A Parable of a Prodigal's Repentance

"It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found" (Luke 15:32).

The compassion of God is a subject that must ever be before us. We are so incredibly sinful yet God is so radically compassionate. The Scottish Puritan, Hugh Binning, reminds us of this in this imaginary conversation between a broken sinner and God. “[The sinner says,] ‘I am exceeding perverse and wicked; there is nothing in me but wickedness. It so abounds in me that there is none like me.’ But, saith the Lord, ‘I am “abundant in goodness.” Thy wickedness, though it be great, it is but a created wickedness; but my goodness is the goodness of God. I am as abundant in grace and goodness as thou art in sin; nay, infinitely more. Thy sin is but the transgression of a finite creature, but my mercy is the compassion of an infinite God; it can swallow it up. Suppose thy sin cry up to heaven, yet mercy reaches above heaven, and is built up for ever.’”[1]

Now that’s an imaginary conversation. But we may ask, “Is the God depicted in that prayer really the God of the Bible?” Well let’s find out. We turn to a parable of Jesus that helps us answer whether God is really that compassionate. The parable I have in mind is the parable of a prodigal’s repentance in Luke 15:11-32, or as it has traditionally been called, The Prodigal's Son. In our exposition of this text I want us to relive the story, capture its teaching, and bring us to a response. So, the story, its teaching, and a response. 

A Parable of a Prodigal’s Repentance…

At the onset of the parable we get the characters. Jesus said, v. 11, “There was a man who had two sons.” Without any further description of them, we have here three characters, a man and his two sons. Three characters are common in Jesus’ parables. And very often there is an authority figure with two subordinate characters below. This is called a monarchic parable, because the “authority figure, usually a king, father or master, typically acts as a judge between the two subordinates, who in turn exhibit contrasting behavior.”[2]In this case we have a father, the authority figure, and his two sons, the subordinate figures. 

Now we enter into the experience of this parable. And as we do Jesus tells first of the prodigal’s pilgrimage, then of the father’s compassion, and finally of the brother’s jealousy.

The Prodigal’s Pilgrimage (vv. 12-20a)

We start with the prodigal’s pilgrimage, v. 12, “And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’” Conflict already. You don’t even have to be an experienced reader or know all the details of the social background to sense that something is wrong here. A son demands something from his dad. I don’t know about you but demands didn’t work well around our house growing up. It was always, “Please,” and “Yes, sir.” There was a clear recognition that Dad was authority. (I know we live in an egalitarian society, but surely this parable still catches those who buy in to that worldview off guard…?)

The son in the parable lived in that kind of world. He wasn’t to demand anything from his father. But here we see him demanding that his father go ahead and give his inheritance. Why? Because he despised his father. He hated living under his house rules. “Be home before dark. Brush your teeth before you go to bed. Do your chores when you get home. Respect your mother. Work hard in school…I’m taking away your phone till you do.” This younger son can’t bear any longer being chained up by the expectations of his father. So he demands of his father, “give me my inheritance.” 

Now you’re privy, when do you get an inheritance? When that person dies. How does the son think of his father, then? As one who is dead. That’s the level of hatred, disgust and, might I add, disrespect this son has for his father. “Dad, you’re pretty much dead to me so you might as well just go ahead and give me what’s coming to me when you really die.” Wow! Maybe some of us have had (sinful) thoughts like that. But this teenager acts out on them.

Surely the Dad’s about to drop the hammer, right? I mean, his son dissed his father in biblical proportions. So it at least enters your mind at this point that severe punishment is coming. After all, Old Testament law allowed for the stoning of a son who rebelled against his father (Deut. 21:18-21). But that’s not what the father does. End of v. 12, “And he divided his property between them.” The father acquiesces to his son’s demand. Perhaps the father is thinking of that modern colloquialism, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” Whatever the case, his response is prodigiously shocking. 

So the son has what he wants. Viva la Vida! And as the story progresses, v. 13, “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” With his newfound freedom, the prodigal takes his inheritance—probably cattle and/or deeds to his father’s property—and converts that into cash.[3]Now strapped with loads of cash he sets on a journey to a far away country, probably to get as far away from his former life as possible. And in that country he goes all out prodigal. “What time is it?” the prodigal is asked. “Party time!” From sunup to sundown he wastes his life away. O sure, he thinks he’s having fun. But the chickens are coming home to roost. The Bible says it this way, “For the one who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption” (Gal. 6:8). You can’t outsmart God. He’s rigged life so that if you keep feeding your sin there will be consequences.

Notice v. 14, “And when he spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.” The moment a Jew heard the word “famine” they knew what that meant: God’s punishment. He’s reaping the consequences of sowing his wild oats. 

He has no money. He’s caught in a famine. He’s now in need. What’s he gonna do? The only thing a person in that position does. Sell themselves into servitude. “So,” v. 15, “he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” Things aren’t looking too good for the prodigal. With every new development of the story things get worse. Not only has he squandered his money, but he’s also in a Gentile country serving a Gentile master by feeding slop to pigs. For a Jew, such close association with a Gentile and pigs was considered unclean, and it excluded you from fellowship with the Jewish community (Lev. 11:7; Deut. 14:8; Isa. 65:4; 66:17). Add to this that the food he’s eating is so unbearable that he strongly desires[4]to eat the pigs’ food. 

I can still remember my dad preparing bate for the wild pigs on the hunting ranch. It was a mixture of corn and cranberry sauce and probably whatever else he could find thrown into a large trashcan, which was left outside for days. Once many days passed it was “ready.” I asked my dad, “why mix all this, let it sit out, and bring it to this horrific smell.” He answered, “Well, this is the kind of stuff pigs eat.” Things have gotten so bad for the prodigal that he longs to eat pig food.

Sinful passions promise freedom, but they result in enslavement to degradation. By the grace of God the prodigal opens his eyes to that spiritual principle. He says, beginning in v. 17, “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants.”’” The prodigal takes the first step of repentance: he comes to his senses. The puritan, Thomas Watson, wisely wrote: “Before a man can come to Christ he must first come to himself.” Pictured in flesh and blood is this reality in the life of the prodigal son. 

His sin has forced him to think about his ways. He recognizes that this whole rebellion thing is not as cracked up to be as he thought. When he was under the careful oversight of his father, things were much better. At the very least he got a warm meal. And the thought of that warm meal began to warm him to the blessings of his father’s protection, under whose protection he would gladly assume the menial role of a hired servant. Convicted of his sin, then, the prodigal quickly picks up his broken heart and makes his way back home. 

And thus ends the primary attention in Jesus’ parable on the prodigal’s pilgrimage.

The Father’s Compassion (vv. 20b-24)

We turn to the father’s response. The prodigal makes his way home, and he’s surely filled with trepidation on his way back. We readers are suspended as well. Will the father receive him? Or will he reject him and renege on his right to have him stoned? All mystery is quickly removed. “But,” as the parable goes, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Hughes supposes: 

What the son didn’t realize was that everything about him was burnt on his father’s consciousness. Every feature had been treasured in his dear father’s memory and wept over repeatedly, so that he would recognize his errant son anywhere. Even more, the father had been daily scanning the horizon for his lost son.[5]

Any burning question in the prodigal’s mind is quickly squelched the moment his father sees him. The father can hardly contain himself. Notice the rapid-fire account of his successive actions. He “saw him” and “felt compassion” and “ran” and “embraced him” and “kissed him.” The closer he comes to his son, the stronger his love is expressed for his son. 

Now the father’s response would be considered by his society to be entirely unacceptable. It has been said, “However inwardly glad [the father] may have been to see his son again, no older, self-respecting Middle Eastern male head of an estate would have disgraced himself by the undignified action of running to greet his son.”[6]The father throws all dignity out the window to show his love for his son who has returned. 

You would expect then with that kind of favorable welcome the son would sense no need to make a confession. But still panged in his conscience for his rebellion the son says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). We can’t be sure but it’s possible right here at this point in the confession the father cuts him off. The son had more to say in his rehearsed confession back in the foreign country (cf. v. 19). But the father seems to need no more because beginning in v. 22 he speaks to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And as it says in v. 20: “And they began to celebrate.”

What irony! The prodigal leaves home to party, but he ends up in servitude. He returns home expecting servitude, and he ends up in a party. 

He’s also fully reinstated as a son. The rob of prominence (garb fit for royalty), the ring (a sign of sonship), the shoes on his feet (a luxury not enjoyed by a slave), and the eating of the fattened calf (food fit for special occasions) all point to the reality that this prodigal has been restored. It was as though he were dead to his father as a son; it is as though he is alive again as his son. It was as though he were lost as a son; it is as though he is found again as a son. 

The prodigal has repented! New life has sprung out of death! This is a cause for celebration! And celebrate they do. Well…everyone except one: the older brother.

The Brother’s Jealousy (vv. 25-32)

In a perfect world you’d expect the older son to drop whatever he was doing, go change into some clothes better fit for a celebratory occasion, and go join in with the celebration of his brother’s return. But the world of the parable (a reflection of a world east of Eden) is not a perfect world. And so the older son’s response, v. 28: “But he was angry and refused to go in.” His actions are reminiscent of the prophet Jonah, a biblical character who also witnessed the mercy and compassion of God toward the repentant Ninevites, and likewise became fiery mad. 

The older son is not happy that a celebration is going on for his prodigal brother. The father catches wind of his anger: “his father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came,’” he won’t even refer to him as his brother, “‘who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’” (vv. 28b-30). 

What’s wrong with the older son’s heart? He’s jealous. It’s that simple. His brother, who royally disrespected his dad, is being treated like royalty, while he, who wasn’t rebellious to his father, hasn’t enjoyed the same kind of celebration for him and his friends. Now be honest, isn’t there a part of you that sees his point? Can’t you feel at least a little of his angst? Perhaps we all have some sympathy for the older brother and say with him, “It just doesn’t seem fair.”

But the reality is this: the older brother is flat our wrong. He has no reason to complain. As the older brother, it was part of the societal norms that he would get two-thirds of his father’s inheritance. If anyone then was privileged, it was him! So let’s not show him any sympathies. The father sure doesn’t. He says beginning in v. 31: “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother,’” notice that, the father wisely reminds his oldest son that the prodigal has a familial connection to him as his brother,“‘was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” 

And so the older son repented of his jealousy, and they all lived happily ever after! Well, the parable doesn’t give that ending. Actually, it gives no ending. Jesus just leaves his original hearers with an open-ended parable. Why is that, we may ask? 

Jesus directed this parable to the self-righteous Pharisees and teachers of the law who grumbled: “This man [Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). You see, these religious leaders saw the “sinners” of society gathering around Jesus to listen to his teaching. While the tax collectors and prostitutes were hanging out with Jesus because he was teaching about a God who would forgive their sins, the religious leaders thought they were okay with God and needed no repentance. Jesus meant to set them straight with this parable.

The prodigal in the parable represents the tax collectors and sinners of the day. The father in the parable represents God who is compassionate toward repentant prodigals. The older son in the parable represents the jealous, self-righteous religious leader who thinks that he’s better than everyone else. 

But this parable was not just for some bygone day 2,000 years ago. It teaches a timeless truth that is applicable to anyone, whether they’ve thrown away their life because of sins of passion(the prodigal) or they’ve lived their days holding onto sins of attitude(the older brother).[7]The parable of a prodigal’s repentance teaches about the radical compassion of God toward repentant sinners

Teaches About The Radical Compassion of God Toward Repentant Sinners …

The extent of God’s radical compassion covers all who turn to him in genuine repentance. This speaks of the need for genuine repentance on our part. The prodigal so beautifully portrays bona fiderepentance. “He accepts,” as one commentator observes, “the consequences of his sin. There are no excuses, only humble confession and a humble request. The picture shows what repentance looks like: no claims, just reliance on God’s mercy and provision.”[8]That’s genuine repentance. It’s coming face-to-face with ourselves and it’s coming to the end of ourselves. It has rightly been said that you can’t get found until you first get lost. We have to see ourselves as lost in sin before we can get found in the Savior.

The prodigal also says something that deserves at least quick attention. He recognizes in his confession, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you” (vv. 18, 21). He sees his sin first and foremost as an offense against God. Any time we sin we always run past the first two commandments before we break five through ten. King David understood this reality. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and was guilty of murdering her husband, Uriah. But when his sins were exposed what did he say? “Against you and you alone have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps. 51:4). Now did he sin against his fellow man? Big time. But those sins were germinated in a heart initially committed to rebellion against God. So, all sin is first and foremost a sin against heaven. 

But the glorious truth of this parable is that should we come to our own sinfulness and flee to the God of radical compassion we will find him in an all out sprint after us. Can you see this God in Psalm 103:8-13?

The LORD is merciful and gracious, 
                  slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
                  nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
                  nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, 
                  so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
As far as the east is from the west,
                  so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion to his children,
                  so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.

The same God portrayed in that Old Testament Psalm is the same God revealed in the New Testament. Only now with the dawning of the New Testament era, God has stepped down in the person of his Son and brought his compassion to completion. On the cross we see God’s radically extravagant response to our sinful plight, as Paul said, “God demonstrates his own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). While we were yet sinners; even though we were in a state of sin; God acted in radical compassion toward us. He looked from heaven on our filthy debauchery, and even when the stench from wallowing in the mud of iniquity was still on our clothes, he saw us and felt compassion for us and sprinted after us and embraced us and kissed us in the glorious work of the cross. 

And with that kind of radical compassion we can’t help but repent and believe. And having repented and believed, the Lord clothes us in sonship: “But to all who have received him—those who believed in his name—he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). That’s radical compassion! And as sure as God is God you can be confident that if you stand today as a repentant sinner embraced by the cross of Christ you are his child. It doesn’t matter if you are turning to Christ from your prodigal lifestyle where sinful passions have dominated your pilgrimage, or you are turning to Christ from your Pharisaical lifestyle where sinful attitudes of jealousy have reigned in your life, this parable teaches that all who turn to Christ in genuine repentance are covered under God’s radical compassion.

That’s Luke intent in including this parable. And so a faithful application of this text is . . .

So, Repent of Your Sin Because God is Compassionate!

Repent of your sin because God is compassionate! Look at this picture of God in this parable and marvel at his compassion toward sinners. Step into this biblical world and let your heart be amazed that you, a sinner who is captive by sinful passions and/or attitudes, can enter a relationship with God where he runs after you in Christ. 

I must tell you that the notions of God’s kindness and compassion are truths that should lead you to drop your sin and trust in Christ. The apostle Paul said this very thing in Romans 2:4 that “the kindness of God is meant to lead you to repentance.”

Maybe you are living like a prodigal—you know your passions for the pleasures of the world and sin are great. You’d rather do anything but serve God and him alone, obey your parents, honor God with your sexuality, and spend your money to his glory. Look at God’s compassion toward sinners! It’s meant to lead you to repentance.

Christopher Yuan, a professor at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, understands this. He recently tells how early on in life he had attractions to those of the same sex. When he went off to college, with all his newfound freedom, he went deeper and deeper into sin. In telling his story he says:

While in dental school, I was experiencing all this freedom, and I got involved in just the wrong crowd and the party scene. I was going to gay clubs, spending most of my free time there. Unfortunately, I also began experimenting with drugs, and to support my habit I sold drugs . . . [Then one day there was] a knock on my door. I was arrested, and the federal government confiscated the street value equivalent to 9.1 tons of marijuana. With that amount I was facing ten years to life . . . Well, in prison one day I found a Bible in the trashcan and began reading it. It began to convict me . . . I began reading it, and it brought God’s truth to the reality of my sin . . . I realized that as I read God’s word that my sexuality shouldn’t be who I am, that my identity needed to be in Jesus Christ alone . . . I am reminded of what Paul says in Romans 2:4, that it’s God’s kindness . . . that leads us to repentance.[9]

There’s an example of someone who has experienced the compassion of God in Christ toward repentant sinners. Maybe you haven’t found yourself entangled in that prodigal lifestyle, but your wanderings are similar. See God’s compassion on the cross of Christ!

Or maybe your sin is something that touches more on the attitudes. You, like the older son, turn your nose up at prodigals who turn to God in repentance. With this attitude you find it impossible to rejoice when others experience the grace of God. It’s been said before that we find our true selves not so much when others are weeping but when others are rejoicing. I think that’s true. If we find ourselves never able to rejoice at the grace of God toward other sinners, then there is something terribly wrong with our hearts. That was the older son. 

The parable didn’t end. The invitation is open to you today. Come and find the Savior to be more satisfying than the death grip you have on your sinful attitudes of hatred and jealousy. He died for those sins as well so that anyone who repents of them and trusts in his death on the cross for their sins will be saved. 

God’s compassion is meant to lead us to repentance!


[1]Hugh Binning, Works, 52, quoted on the website: https://www.puritanboard.com/threads/the-compassion-of-an-infinite-god.88797/

[2]Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables(Downers Grove: IVP, 1990), 171.

[3]The prodigal’s action in the Greek is captured by the word, which means “to gather.” So he took all his things and gathered them together—a commercial expression for turning goods into cash (BDAG, 962).

[4]BDAG, 371-72.

[5]Hughes, 576.

[6]Blomberg, 176.

[7]Hughes, 578.

[8]Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1313.