The parable of the Prodigal Son is considered one of the greatest parables, if not THE greatest parable in all the Bible. Why? It's the parable that the most people turn to Christ through. Why? Because we are each able to IDENTIFY with the Prodigal Son. The truth is that we actually should NOT be able to identify with this individual, but we do anyway. Let me make my case:
Who is the Prodigal Son? He is a person who wastes things frivolously. He has no consideration for others. He takes what he thinks is his, and he squanders it all. So far, that sounds like us in a nutshell. Let's look at the entire passage:
"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'" (Luke 15:11-32)
The first thing that varies from our own stories is that the Prodigal Son hits rock bottom. This is very difficult to achieve in this country. Even our poorest have basic distractions that keep them from feeling that they have actually hit the bottom of the barrel. I know there are some who have, but in general, we have too many cultural distractions that keep us from feeling at the end of our ropes. However, we STILL feel like we are there, even though we are not.
The next thing we notice is the repentance. Yes! Now we are getting somewhere! Our Psalm for today confirms it:
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:1-5)
We know how to repent, right? We all know people who take and they take and they squander, and they never repent, and we say to ourselves, "all that guy needs to do is repent, and he will be saved," but there seems to be an everlasting supply of material to squander, and so the person never does repent. We know how to repent, though, right?
Look at this passage from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
So, we know how to repent, right? When we repent of our sins, have we become a new creation? Is the old YOU gone and a new YOU taken its place? Even the simple advice of repentance seems to be short-sighted. We've seen people repent before, and the next week they are back to their old tricks, pillaging from others and squandering. Here is something that may be missing. Let's look at the parable again:
I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."'
Along with the repentance that is there is a willingness to live life from this point on at a distinct disadvantage. The Prodigal Son is willing to live life as one of his Father's hired hands. Even though he has had a pretty plush life from here to his fall, he is not willing to go back to the extravagance, but just the basics: room and board. He is willing to sacrifice all his former life for a life of service.
THIS is why we cannot identify with the Prodigal Son, our repentance never comes with a willingness to live life disadvantageously. We want things back the way they were, and the moment we get that opportunity, we take it! Without amendment of life into a subservient role, we cannot truly repent, and we cannot properly be identified with the Prodigal Son in this parable.
So who are we? We are the other son, of course, and you have probably heard this already: we are jealous holders of the rules. We are Pharisees. We have been moderately successful at saving ourselves, and we do not think it's FAIR that someone else can waste a fortune, hit rock bottom, repent, BE WILLING TO AMEND, and be welcomed into the father's arms. Our brother has squandered his half of the Father's money. Think about that. The Father was supposed to have died, and then each of the two sons would get HALF of the estate. The younger took his earlier and spent it all. The Father is still alive and living off the other son's inheritance. This is truly not FAIR.
This is who we identify with, truth be told. And what does the other son need to do to get right with God? We don't see it, do we? We see the Father tell the other son that what was lost has been found, etc. What is the other son supposed to do? Well, according to this template, he is to repent of his sin of envy and amend HIS life to a DISADVANTAGE, too. What does that look like?
Well, let's look at the Father. We never do that, because the Father represents God in this parable, and who are we to assume the role of God for even a brief second? But look at the Father's behavior: he allows his younger son to take his inheritance early, knowing full well that the son is going to waste it all. How many of us would do that? Nada. He lets him take half of the estate, even though he is now going to have to live on his other son's half of the inheritance. He then sees the repentant son coming down the road and runs to meet him halfway. He celebrates with the son, knowing that true repentance has happened and that there is amendment of life to the son's willing disadvantage.
This is impossible for us to do. It would be foolish in the extreme. Just throwing our money down a hole in the ground! It doesn't even seem Christian. And here's the crux: God KNOWS it sounds foolish. He knows that none of us is willing to be so foolish with our talents as to give them to a whoremonger. What's below burying your one talent in the ground? Giving it to the Prodigal Son, that's what! God knows that we cannot do this. Our wills are just too weak. We have been taught otherwise our whole lives. What do we do?
God provides a solution. He allows us to identify with the Prodigal Son, even though we shouldn't. He allows us to feel that we've hit rock bottom, even though we haven't. He allows us to amend our lives in incremental disadvantages instead of enslaving ourselves in one fell swoop. The Grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ allows us to think of ourselves as what we are not, so that we can receive from him what we do not deserve.
And that is why we all identify with the Prodigal Son.