The parable of the Prodigal Son recorded in Luke 15:11-32 is a powerful illustration. A month ago, I wrote on how Jesus told it to tell the depth of God’s love, grace, and mercy. I imagine it is one of your favorite stories in Scripture, as it is mine, but it is not an accurate portrayal of the Gospel.
Preachers use it over and over again to tell how that God forgives us when we turn to Him and how He saves us, but the illustration fails to accurately convey the story of salvation. So, am I saying Jesus told it wrong? No, but I am saying that Jesus did not tell the story of the Prodigal Son to explain salvation. Rather, He told it merely to contrast God’s love to that of the religious leaders of that day.
A parable to teach salvation would express even greater love than that expressed in the Story of the Prodigal Son. In this story told by Jesus, a son asks for his inheritance early. This was greatly offensive to his father. Then the son went off and blew the money in wild living. He eventually finds himself caring for pigs and eating their slop. This was beyond rock bottom for a Jew. In the illustration, the son thinks how that even his Father’s servants had it better than himself. So, he went back home to ask for forgiveness and to be made a servant. But the father was looking and even when the son was a long way off he ran to his son. He hugged him. Gave his son a robe, ring, and sandals. All to show he was restored as a son. The father then threw a party.
Powerful story, right? Unfathomable love and forgiveness. The very love that God possesses and displays, but that isn’t the whole picture of the Gospel. It misses how that we are born into sin and completely separated from God, yet He hunts us down and gives us a gift that cost Him dearly and that we we don’t deserve. Read this version of the Prodigal Son story that would describe salvation.
In a parallel illustration teaching salvation, the son would not start as a son. The son would not have a father. He would still be in that pig sty, but with no hope of anything else. He might try to earn his way out and into the riches of the king and the king’s nobles, but nothing could change the young man’s lot in life. He would be stuck. Hopeless. In darkness.
But one day the king who lived in the palace, and owned the cattle on a thousand hills would head towards the palace door. He would pass numerous sons and daughters. He was not in need of any more family. He was not in need of an heir. He would walk by thousands of possible friends. All of whom had power, money, and other things to offer. He would step out of the palace and survey his fields, pastures, vineyards, and barns that stretched farther than the eye could see. All of them fully employed with the best farmers, ranchers, shepherds, gardeners, and hired hands one could have.
He would then take a journey to a faraway land. In his hands, he would have a beautiful new robe, ring, and sandals. He would walk and walk. He would walk through the muck and mire. Through thorns. Insults and mocking would be spoken to him each place he went. He would be hated by each person he passed.Conspiracies would be made against him.
As he drew near to the pig sty that the unexpecting young man worked and lived, authorities would begin to follow him. Eventually he would be arrested. False charges would be made against him and they would be validated by false testimonies. He would then be beaten beyond recognition. Then he would be sentenced to be executed as a common thief.
At any moment, he could have revealed he was the king. He could have summoned his army. He could have ordered the death of those who gave false testimony against him. But the king had a mission.
During his final hours, he made a request. He asked that the young man in the pig sty would receive the items he had with him.
The king died in a public execution, but couriers would walk to an obscure pig sty and tell the young man they had a message for him. He was to immediately to step out of the sty. His debts had been paid. He was then given a bath. A fresh new robe and sandals were placed on him. He was given a ring from someone he didn’t even know — the king. Then he would be ushered back to the palace. The ring signified he was now a son of the king.
The story of Prodigal Son tells of God’s great love, but in the complete Gospel of salvation we see even a greater love. For while were still sinners Jesus died for us. Even more than that, He having the very nature of God, stepped out of Heaven onto the mire of earth. He was ridiculed, beaten, and crucified. All so that we would have a possibility to leave the confines of sin and enjoy God and His blessings for eternity.