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When I served as editor in chief of Tabletalk magazine, I committed my share of gaffes. I received more than my share of sweet-natured but school-marmish notes about why this semicolon should have been a colon, or why further was the better word in context than farther. But there were bigger blunders as well. Once, I allowed the magazine to go out with one word of its two-word title misspelled. Happily, we received virtually no feedback on that one because the misspelled word was in Latin.
Only once, however, can I remember receiving high praise for a mistake. I wrote something about the parable of the prodigal son, and by accident I referred to it as the story of the prodigal father. The letter I received was chock full of high praise: “I can’t believe someone finally said it. I always think this is what the story should be called. Thank you for having the courage and the insight to make this point.” He went on for so long that it started to feel pretty good, until I remembered I had made a mistake, not communicated an insight.
As I read, however, I came to see the wisdom of the man’s perspective—not on my editorial skills but on the parable. It is indeed the story of the prodigal father. It is true enough that prodigal can mean “wasteful” or “careless.” It can also, however, refer to someone who is extravagant in giving, overflowing in graciousness, abundant in tenderness and love.
It is good and wise that we should learn to recognize ourselves in the Bible. I always encourage people with this rule of thumb: if you want to know who you are in a Bible story, you are the sinner. Then, in part because of this very parable, I add this: if the story has more than one sinner, you are both of them. We are both of the brothers in the parable of the prodigal son. We squander the gifts given to us by our Father. We dishonor and disobey Him. We pursue our own ends, seeing Him as merely the supplier of our needs so we can get on with acquiring our wants. On the other hand, we are also like the older brother, thinking ourselves rather fine fellows. We don’t sin as outrageously as the heathen we see on television. We aren’t hedonists like the prodigal. We, because we are sinners, somehow manage to be both libertines and Pharisees, self-indulgent and self-righteous.
The story, however, doesn’t end there. It is a good thing to come face to face with the depth and scope of our sin. It is a better thing, however, to come face to face with the grace of God. The parable does tell us how bad we are—but it ends with a robe, a fattened calf, and a great celebration. It ends with a heartfelt embrace of the prodigal, and a gentle, loving call to repentance for the older brother. The story ends, just as our story ends, with the grace of God for us.
A wise theologian more than once has said that the great question plaguing those outside the kingdom is this: What do I do with my guilt? Romans 1:18–32 argues that it is precisely the desperate need to forget that guilt that leads the lost to folly and perversion. We worship the creature because the creature won’t judge us. We exchange the truth that we are under judgment for the lie that we are perfectly safe. We determine that what we need to be safe is more stuff. So, instead of worrying about the judgment that is to come, we worry about what we will eat and what we will drink, just like the prodigal son in the pigsty of the far-off country.
The answer to both problems, however, is found in the Father. We ought never, in dealing with those outside the kingdom, to diminish their sin for the sake of winning them. We must not belittle their rebellion. We must never nuance their moral crimes into mistakes, errors, or lapses in judgment. We must never seek to diminish in their eyes the reality of the wrath of God. We must, however, be quick to point them to the one and only solution to their problem: the overflowing grace of God. God forgives the repentant. The answer to our guilt is not to deny God, to flee from Him, but to run to Him. “This is the one to whom I [the Lord] will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2b).
We are to seek first the kingdom of God. As we do, however, we would do well to remember that we woke up and began our journey because He breathed life into us. We would do well to remember that while we were yet afar off, He girded up His loins and ran to us, crying, “My son, my son.” We would do well to remember that when we feast with Him at His table, we receive a foretaste of the feast to come. Because we move from grace to grace, we would do well to move from amazed to astonished. If you are in Christ, your Father loves you, forgives you, and is even now pouring out His grace on you. “The Father himself loves you, because you have loved [Jesus]” (John 16:27). Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad.