His body ached as he made his trek to the field. The slop he carried had splashed onto his weary feet and he swallowed hard as the stench from the hogs filled his nostrils. The sun beat down on his back as he walked. Nearing the field where the swine were, he saw the herd run through the mud to their food. He watched as they ate, his own stomach growling as he looked at the half eaten corncobs and day old bread floating in the slop. His tired legs gave way as he sank to the ground, his hands reaching into the muddy scraps to eat.
There in the field, he cried.
Most of us know the story. This young man had asked his father for his share of the estate and once he received it, he left home, traveled far away and blew his entire inheritance on temporary, empty pleasures. When the money ran out and a famine swept through the land, his friends vanished and the young man was left with nothing. He came to his senses while in the field feeding the swine - the only job he had been able to find. It was there he remembered the atmosphere of his father's house. Maybe, just maybe, if he went back, his father would allow him to work as a hired hand. So he got up and made the journey back home.
He was still quite far from his father's house when he heard a distant cry of exclamation. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he saw a figure up ahead running to him with arms outstretched.
Falling to his knees he said, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." As though he hadn't even heard him, the father called to his servants and said, "Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate! My son was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found!"
Many sermons have been delivered and many studies taught on this story in Luke 15. Often it's coupled with the appeal to "get out of the hog pen!" and the warning of "don't go into the far country!" I'd like to offer even more to think about.
My favorite character in the story is the father. The father of the prodigal son had obviously lived his life in such a way that the son knew he would be shown a measure of mercy and not be rejected by going home. The character and nature of the father was one that would never rehash nor use the sins of his son, but would rejoice in the truth and celebrate his repentance.
The prodigal son would have been content with the mercy of being a servant but the mercy he received from the father was so much more than he ever expected. The father lavished upon his son all the finery of his home and embraced him with kindness. The prodigal son had never lost his place or his title... and neither do we in the eyes of our God. What grace!
The story could have ended with the joyful celebration of the son's return, but it doesn't. Instead, the story ends with a sobering reminder to us all.
The prodigal son had an older brother. This older brother had been faithful to his work and had not foolishly squandered his inheritance away like his younger brother had. One would think that upon his brother's return, he would rejoice too...but he didn't. In fact, when the older son saw that his father had thrown a party to welcome his younger brother home, he was angry and jealous. In his mind and in his heart, he had already deemed his younger brother unworthy and even when the father came out and pleaded with him to come and celebrate, the older son refused to join in welcoming his brother home. Many of us look down our noses at the public sins of others all while soaking in the mire of our more private - more "acceptable" - sins.
It's quite easy for the showered and well dressed to pitch a righteous fit and look down at the pathetic prodigal sitting in the mud and assume that the wayward is having an enjoyable time dipping their hands in the slop. Oh hear me, no happy person eats with the hogs. It is only those full of fear, pain and shame who kneel beside the pigs in the mud. And truthfully, it's only by God's grace that you are not beside them. One of the saddest things to see is someone who lives in torment, too afraid and too ashamed to get up from the mud and find healing and forgiveness in the arms of the father. Sadder still is when the professed people of God toss more mud into the pen where the prodigal lies. It is far more shameful for the high minded to scorn the ignorant than it is for the repentant to have been ignorant in the first place. Let us never forget that we are called to resemble the Father - the One who scans the horizon for the prodigals face and rejoices in the repentance that brings the prodigal home. Let us be soberly aware that no prodigal will ever return to a place where they wouldn't be received. Praise God, the Father we have in heaven is full of compassion with mercies that never fail, but are new every morning.
May we be like Him.