We Need to Stop Romanticizing the Prodigal Son
The actual costs of rebellion
The prodigal is always welcome home but what does that rebellion actually cost?
As a rebellious teenager growing up in the church, one of the most comforting passages to me was the parable of the Prodigal Son.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of a father with two sons, one wayward and one faithful. The youngest son asks his father for his share of the estate, sets off for a distant land and squanders his wealth in wild living. Suddenly in need, he takes up a job feeding pigs in the field. He becomes hungry since he can’t afford purchase food and decides to return home where he’s certain his father will take pity on him by hiring him as a servant, humbling himself in regret.
If you’ve been a member of the church for even the slightest amount of time, you likely know how this story goes.
The father sees his son returning and while his son is still a long way off in the distance, the father runs to throw his arms around him, refuting his claims that he’s no longer being worthy of sonship by urging the servants to restore the family robes to him as soon as possible. They’re having a party to celebrate and everyone’s invited.
The older brother takes issue with the father’s swiftness to forgive and holds a grudge against the younger brother for receiving an honor he doesn’t rightly deserve. The father leaves the festivities to follow the older son out into the fields where he is brooding and gently reminds him that as a son, he’s had access to everything he’s been entitled to all along.
Who wouldn’t find the story of unmerited grace from an ever-loving father, one who pursues the wayward and the faithful equally, to be comforting? There’s a lot of depth to this story but there’s one detail that is seldom focused on among Christian communities.
The Bible tells us the prodigal spent his inheritance while he was away and while it’s easy to gloss over that loss in the wayward son’s restoration, we need to take a closer look at what that loss to the prodigal son actually cost.
Have you ever spent six hours online without anything to show for it after? Or if you’ve lived a life where partying was a part of your past, how many memories do you have that you would revisit without squirming if they were broadcast on your Facebook timeline for all of your friends and family to see?
The prodigal spending his inheritance is significant because we are told he has nothing to show for it. Instead of using the resources his father gave him to invest in the Kingdom of God, or build a legacy to pass on to future generations just as his father did to him, he spent his resources. Every last cent. Although Christ restores us entirely to himself once we repent and return, we still lose the days spent wandering in distant lands and the time we invested in reckless living, without anything to show for it.
In order to pursue his own agenda, the prodigal set off for distant lands in a time before FaceTime or postcards. He decidedly cut himself off from his family, his community and his homeland.
More than that, we are told that upon his return, his older brother resented the celebration being held in his honor. Did the older brother even recognize his younger brother? Was he hurt that he valued their relationship so little to set off in the first place? No wonder he didn’t want to join the party.
The younger brother had not only forsaken his father, he had forsaken his relationship with his brother, too. Did the prodigal value his family so little? It is easy to believe that our journey to distant lands only affect our own walk and our own hearts. But that’s simply not true.
As relational beings, designed to fit in the complex fabric of community, we hurt more than just ourselves with our rebellion. We hurt those who have walked with us in our journey, those who cheer for our success—over sin, depression, unbelief or otherwise.
We hurt those who have wept over prayers with us or for us. We hurt those who love us when we go wayward. And although our heavenly Father is quick to forgive and rejoice in our return, the hearts of our brothers and sisters may take more time.
In urging the older brother to come inside and celebrate the younger brother’s return, the father uses the terms “dead” and “lost” to describe the younger brother’s former state. The prodigal son not only spent the wealth given to him by his father, his state in the world was dead and lost.
Jesus uses these terms to describe people who are entirely without him. From one prodigal to another, it’s easy to fool yourself into believing that you’ll find your way home eventually. However, it’s only by the grace of God that this is true. We have no control over how our hearts and minds are darkened when we walk past Christ. Instead of living in the miraculous purpose God has for your life, you may find yourself among the pigs’ mud pen for much longer than you ever imagined or intended.
If you find yourself there now, take comfort in that you only need to set your feet on their way back home and our heavenly Father will run to meet you. And if you’re already home, think twice about what wandering costs before you forsake your inheritance again.