an awakening in someone’s heart this morning, may this be the hour where they confess their need for Christ and turn to him in saving faith.

I pray for every backslidden Christian this morning, that you would grant repentance, renewal of faith and hope, and a restored walk with you. I ask you, Father, that as we come to the Lord’s table that we would come with repentant hearts and that we would come with faith, believing this good news, trusting in your grace and in your mercy. So draw near to us in these moments, we pray in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.