COUNTLESS WORDS HAVE been written down through the ages to try to convey the heart of the gospel, but it has perhaps never been better captured than in just 500 words from Jesus. If you want to know what Christianity is all about, read the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15.
I have read it countless times, and it never ceases to move me—as do songs that convey its theme, like Rich Mullins’ “Growing Young” and Cody Carnes’ “Run to the Father” (tissue advisory in each case). There’s so much to be found in Jesus’s short parable; here are just three thoughts from a recent rereading:
Sin will take us further than we intend to go. It’s interesting that the prodigal went to a far country to sow his wild oats. Was that because he didn’t want anything or anyone to remind him of the way that he had been raised?
That sort of distancing is a slippery slope. Funny how, when his money had run out and he was in need, none of those people who’d enjoyed partying on his shekel offered a helping hand. Good-time friends have a habit of disappearing when the good times end.
The down-on-his-luck young man was so desperate that he ended up taking a gig looking after pigs, even hankering after their swill. Remember that in the Jewish culture, pigs were unclean; people wouldn’t even go near them. Yet here he was, digging in the muck with them. When we follow our unbridled passions, we can end up doing things and visiting places we swore we never would.
Grace moves quickly. The prodigal wasn’t received by a frowning father with arms folded. Dad didn’t wait for his son to come crawling home; he raced out to meet him. He saw the young man at a distance, suggesting that he was scanning the horizon, maybe wondering, “If this the day my boy will come back?” (Indeed, some say the story should not be known as The Prodigal Son but The Waiting Father.)
And when the father saw his son, he ran out to greet him. Dad defied the cultural mores of the day which said a respected man in the community never did anything with haste. They should always move with dignified poise. Forget that: the father’s joy moved more quickly than the son’s remorse. Repentance was met with a hug, not a huff.
We don’t have to clean up first. Having lived with the pigs for a season and then sweating it out on the long walk back home, the prodigal must have been pretty dirty and stinky by the time he arrived. But his father didn’t send a message saying, “Get a shower and I will meet you in my office later.” Rather, he gathered his son up into a tight embrace. The first cleaning for the kid’s messy hair wasn’t shampoo, but the father’s tears as he joyfully hugged his boy.
Similarly, we don’t have to get our lives in order before responding to the gospel. In fact, that’s the whole point. Sadly, some people seem to think that churches are full of “good people” who wouldn’t welcome them because of the bad things they have done—or, at least, full of people who think or act as though they are good.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Churches are simply full of prodigals who got home a bit before others. Now, like runners who have finished their 5k, we get to go back to the finishing line and cheer on the others as they draw close: “Come on, you’re nearly there. You can do it!”
As with the father, when the prodigal comes homes, it’s not piety time, it’s party time.
Picture: The Return of the Prodigal by Friedrich Olivier/The Metropolitan Museum of Art