The story of pardoning love
Jesus’ story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-24) is the best-loved and most heart-warming of all his stories. The reason is not hard to see. It graphically portrays God’s pardoning love.
The prodigal son is the final parable in a string of three that deal with human lostness and divine love. Jesus told these parables to answer the religious leaders who criticised him for mingling with undesirables (vv. 1-2).
As a shepherd would rejoice over finding a lost sheep (vv. 3-7), a woman over finding a lost coin (vv. 8-10) and a father over the return of a lost son (vv. 11-24), so Jesus rejoiced over the sinners who came to him.
As we look at the story we must surely realise that it moves us because it deals with things we know in our hearts to be true of ourselves. Every Christian must love this parable because it so closely parallels what he or she experienced in coming to faith in Christ.
The younger of two sons wanted to leave home and asked his father for his inheritance (v.12). This amounted to him saying: ‘I wish you were dead and I had my share of your wealth’.
Yes, the Lord Jesus intended us to be shocked by the brazen arrogance of this young man. But he also intended us to understand that we have done no less than he. God made us for himself. He made us to know him, to love him and to serve him. But we have all rebelled against him.
The Bible calls us sinners. It tells us that we come into this world with a nature that opposes God. Instead of living as God designed us to live, we want to be free from him. Our sinful nature regards God as dead, his laws as redundant and his wealth as our own.
Things went quite well for the young man for a time. He got his inheritance and journeyed far from home. His new life was immensely exciting. He was free from his father and his rules. He had lots of money and many friends. This was how life was meant to be!
But if you spend and never work you run out of money, and this is what happened to the young man. And when the money ran out his new friends walked out. Things took a desperate turn.
A severe famine depressed the economy and the only work he could find was a poorly paid job feeding swine. He was so hungry that he ate the food he was giving to the pigs (vv. 15-16).
See where his rebellion had taken him – and learn that rebelling against God leads to loss and heartache. Sin promises tremendous riches but it pays with counterfeit money. A son leaves home and comes to ruin. It is a sad and gloomy story.
But a ray of light breaks into the gloom and brings us the third truth portrayed by the story.
There, among the swine, the young man began to take stock. D. L. Moody says: ‘There is always hope for a man when he begins to think’.
What a fool he had been! He had turned his back on his father and was living among pigs. Yet back at home even the servants had plenty to eat. His father’s most menial slave was better off than he was!
So he devised a plan. He would arise and go to his father and say: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants’ (vv. 18-19).
There is no finer picture of true repentance. Repentance is thinking again. Sin is thinking one way, and repentance is thinking in exactly the opposite way. Things change when we think again.
To come home to God, the sinner must think again about God. He must see that God is not an enemy out to spoil his happiness, but rather his greatest friend – who alone can ensure happiness.
To come home to God, the sinner must also think again about himself. The sinner’s whole problem is that he thinks he knows more than God. Repentance means nothing less than realising that God knows more – and better – than the sinner.
Every sinner is going to think again. It is just a matter of when. Will it be in this life or in the life to come? If he waits till eternity to change his mind about God and himself, it will be too late.
But while repentance begins with thinking, it doesn’t stop there. New thinking results in new action. Having thought anew about his father and himself, the prodigal did not linger but ‘arose and came to his father’ (v.20).
Biblical repentance leads to action – to a noticeable change in behaviour. What does this tell us about the multitudes who claim to have been saved but go right on living as they did before? That they have never truly repented.
The prodigal was willing to return as a mere servant, but his father would have no such thing. Here’s how Jesus put it: ‘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’ (v.20).
Clearly the father was watching and waiting, constantly scanning the road for any sight of his son. How his heart yearned for the young man to return! On this day he was rewarded.
He could have waited until he arrived and met him with stony silence or tearful reproach. He could have delivered a stern lecture. But the heart of this father allowed no such thing. When he saw his son he ‘had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him’ (v.20).
The prodigal began his carefully rehearsed speech, saying: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven …’ (v.21). But he never got to finish it. The father cut short his words and called his servants to bring the best robe, a ring and shoes – and to prepare the fatted calf set aside for the most special occasion.
The robe was a sign of position. The ring was a sign of authority. The shoes marked him as a free man. For the father, no occasion could match this one.
In all these ways, the father was making it clear that he was taking his son back as a son. What we see here is pardoning love, and what a sight it is. Love that pardons freely, completely, gladly and unreservedly!
There can be no mistake about who is represented by the father in the parable. It is none other than God himself. And the love with which the father pardoned the prodigal pictures the love with which God pardons sinners who come to him in repentance and faith.
Let the word go out clearly and triumphantly! God will pardon all sinners who come to him in true repentance! He will pardon them freely, completely, gladly and unreservedly. Michael Bentley writes: ‘God never makes the returning process difficult’.
So if you are the prodigal, come to the Father! Stop feeding on the husks of sin that can never satisfy and come to the one who made you for himself.
The devil will tell you that your sins are too great. But turn a deaf ear to him and come to the Father. Satan will whisper that the Father is not willing to pardon, but clasp your hands over your ears and come to the Father. The enemy will declare that you need not do this today, that tomorrow or the next day will be soon enough. But turn from him and come to the Father.
And here is the bold, throbbing assurance of this passage – he who comes to the Father will be welcomed by the Father. Can we bank on this? Most assuredly! This is, after all, a parable of Jesus, the one who came from the Father’s heart of love to bear the wrath that guilty sinners deserve.
There is no greater authority on the Father’s pardoning love than Jesus Christ – the one, says Paul, ‘who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20).