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GRACE for YOUA Compelling Story of God's Redemption
By John MacArthur
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 John MacArthur
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGrace for You
Stories about a maverick rabbi from the backwater village of Nazareth had been trickling south out of Galilee for months. Homes, marketplaces, and even the great temple in Jerusalem buzzed with talk of the man named Jesus and whether His miracles were genuine, fake, or conjured by the power of hell. Those who had seen Him in person said He could be none other than the Messiah. Only a powerful man of God could heal diseases, straighten deformed limbs, give sight to blind eyes, and open deaf ears. Some even said they had seen Him breathe life into dead bodies. So, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, news spread through the city like a choice bit of gossip and drew large crowds to wherever He happened to be.
On one particular occasion, the religious elite came to probe His theology, but were dismayed to find Him encircled by a large group of tax collectors and other people who had little interest in the temple. The experts in all things religious were even more distressed that Jesus appeared to enjoy the company of such spiritual undesirables. How could a genuine man of God be so undiscerning?
As the Pharisees and experts in Jewish Scripture lurked on thefringes of the crowd and grumbled to one another, Jesus told a story.
A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me." So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself, he said, "How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.'"
And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son."
But the father said to his servants, "Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." And they began to be merry.
Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, "Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf."
But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, "Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him."
And he said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found." (Luke 15:11-3a)
Of all Jesus' stories, this one is the most richly detailed, powerfully dramatic, and intensely personal. It's full of emotion-ranging from sadness, to triumph, to a sense of shock, and finally to an unsettling wish for more closure. The characters are familiar, so it's easy for people to identify with the prodigal, to feel the father's grief, and yet still (in some degree) sympathize with the elder brother-all at the same time. The story is memorable on many levels, not the least of which is the gritty imagery Jesus invokes. The description of the prodigal as so desperately hungry he was willing to eat husks scavenged from swine food, for instance, graphically depicts his youthful dissolution in a way that was unspeakably revolting to His Jewish audience.
Another thing that makes this tale unforgettable is the poignancy demonstrated in the father's response when his lost son returns. The father's rejoicing was rich with tender compassion. Heartbroken and no doubt deeply wounded by his younger son's foolish rebellion, the father nevertheless expressed pure joy, unmingled with any hint of bitterness, when his wayward son came dragging home. Who would not be moved by that kind of love?
Few people, however, remember much about the elder son in the parable. His steely-hearted resentment over the father's mercy to his brother is often overlooked in many of the popular retellings. Nevertheless, it is the main reason Jesus told the parable. The parable of the prodigal son is not a warm and fuzzy feel-good message, but a powerful wakeup call with a very earnest warning for Pharisees (and all their spiritual cousins) about the deadly dangers of self-righteousness.
There's another good reason this short story captures the imaginations of so many hearers. We recognize ourselves in it. The parable reminds us of the most painful aspects of the human condition, and those who take an honest look will be able to identify with one aspect or another of the prodigal's experience. It is a moving story of repentance, forgiveness, redemption, and joy, touching our deepest human feelings.
Nevertheless, to understand the parable properly, we must see it through the eyes of someone in the culture of first-century Judaism. In such a context, the idea that God would freely accept and forgive repentant sinners (including the very worst of them) was a shocking and revolutionary concept. Almost no one in that society could conceive of God as reaching out to sinners. Most thought His only attitude toward sinners was stern disapproval. It was therefore the repentant sinner's duty to work hard to redeem himself and gain whatever degree of divine favor he could earn-mainly through long-term obedience to the ceremonial minutiae of Old Testament Law. That's why Jesus' practice of immediately receiving such people into His fellowship was such a public scandal.
While the religious experts lurked in the background, muttering propaganda among themselves, the rabble and riffraff of Jewish society drew closer to hear Jesus' story. I invite you now to pause what you're doing and to move in for a closer look at this familiar tale. I am confident you will find the time well spent. And, if you are willing, you may not ever be the same again.
Jesus began by introducing the main characters: "A certain man had two sons."
The Shameless Sinner
The picture Jesus paints is of a young man, who is apparently not yet married-because he wants to go and sow his wild oats. The word prodigal is a very old English word that speaks of reckless wastefulness or lavish extravagance. It is sometimes used in reference to wayward sons and daughters, but it doesn't speak of youthful rebellion per se. The main idea behind the word prodigal is that of wastefulness, immoderation, excess, and dissipation. But don't get the notion that the young man's dominant character flaw was merely that he was a spendthrift. Jesus used an expression for "prodigal living" that conveys strong overtones of licentiousness, promiscuity, and moral debauchery.
This restless son was probably in his teens and obviously filled with shameless disrespect toward his father. His request for an early inheritance reveals how passionately deep-seated and shamefully hard-hearted his defiance was. Anyone acquainted with Middle Eastern culture would instantly see this. For a son in that culture to request his inheritance early was tantamount to saying, "Dad, I wish you were dead. You are in the way of my plans. You are a barrier. I want my freedom. I want my fulfillment. And I want out of this family now. I have other plans that don't involve you; they don't involve this family; they don't involve this estate; they don't even involve this village. I want nothing to do with any of you. Give me my inheritance now, and I am out of here."
Incidentally, in that culture, the normal response to this level of impudence would be, at the very minimum, a hard slap across the face from the father. This would typically be done publicly to shame the son who had showed such disdain for his father. So a son guilty of dishonoring his father to this degree could well expect to be dispossessed of everything he had and then permanently dismissed from the family. Reckoned as dead. That's how serious this breach was. It was not uncommon in that time and place to hold an actual funeral for a child who insolently abandoned home and family in this way. Even today in strict Jewish families, parents will sometimes say "kaddish" (the formal recitation of a funeral prayer) over a son or daughter who is disowned for this kind of behavior.
Once disowned, there was almost no way for a rebellious child to come back and regain his position in the family. If wanted back at all, he must make restitution for whatever dishonor he had caused the family and for whatever possessions he might have taken when he ran away. Even then, he could expect to forfeit many of the rights that he previously enjoyed as a family member. He could certainly forget about receiving any further inheritance.
The young man came to his father demanding his share of the family belongings. He wanted an early inheritance. In order to fulfill this request, his father's household goods, personal valuables, and miscellaneous material possessions would have to be inventoried and distributed early. That suggestion was, of course, as impractical as it was audacious. In any two-son family following the normal customs of the day, one-third of all family assets would go to the younger son when the father died. To demand a third of the household goods while the father was still living was both absurd and unreasonable. The only workable solution was to estimate the fair market value for the family's belongings and issue most of it to the young man in cash. That is, of course, what he really wanted.
In the village life of that time, everyone knew everyone else's business. So, the prodigal's plan to leave home guaranteed that his rebellion would in short order become public knowledge and trust for the village rumor mill. This thoughtless rebel was blithely erecting a mountain of dishonor over his father, his family, and his own reputation.
Rather than publicly strike the boy across the face or disown him for his insolence, this father granted his rebel son exactly what he asked for. This sudden turn in Jesus' story would have elicited a second gasp from the scribes and Pharisees. To honor an impudent request from a defiant youth in this way was unheard-of. And by the standards of that culture, it was a pathetically weak response. The fact that the younger boy was free to take his father's bequest and go off into a far country suggests that there were no strings attached. The prodigal took his portion of the family wealth without looking back. He had exactly what he wanted: absolute freedom.
The phrase "gathered all together" means that the prodigal liquidated whatever he could, turning all his inheritance and possess ions into ready cash. He then 'journeyed to a far country," meaning, obviously, a Gentile country. This young man left not only his home and family but also his cultural heritage and his faith. He had so much scorn for his father that he deliberately exposed him to the most humiliating kind of public disgrace. That was bad enough. Add this boy's shallow materialism, his greed, his foolishness in forfeiting so much of the value of his heritage-and you already have a top-drawer delinquent. But when (on top of all that) the boy travels into a Gentile land to get as far away as he can from everyone who knew him-just so that he could indulge freely in evil behavior-he suddenly becomes such a hideously despicable figure that it would be hard to express his badness in mere words.
Surely Jesus was setting this guy up to be the main villain in the story. And the religious leaders must have wholeheartedly agreed.
Evidently, the prodigal wasn't interested in establishing a life of his own in a new place. He was simply looking for pleasure. And let's be honest: people who think like that typically don't think very far ahead. So it's no huge surprise when we read that he "wasted his possessions with prodigal living" (v. 13). He squandered a fortune in no time, spending his inheritance in the pursuit of vain pleasure. The clear impression from the Greek phrasing is that he pursued a lifestyle of utter dissipation and gross immorality that was far-flung and uninhibited by any kind of scruple.
Sin never delivers what it promises, and the pleasurable life sinners think they are pursuing always turns out to be precisely the opposite: a hard road that inevitably leads to ruin and the ultimate, literal dead end. Right after the money ran out, "there arose a severe famine in that land" (v. 14). The famine was not the prodigal's fault, of course, but that's how life is. His foolishness presumed upon a certain kind of future, and his rebellion against both his God and his father left him nowhere to turn to find relief.
Famines were common enough in Jesus' time that He did not have to explain the young man's dilemma. It would have been seen-especially by the scribes and Pharisees-as a stroke of divine chastisement. Eyewitness accounts of severe famines in ancient times are difficult to read. And almost all of them have several features in common. They describe how people are driven mad by hunger. Acts of cannibalism are common. Death from hunger is often so widespread and frequent that bodies must be collected and removed each day. People resort to eating things such as grass, shoe leather, rotten flesh, garbage, and excrement.
This had become the prodigal's world, a nightmarish horror. He had made numerous bad decisions for himself, but now the hand of divine providence had made his troubles more severe than he could have imagined. Nevertheless, his resolve to follow his own path remained strong.
The tenacity of some sinners is impossible to explain rationally. Some people are so determined to have their own way that even when they are being force-fed the distasteful consequences of their transgressions, they still will not give up the pursuit. They might literally be sick to death of their sins repercussions, and yet they will not give up the sin itself. Sin is a bondage they are powerless to break.
That was the case with the prodigal son. Destitute, hopeless, and with his life lying in ruins all around him, he still was not quite ready to go home. Going home, of course, would mean confessing that he had been wrong and foolish. It also meant facing the resentment of his brother, owning up to the grief and heartache he had caused his father, and inviting public shame on his own head. Above all, it would mean accepting responsibility, living under accountability, and submitting to authority-all of which he had fled in the first place. So, he did what a lot of people try to do before they truly hit bottom. He desperately attempted to concoct a scheme that would enable him to weather the crisis and perhaps avoid truly having to face his sin and own up fully to all the wrong he had done.
Here was his plan B: "He went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine" (v. 15).
Excerpted from GRACE for YOU by John MacArthur Copyright © 2008 by John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission.
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