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This story begins and ends at home. The son lived there first by birth, then came back later in life by choice.
"A certain man had two sons. The younger of them said, 'Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.' So he divided to them his livelihood. Not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.
"But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
"But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father and say to him, "Father, I have sinned and am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants."'
"And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
"But the father said to his servants, 'Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. Bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' And they began to be merry."
The dictionary defines prodigal as extravagant, recklessly wasteful, lavish, and abundantly generous. We commonly call it the Prodigal Son parable, but who is the prodigal in this story? There's much more involved than the folly of youth.
A father had two sons. The younger son couldn't wait for the old man to die! "Give me my share of the family wealth! I want it now, not later." He was blunt, arrogant, itching to be free and get away. The father had several choices, but basically he could try to keep his son home by engaging in a continuous power struggle, or he could give in. So the father decided to add up his net worth and gave both sons their fair share. Within a few days, the impatient one cut the family ties and was gone, heading for distant ports.
How could such a decent man have such an ungrateful and irresponsible son! This rebel was heading for trouble. There will be plenty of waste and nothing good to show for it. Of course, he had lots of friends--until his money ran out. Then he had to work for a living. And tragedy hit in the form of a famine. He ended up at a pig farm, feeding the swine and feeling so hungry the pig slop looked appetizing. Freedom was not as free as he had thought.
That's when he had his great awakening. He remembered the abundance of his father's house and started kicking himself for being so stupid. Life looked different from inside a pigpen. His prospects were dim, his choices few. Swallowing whatever pride he had left and with an earnest desire to escape his present circumstances, he started his long journey home.
While he walked, he practiced a speech which revealed he was not expecting to become part of his father's family again. He did not dream of forgiveness; he would simply be grateful just to live on Dad's farm as a hired hand. When he reached the last rise and could finally see his childhood home in the distance, we learn something about his father. Pop scanned the horizon every day, probably many times a day, hoping for his son's return. Then we learn something else. His father did a most undignified and outrageous thing--he starting running. His long flowing robe bounced shamelessly up and down as he coasted as fast as he could down the road to meet his home-coming child.
Emaciated and empty-handed, the young man stood before his father. Amid the tearful hugs and joyous kisses he started in on the speech he had rehearsed over and over again. "Father, I have sinned . . ." But the father interrupted him with orders to the servants about bringing clean clothes, the family ring and new shoes. "Furthermore, let's go all out. Get the calf we've been fattening up and roast it. We'll have us a real feast and put some weight on the lad. My son was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, but now is found."
The father asked no questions about the past, and demanded no promises for the future. He saw the contrition and that was enough. His son had found himself and come home, that's all that was needed. Repent; turn around; return--these are dominate themes throughout the Bible, presented once again in this parable.
Although we too are wasteful in our use of time, mind, resources and potential, and despite our wasted hopes and ideals, Jesus holds this picture before us. Whenever we return we meet this same generous forgiveness, mercy and compassion. When we come to our senses and confess our sin, when we leave it all behind and set our face toward home, God will run to meet us with a clean robe and new shoes, a family ring and a celebration.
Whether big time as in this parable or in small, daily ways, returning is a lifelong struggle. Every morning we have the option to turn toward our loving heavenly Father. All day long there are many opportunities to return to the God who loves us. The wastefulness of any prodigal son or daughter is matched only by the prodigal love of the waiting Father. Lord, help us all to remember who we are--Your dearly loved child--and come home.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: We have heard the common phrase, "You can't go home again." What do you think? Do you agree with those words?
Immediately before the younger son left home, he gathered his possessions together as though he were never coming back! What would make him behave like that?
Later, and despite "all the water over the dam", the prodigal son was not afraid to go home again. Why might that be? Was the father too easy on his son?If you had been in the father's shoes, how would this story have been different?
If prodigal means extravagant, the opposite would be to withhold and be stingy. Who is prodigal at various points in this story? Who is stingy? With money and resources? With love and affection? With mercy and grace?(Include in your discussion the elder brother found in Luke 15:25-32.)
Describe the look on the faces of father and sons as the story developed.
At some point the attitude of the younger son changed from "give me" to "make me". Where and how did that change take place? What is the difference between the language of give-me and make-me?
How do you respond to the father in this story? What do you like or dislike about him? Do you think he portrays what our heavenly Father is like?A Love that sets us free so that we may freely choose to love or reject our Maker. Is this the typical image people have of God?
At what level do you respond to this parable? With your head, your heart, or with your gut?
"Father I have sinned . . . , and am no longer worthy." Discuss the characteristics and implications of this prayer?When you sin and are not worthy, is there anything you are able to do to become worthy again and earn forgiveness? What does it take for your relationship to be restored?