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Every one of us has, at one time or another, made a wrong turn in the journey of life. Jesus once told a story about a young man who made a series of frightfully bad decisions. By his own admission, he did not deserve redemption. But after blowing it, he did do one thing right. The tale reminds us that as long as we are alive, there is still one good move we can make. The smart thing. The right thing.
You're probably familiar with the story. A father has two sons, the younger of whom has grown tired of working the farm, and so he comes to his father and asks for his inheritance. "Father, give me my share of the estate," he says (Luke 15:12). And so the father divides his property between his two sons. The younger son then departs for a "distant country," where his father's money will underwrite his stay. Once there he takes his father's gifts and squanders them on an extravagant lifestyle.
Despite his fine upbringing, the boy is both impertinent and rude. By making this request of his father, he is saying, in effect, "Father, I can't wait for you to die, so give me my inheritance right now." The father does not argue. Nor does he lecture his son about the dangers of the way-ward life, but instead chooses to let the youth follow his desires. There comes a time when a boy's decisions must be respected, even when they will lead to his ruin. And so the father hides his pain as he watches his son walk away down the long, perilous road.
The boy takes his inheritance and converts it into cash. He will need money the moment he arrives in the distant country. He believes that the good life, once begun, will last forever.
The Long and Not-So-Happy Road
The young man's rebellion is deliberate.
First, he is intent on going to the "distant country." He knows that his father will not follow him, nor will his judgmental brother be able to seek him out. He goes where he is unknown, a place where he will not be chided for taking a wrong turn in the road. He opts for a life of independence without restraints.
Second, he spurns his father's values by enjoying those pleasures of which his father disapproved. Many of us are acquainted with the King James Version's description of the young man's life in the far country. We read that he "wasted his substance with riotous living" (v. 13). We use the same word today when we say, "He got wasted."
In the "distant country" we waste our minds. We waste our opportunities. We waste our money. When my wife and I attended a funeral of a high school student who overdosed on drugs, I thought, What a waste. I once counseled a young woman who had become a single mother after a fling with a man she didn't care for. Now she was a high school dropout, and I thought, What a waste.
As for the young man in Jesus' story, his circumstances take a turn for the worse when famine comes to the land. It could be that the famine had already hit when he arrived, but he hadn't noticed it. When the money gives out, he is suddenly and painfully aware of the economic downturn.
Finally, the young man spurns his religion. He hires himself out to a citizen of this country who sends him into the fields to feed pigs. We can admire the son's willingness to do odd jobs rather than steal or hit up his father for more cash. But pigs were an abomination to the Jews-these animals were not just physically unclean, but also ceremonially unclean. Nevertheless, the young man is willing to accept a vocation condemned by his religion, just to put food in his stomach.
Hunger forces him to compromise his beliefs and his dignity-in the pigpen he loses his self-respect: "He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything" (v. 16). The boy discovers that his good-time friends are untrustworthy; now that he is penniless, his buddies are of no help. Destitute, he faces a decision.
Why Stay in the Far Country?
Everyone who has blown it comes to a moment of truth-a crisis in which they must make a decision to either turn back or keep going. This young man could have hardened his heart, steeled his mind, and thought, I'd rather starve than go home and face my father and that goody-two-sandals brother of mine.
The thought of returning home triggers guilt and shame. How can he look his father in the eye? And how can he return penniless, then suffer the sneers of his older brother, who has a nose-to-the-grindstone reputation and never does anything wrong? No doubt people back home are talking about his father's two sons, the good one who stayed home and worked the farm, and the delinquent who took the old man's money and ran.
He had never cared for the rigors and rules of the farm, and wild living has since inflamed his passions. He isn't even sure he can acclimate himself once again to farm life.
Live or die, there are compelling reasons for him to stay away from his father's house.
When Reality Dawns
But this scoundrel has the good sense to do something right after he had done so many things wrong. Rather than making the same old choices and reaping the same old demoralizing consequences, "he came to his senses" (v. 17).
That is a pivotal phrase. We wish we could read that he loved his father so much that he could not bear being separated from him and so chose to return. However, his motives are much less noble. He is hungry. His stomach, not his heart, tells him that going home might be a very good idea. "How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!" (v. 17).
Nevertheless, if the young man did not consider his father to be gracious and forgiving, if he thought that his father was a hard and frugal man who counted offenses and held grudges, then the son would likely have remained in the far country, come what may.
But the father's love cuts both ways: It beckons him to return, but also magnifies his own rebellion. If the young man returns, he will have to face his own guilt and shame in the presence of undeserved love. Grace is often more difficult to accept than the law wielded with a heavy club. The son prepares a speech: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men" (v. 18-19).
You can't help but like this boy. Sure, he blew his money and dignity. Sure, he tarnished the reputation of his father and his family. But the young man makes no rationalizations. He doesn't say, "Well, if were not for my friends-they lied to me and spent my money." Or "It was the recession-unemployment was high, and it cost me everything."
He's blown it and he admits it.
He knows that slavery in his father's house is better than freedom in the far country. And so he sets out, rehearsing his speech with every step.
The Father Keeps Watch
Back home, the father has lost all interest in the farm. Often he will put down his tools and stare down the road, hoping for a glimpse of his boy. My wife and I have counseled people whose children have rebelled and live in the far country. The parents tell us that they go to bed at night thinking about their child, and they wake in the morning thinking about their child. Parents can only be as happy as their saddest child.
Although the boy left the father's farm, he never left his father's heart. We read, "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him" (v. 20). In the original Greek text, "a long way off" is the same word as "the distant country." The father's eyes are searching the whole landscape, longing for a sign of his son's return.
When he spots the young man coming up the road, the father runs to embrace his son. The boy begins his speech, but he is so smothered with kisses that he does not have a chance to finish. He begins, "Father I have sinned ...," but his father is not nearly as interested in the confession as he is in having his son back in his arms.
The father shouts, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found" (v. 22-24).
And the party is on.
Good News for Wayward Sons-and Daughters
What should we do after we have blown it? Our very first decision should be to hurry back to the arms of our waiting heavenly Father. Every day we delay in the distant country is another day we break His heart. When we are absent, our Father hurts deeply, because He loves deeply. He loves His sons and daughters, and our wisest course is always to take the shortest route home, where we belong.
Those of us who have blown it, and royally so; those who committed sexual sin this week; those of us who have selfishly squandered our lives; those of us who have made promises to change but don't-our first right step is to run back to the Father.
Any reluctance is all on our side. We hesitate because of our shame. We fear our Father's wrath and what He might do if we "turn ourselves in." Or we are angry with the Father and his judgmental children. We tell ourselves that we will return home only when we know we are able to follow the rules of the Father's kingdom. Sometimes we are tempted to return for selfish reasons. Even so, the Father does not chide us but is just glad that we have come back to Him.
Then There's the Older Brother ...
The young man of the story learns that it is one thing to reconcile with his father, but quite another to reconcile with the father's children. When the elder brother returns home after a hard day's work and hears a celebration happening, you might expect him to throw down his hoe, grab a party hat, and shout, "Thank God my brother is back!" Instead, he is so angry he refuses to step inside the house. Although he was busy doing his father's work, he was unconcerned about the salvation of others-even the salvation of his own brother.
When we return to the Father, we may have to put up with the "bean counters" who believe that our relationship with God is based on merit.
"How can God use him when he's spent time in jail!"
"God can't bless her because she's divorced!"
"I don't think he's really sincere. How can he be saved?"
When our children were born, my wife and I did not say, "We'll love these children only when they grow up and get a good education and a vocation-something that will make us look good." No, we loved them simply because they were our children. Just so, God loves us quite apart from our performance. Grace is all one-sided: When we come to God, we bring only our great need; He supplies the rest.
So after the younger son had disrespectfully demanded his inheritance and then squandered it in a distant land, why did the father seem so taken with the young man? I believe it is, in part, because the father had finally found someone willing to wear the special robe and the ring that had lain in his treasure chest. He had found a candidate for the sandals that had been waiting on a shelf on the front porch.
The elder brother had, in essence, refused these blessings because he didn't see himself as a son, but as a slave. Work on the farm was all drudgery and no delight. He had become so accustomed to working for the father that he had lost the wonder of his father's love and the joy of service. He saw his father as stingy rather than generous, and he refused to enjoy the blessings that his father had set aside for him.
The older brother served his father for what he could get out of him-a living, food, and a home-not out of love. Frankly, the older son stayed home because he didn't have the nerve to leave. When he criticizes his younger brother for squandering his money on prostitutes (see v. 30), we get a hint of what the older son might have done with his share of the inheritance if fear hadn't kept him at home!
Grace is difficult to receive. Those of us who know we have sinned recognize the stench of pigs on our clothes. We hate not only what we have done, but who we are. We think our sin is too great to be welcomed back.
Then there are the "elder brothers" who think they do not need grace. They compare themselves with others and see that they are doing fine, thank you very much. They reject the gracious embrace of the father, instead enduring the farm one day at a time. As long as they look good to others, they think everything is peachy.
But the father speaks to the elder son tenderly. "My child," he says, using the Greek word teknon, a tender word for child, "you are constantly with me." God loves his children, even when they will not accept their forgiven brothers and sisters. He loves those who are difficult to love, including the self-righteous and judgmental folks who resent the blessings given to prodigals. To the elder brothers the Father says, "Join the party! We will work tomorrow, but tonight we shall celebrate!"
Many prodigals cannot bring themselves to return to the Father because they cannot face the elder brothers who are quick to judge, quick to criticize, quick to shoot those who are wounded. But we cannot let the attitude of others keep us from the Father's tender embrace. To all those who have blown it, I say, "Hurry to the Father, and don't let the criticism of your elder brothers stop you!"
God waits eagerly for all those who are in the distant country. He will not hesitate to send a famine to get our attention. Addictions, broken relationships, financial reversals, a troubled conscience-all of these are alarm bells to remind us that the Father is waiting. Our mess is often God's message, His megaphone inviting us to return home, where we belong.
Yes, those who return will need to adjust and adhere to the Father's ways, but tonight He is saying, "Come home to Me! Let us feast and enjoy the banquet I have prepared for you. We will talk tomorrow about tomorrow."
To the person whose clothes bear the stench of sin, the Father declares, "I have a clean robe waiting for you." For the disgruntled person who does not understand grace, He says, "Come join the party."
To all of us He says, "My arms are open."
No matter how bad you have blown it, the Father is waiting.
Excerpted from AFTER YOU'VE Blown It by Erwin W. Lutzer Copyright © 2004 by Erwin W. Lutzer. Excerpted by permission.
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