“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.” Luke 15:20 (NLT)
It is difficult to turn anywhere these days in Christian media and not come across stories about how young people are leaving the church in record numbers. A prodigal squanders and wastes resources and opportunity, either materially or spiritually.
Many Christian families are impacted by prodigal children, siblings, and, in some cases, even parents. In the last few weeks, this message has been weighing heavily on my heart. Eventually, prodigals return. But we need the Father’s heart for ultimate reconciliation.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of one lost sheep. The shepherd leaves the 99 in search of the one who wandered, and when he finds it, there is great rejoicing. Next, Jesus continued with the woman who lost one of her ten coins. With great care and patience, she searches until she finds it, and then Jesus concludes with what we commonly refer to as The Parable of the Prodigal. Some have called this parable “the greatest short story in the world.”
What makes a prodigal?
When a person goes prodigal, it is devastating and heartbreaking. You believe that you have done your best to train them to know and honor God. They may have exhibited evidence of a transformed and renewed life, and yet they walk away.
The father in the parable is good. There is no hint of abuse, neglect, or other misconduct. He may or may not have been strict. We do not know. We know this; when his younger son asked for his share of the estate, the father complied. The father could have told his son that his time had not yet come, but for one reason or another, the Father disposed of a portion of his assets and granted his younger son’s request.
Was this a wise thing to do? At first, it does not look like a brilliant idea, but ultimately, it ended well. Prodigals sometimes go prodigal. But that is not the end of the story.
“Apart from God, there is no long-term satisfaction or fulfillment.” It is an echo of what great people have said down through the ages. For instance, Saint Augustine writes in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
Without Jesus, there is emptiness, loneliness, and dissatisfaction. It can be covered up for a while by what this world has to offer, but ultimately, the prodigal will reach the end of himself.
He Came to His Senses
The prodigal came to his senses, but only when he reached the bottom. It is one of the hardest things for a father or mother to endure. However, a loving parents’ inclination and desire would alleviate or minimize their son or daughter’s pain and suffering.
How many parents have said to a child about a spanking, “This is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you?” That may be debatable, but for a loving parent to see their child turn their back on God and ascend to depths unimaginable causes unbelievable pain. And yet, we must be careful because until they reach the “end of themselves” and “come to their senses,” our intervention just might be interfering with God’s plan of action.
Life for the prodigal is a process. They make decisions that sometimes take them away from family and, most importantly, a loving heavenly father. They get a taste for what this world has to offer, and for a time, it seems pleasurable and rewarding, but God never gives up on them.
The Father Remained Steadfast
Because of the Father’s love for his son, it might have been reasonable to assume that the Father would have searched and made every effort to find his son, but he did not. Thus, unlike the preceding parable of the lost sheep, the Father did not leave the remaining son alone to seek after the son who departed and was lost, but instead, he waited. He kept the faith.
Margaret Thatcher said to President Bush at the height of the Gulf War, “This is no time to go wobbly, George.”
The prodigal wasted his inheritance, but the father did not lose hope. The Father had worked hard and diligently for his family, but the pull of disillusionment is powerful. These situations can cause divisions that run deep, but the Father, in this case, did not give in to those desires. Instead, every day the Father looked longingly down the road, clinging to the hope that one day his son, who had gone away, would return.
There was no opportunity to intervene and help his son with his difficulties. He could only wait and hope. When there is no news, press into God, and when there is news, press into God. Let him hear your heart.
The Father did not go “wobbly.” He never lost compassion or love for his son. After the disillusionment that prodigals will eventually face, will they return to their senses and the Father? Possibly, but the prodigal must find us standing faithful and firm.
Not Every Prodigal Leaves Home
Not every prodigal leaves home. The elder brother, in many ways, was just as distant from the Father as his younger brother. He shows signs of passive-aggressive behavior. Resentment and bitterness had driven a wedge between him and his Father.
Perhaps you have heard the expression: “lost in plain sight.” This describes the relationship between the elder son and the Father. Visibly, they were connected. They likely saw each other every day, but heart-wise, they were just as disconnected as the younger brother.
In Isaiah, God said: “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” We can make the case that prodigals who “stay home” are in a more precarious situation than those who depart and turn their back on the Father. They go through the motions, and years can pass without acknowledging the severity of the problem.
I have hope that one day the prodigals will return. This world leaves people empty and broken, and just like the estranged son in the parable, prodigals today will exhaust their resources and recall God’s love.
We need the heart of the Father. It is painful to stand by and watch a prodigal descend toward destruction. At times we will help, but at other times we must recognize that God is bringing them to a place of repentance. We must not interfere with what God is trying to do.
Through all the trials, the Father remained constant. The Father did not waver, but each day he looked longingly down the road in hopes that he might see his son returning.
Not every prodigal leaves home. We will pray that the Lord allows us to be sensitive to those heart connections. We see in this story that the Father essentially had two prodigal sons.
We are going to take hold of and claim the promises of God. We will stand confidently in his word: Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6 (NKJV)
Repentance and reconciliation will come. We remain confident in God’s word, which will accomplish its intended purpose. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Hebrews 10:23 (NIV)
We cling to the hope that we will see the return of the prodigals!