Well, what is the lesson here? Welcome to Grace to You with John MacArthur.
I'm your host, Phil Johnson. The novelist, Charles Dickens, called the parable of the prodigal son the greatest short story ever written. You may have known the story since your earliest Sunday school days, but even though this parable is widely known, and frankly, it's a pretty simple story, it's one of the most misunderstood passages in the Bible.
How can that be? What's to misunderstand? Well, for starters, it's not just about a single rebellious son. More accurately, it's the tale of two sons, and that's the title of the series John MacArthur continues today here on Grace to You. If you have your Bible, turn to Luke's gospel, and here is John MacArthur.
We turn now in the Word of God to Luke chapter 15. We begin in verse 11 with a very familiar parable of our Lord, probably His best known and most memorable parable called the parable of the prodigal son. This is a dramatic story. This is a moving story.
All of it is deeply interesting and impactful on the thinking of anyone who is gripped by divine truth. Now it falls into three characters, the younger son, the father, and the older son. But we begin with the younger son...the younger son. And as we open the story of the younger son, I want to take you to two things to think about.
First, a shameless request and then a shameless rebellion. Verse 11, and He said, A certain man had two sons and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give Me the share of the estate that falls to Me. When Jesus said that, you could imagine that the Pharisees and the scribes who were His only audience went, Ugh! This is absolutely an outrageous statement.
In fact, the truth of the matter is, for a son to say that in the sensibilities of the ancient Middle East in village life would be 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've got other plans, they don't involve you, they don't involve this family, they don't involve this estate, they don't involve this village, I want nothing to do with any of you.
I want My inheritance now, which is equal to saying, I wish you were dead. The village would probably get word of this, circulate around a village typically. They would expect the father to be angry, ashamed, dishonored. They would expect him to be furious with his son. They would expect him to slap the boy across the face, to rebuke him, to shame him, to punish him, to dismiss him from the family and perhaps even to hold a funeral.
But this is the first surprise in the story. Go back to verse 12, and he divided his wealth between them. Rather than strike him across the face for his insolence, the father grants him what he wants. He extends to him this freedom because he is willing to endure the agony of rejected love. And this is the agony that's the most painful of any personal agony, the agony of rejected love.
The greater the love, the greater the pain when that love is rejected. This is God. This is God giving the sinner His freedom. The sinner has no relationship to God whatsoever, doesn't love God, doesn't care about God, wants nothing to do with God, nothing to do with the family of God, wants nothing to do with the future of the family of God, wants no accountability to God, wants no interest in God, doesn't want to answer to God, doesn't want to submit to God, doesn't want any kind of relationship at all.
In fact, has none. He wanted what he wanted and he wanted it now. Well step one was to get the father to split the estate. It didn't take long for step two, verse 13, and not many days later.
And this begins the second thing that I told you you have to think about in the story first, a shameless request and then a shameless rebellion. Just a few days, not many days later. He didn't wait long. He couldn't wait.
He's waited long enough. He's sick of being in the father's presence. He's sick of having any accountability or relationship with the family. He has no love for his father. He has absolutely no love for his older brother either and his older brother has no love for him. And, by the way, as a footnote, the older brother has no love for the father either.
That's right. The older brother has no love for the father. In fact, when the boy comes home and the father is happy, the older brother is angry. He has no investment in the father's affections whatsoever. He is equally unloving, equally ungrateful even though he stays home.
He is the hypocrite in the house. So the father basically has no relationship with either son. These are two kinds of people who have no relationship with God. One is irreligious and one is religious.
One is as far away from God as he can get, the other is as close as he can be. But what did the younger son want? After many days it says, not many days rather later it says, the younger son gathered everything together. Literally that says he turned it all into cash. Turned it all into cash.
I want out, nothing to do with you. Technically, by the way, he could sell the property. Once it was given to him, even though the father still had some oversight and could get the interest off it and they couldn't actually take possession of it until the father died, there was a loophole, there was an out in the ancient tradition and that was this. He could sell it to somebody who would buy it but not take it until the father died. You say, well that's a pretty hard sell, isn't it?
Not necessarily. He wants cash. He needs to find a buyer for his third of this estate, a buyer who will give him the cash now and not take possession until the father is dead. Now if you think that's unusual, just remember that every day of the world people are buying what are called futures...commodities. And why would people buy something now that they can't get until the future? Because they think the price might go up. So you hedge against the future by paying the purchase price now even though you can't take possession until the future. This is buying futures.
This is hedging against the future. And you know the price was going to be good because you got a desperate seller. Nothing more wonderful, right, when you're the buyer than a desperate seller.
Somebody who wants out who wants out fast. Not many days later, he wants to turn everything into cash. His property can be sold which means buildings, land, animals, whatever it was, he gets the cash now, whoever bought it can't take possession until the father dies.
And, of course, there are people who would be glad to do that because it's going to be a fire sale. The guy wants out, he wants out now. He takes a discounted price and somebody is more than happy to hold on to the value of that property and wait the years until that man dies and then take it and put it into his own family's estate and future. This is the foolishness of the sinner. He wants to get away from God. He wants to get away from God now. He wants no accountability to God. He sells cheap all of the opportunities that God has provided for him, all the good gifts, all the gospel opportunities, everything that's good that God has put into his world, all that goodness and forbearance of God that's meant to lead him into a relationship with God. He spurns and once he gets his cash, you see what happens in verse 13, he went on a journey into a distant country.
Distant is the operative word, get out and get out fast and get out far. Gentile land would be a distant country. Any country outside Israel is Gentile land. He went to a Gentile land which was a horror. This is another horror. How bad is this kid? This kid is as bad as anybody could be. Well the rebellion is on and it tells us, back to verse 13, that when he got into the distant country, he there squandered his estate with loose living. Squandered means to scatter. He just threw it away...threw it away, hence prodigal. He wasted it.
Loose living, reckless, wasteful living, zoe ossotes, a dissipated life, a debauched life, a dissolute life. In fact, down in verse 30, his older brother says he devoured his wealth with harlots. Now some people think that might just be a trumped up accusation by the older brother.
But there is no older brother, this is only a story and the author of all of this is Jesus and Jesus put that in the story because that's an accurate reflection of what he wants to convey the young man did. What else would he do? Running as far as he could from all accountability, holding all his money intact, he goes into this far country trying to get away from any responsibility or accountability from his father and he dissipates his life in an immoral fashion. He wastes it.
He trashed his life, we would say, in the contemporary vernacular. Now obviously this young son represents open sinners, the rebels, the dissolute, the profligate, the dissipated, the debauched, the immoral, those who make no pretense of faith in God, no pretense of love for God. This is those in verse 1, this is the tax gatherers and the sinners, the outcasts, the irreligious and they run as far as they can from God because they have no love for Him and no relationship with Him. They don't want anything to do with His law or His rule. They don't want any accountability to Him whatsoever. They don't darken the door of the church.
They're not interested in exposing themselves to anybody's expectations. But sin never works out the way it looks, verse 14, now when he had spent everything. That kind of introduces the fact that when he arrived in the far country, he was the fat cat, the fair-haired boy, the new guy in town with the big bankroll.
He's got his rod. He comes into town, he sets himself on the party trail and goes on a wild spree, certainly collecting around him all kinds of people who wanted to cash in on his generosity, his foolish generosity. He surrounds himself with the riffraff and the scum and the low lifes and he runs out of money.
He spent everything, verse 14 says, that's his fault...that's his fault. But a severe famine occurred in the country, that's not his fault. But that's how life is. Some things are your fault and some things are not. But the conflicts of those things can be devastating.
Life is like that. A severe famine occurred in the country. Now you wouldn't know what a severe famine was and neither would I. What is a severe famine? How do people act in a severe famine? Not a famine of a minor nature, a severe famine our Lord says. And I kind of wanted to see if I could understand what a famine is and I found a description of a famine. This famine occurred back in the 1800s and a man wrote about it and it's pretty characteristic of what goes on in a famine. This would be what would be happening in a village.
This is what the sensibilities of the people listening to Jesus would understand. What is a famine? They would remember, for example, the times when Israel was under siege and women ate their afterbirth and even cannibalized their children.
That's in the Old Testament. That's a famine. But here's from the 1800s a description of a famine.
The writer tells of children being sold into slavery to keep them from starving. He speaks of men found dead every morning on the streets and when the numbers increased, the ruler of the city declared every man responsible for throwing the dead bodies in front of his house into the river. And not wanting to have all the dead bodies in front of their house, inhabitants of the city would drag the dead in front of other people's houses.
Every morning, quarrels would ring out across the city as men fought over where the dead bodies really died. Small merchants had to keep hippopotamus hide whips nearby to drive off the maddened beggars who would attack them bodily and ravish the little they had in their shops. Small merchants with their wares on the street would throw themselves across their wares as the miserable wretches came by to steal something to eat. Men venturing out at night, unarmed, were attacked and eaten. Straying animals were killed and eaten raw. Shoe leather, rotten flesh and garbage were all devoured.
They ate palm trees. Families in the village, seeing death on them, bricked up the doors of their houses and awaited death in an inner room to keep their own bodies from being devoured by hyenas. Entire villages were wiped out in this manner. This is a famine.
Something like that would be the picture in the minds of the listeners of Jesus when He told the story. You're talking about a level of desperation that's beyond anything we can conceive of. So now He's made some bad decisions Himself, the worst possible and circumstances have made it even more severe. This is life at its lowest, folks, and the Pharisees and the scribes listening to the story now are feeling the weight of the horror of the life of this young man from a wonderful place under a loving father in a generous environment. He has come to this.
It is life at its lowest in the pits at the most desperate. He has no family. He has nobody left. He's in a foreign land, nowhere to turn. All his resources are gone. He is destitute. He is on skid row. He is penniless.
He is alone. The party is over for sure. But he's still not ready to go home.
That's a big one. Still not ready to fully humble himself, to eat crow, to go back, to be shamed, to be humiliated, to face his father in the resentment of his older brother for having wasted the substance. The older brother knows that once the thing was split, he no longer could draw resources from the other third and therefore it would cheat him out of what he would get and that elevates his hatred. He doesn't want to face any of that. He doesn't want to face the town.
He doesn't want to face any of it. So he does what people tend to do when they hit bottom. It says at the end of verse 14, he began to be in need. For the first time, he can't supply what he needs. This is the beginning. And like typical sinners, he comes up with the first plan.
This is his plan A. He went, attached himself to one of the citizens of that country. The first thing he said is, I've got to get a job. I've got to pick myself up. This is typical of a sinner, runs from God, goes out, lives a dissolute, rebellious life, sends up a storm, winds up in the pit, winds up with absolutely nothing, is completely bankrupt, bare, he's on skid row, he's walking the street, has nothing, but he's going to pick himself up.
I've got to get a job and for the first time I have to work. Didn't get what he wanted out of his little enterprise. He didn't get what he wanted out of his escapade. He forfeited the easy life. He left a loving father. He ended up with a hard, hard life. He wanted unrestrained pleasure. He wanted his lust fulfilled without interruption and without rebuke. What he got was pain and unfulfillment, loneliness.
He was actually facing death. So he went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country. Citizen is a word that refers to a privileged person. Not everybody was a citizen. That meant you were privileged and honored by the society, given a place on the city roll. He found somebody who had some means, a citizen, and he attached himself...that's a great word in the Greek, kalau, to glue. He stuck himself to this guy.
I'm pretty sure that the implication here is that this wasn't the guy's idea. If you've ever traveled in the third world, shaking the beggars is one of the greatest efforts you'll have. You just go out on the street and it isn't very long before they're hanging on your coat, pulling on your arm, grabbing at your pockets and you've got to be protected because you really can be totally overwhelmed. The level of desperation causes people to do this. And the picture here is of a man who is now a beggar.
And so he finds a citizen who has some means and he sticks to this guy to the point that the guy can't get rid of him. And finally it says in verse 15, he sent him into his fields to feed pigs. This isn't really a job. I mean, it's the lowest possible thing that anybody could ever do.
And as it turns out, it doesn't pay anything. But to get rid of the guy, he says, go to the field and feed my pigs. And so desperate, he does it.
And at this point, the gasp is louder than ever. This is a Jewish boy feeding pigs in a Gentile land, serving a Gentile. Leviticus 11, 7, Deuteronomy 14, 8, other Old Testament passages indicate that Jews could not eat pork, unclean animals. And he ends up feeding pigs. Go feed my pigs.
This is lower than low can be. But it's not all. Look at verse 16. So he goes.
What else can he do? And he gets there and it says, he was longing to fill his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating. Hey, did you ever try to crowd in with the pigs to get the slop?
That's what it's saying. He was so hungry that he was not just feeding pigs and earning wages. He was trying to eat their food and battle them for it.
That's a losing battle. He was longing to fill his own stomach with the pods, carob pods, what they were is a bitter black berry that sometimes the pigs ate off a bush but was also collected and then molasses was extracted from the carob pods and the pulp that was left from that was thrown to the pigs. So what he's doing, very likely eating the pulp from carobs with the pigs. When I was in high school, a little bit in the summer, I worked for people who raised pigs in the east part of our city. It was a funny job, but one of my high school friends' father was in the business and they were the garbage collectors for the city of Los Angeles in those days. They collected all the garbage, they took it out east of the city and they boiled it in massive boilers and out came the boiled garbage and it went on to concrete floors where there were pigs. And all the boiled garbage was eaten by the pigs and then they sold the pigs. Pigs were killed, bacon was made, the bacon was put in the grocery store and the people who sent the garbage bought the bacon and started the cycle all over again.
That's how it works. But in the early years in Los Angeles, the same people who collected the trash were the ones who provided all the pork because that's how the system worked. And I could tell you, fighting pigs for something to eat would be a losing battle.
They're nasty. And here is this Jewish guy out there and the incredulous reality is he's a pig. He's not with them, he's one of them, only wishing that he was better at getting food, longing, epitheme, strong desire. He's in the struggle with the pigs.
It's just unthinkable. He's so low, he can't get lower. And whatever promise about job and money, verse 16 says at the end, no one was giving anything to him. He didn't get anything. That's what makes me think that he stuck himself to this guy and the guy said, get out of here, go feed my pigs and he had no other choice.
He ran out there, he wasn't being paid anything and he wound up acting like a pig trying to eat pig slop and get enough to fill his stomach. You cannot even begin to understand the highbrow elitist sensitivities of the Pharisees and the scribes imagining any Jewish young man doing this. Unthinkable. And in the end, nobody gave them anything. This is the greatest tragedy that they could ever conceive of. This is the greatest rebellion, the greatest breach, the greatest waste of a life, waste of an opportunity. This is the most despicable kind of conduct that they could conceive.
And that was the point. And now he's starving to death. This is desperation. This is the sinner, poor, hungry, hopeless, trying to get a little pig slop, nobody to help, nobody to pity him. What is the lesson here? The lesson is that sin is rebellion against God the Father. It is not rebellion so much against His Law, it is more rebellion against His relationship. It is the violation of His Fatherhood, His love. Sin is disdain, sure, for God's Law, but before that it's disdain for God's person, God's authority, God's will.
Sin is shunning all responsibility, all accountability. It is to deny God His place. It is to hate God. It is to wish God was dead. It is to not love Him at all, dishonor Him. It is to take all the gifts that He surrounded you with in life and squander them as if they were nothing. It is to run as far from God as you can get, to give Him no thought, no regard, no concern. It is to waste your life in self-indulgence and dissipation and unrestrained lust. It is to shun all except what you want.
And it is reckless evil and selfish indulgence that ends you up in the pig slop, bankrupt spiritually, empty, destitute, nobody to help, nowhere to turn, facing death, eternal death. And then the foolish sinner has exhausted Plan A, I'll fix my own life. I'll go to psychology. I'll take drugs. I'll drink alcohol. I'll go to some self-help group. I'll move to a new neighborhood.
I'll marry a new person when all that stuff is exhausted. The sinner wakes up at the bottom. This is where the young man is, a shameless request, a shameless rebellion, but it leads to a shameful repentance.
And that's for next time. That's John MacArthur, Chancellor of the Masters University and Seminary, with a story of rebellion, grace, and forgiveness, a story that shocked Jesus' original audience, and it has profound implications for you today. The Tale of Two Sons, that's John's series here on Grace to You. John, you've said that the Tale of Two Sons is perhaps the most inexhaustible of all of Jesus' parables, and yet it's simple enough for a child to grasp. But you have to wonder, if some people miss the profound truth of this parable, they may be because the story is so simple, so simple that they think they know it.
They think there's nothing more to discover. Yeah, most people who hear the story or read the story of the Prodigal Son misunderstand it. They hear it the way the unbelieving people heard it when Jesus told it, because Jesus spoke in parables, not to make things clear to unbelievers, but to hide things, and then he explained the meaning to his disciples. So it's not surprising that without an explanation, people don't necessarily understand the story of the Prodigal Son. But it's a powerful story, and it is the richest, I think, of all the parables our Lord told. We have developed from the original book I wrote, called The Prodigal Son, a condensed version called Grace for You. It condenses the story down, gives you the salient realities of the story.
You'll get the point. You'll get the message, and it's a powerful, powerful message. The story is really about two sons, one who was a wicked prodigal son, who in the end received salvation, and the other who was a religious and legalistic son, and in the end was lost. It's a powerful contrast between a wicked sinner who was saved and a wicked self-righteous man who was lost. And that's something Jesus dealt with a lot.
He came to save sinners, not the righteous. If you'd like a copy of this treatment of The Prodigal Son, titled Grace for You, 60 pages, we'll send it to you free of charge. All you have to do is let us know you want it, and we'll get it on the way. Again, it's a great tool to put in the hands of someone who's not a believer, as well as to inform yourself so that you can use its truths to communicate the gospel. Again, the booklet is Grace for You, and it's free to anyone who requests a copy.
Right, friend, I want to make sure you caught that last part. This little book is absolutely free. Just call or go to our website and request the title, Grace for You, today. Call between 730 and 4 o'clock Pacific Time, 800-55-GRACE, or go to our website, gty.org. This thought-provoking booklet examines the issue of redemption, and it shows God's willingness to graciously receive even those who rejected Him, and it reveals God's saving character. Again, we'll send a free copy of Grace for You to anyone who asks. Our number one more time, 800-55-GRACE, or go to our website, gty.org. And if John's verse-by-verse teaching, like today's message from John's study, The Tale of Two Sons, if it's helping you apply the life-changing truth of God's Word to your daily life, we would love to hear from you. Your feedback is more important than you might think, and make sure also to let us know what you think. And make sure also to let us know all of the ways you hear us. If you listen on radio, the podcast, the Grace to You app, oneplace.com, or whatever the means, email us at letters at gty.org. That's letters at gty.org. Or drop a note to us at Box 4000, Panorama City, California, 91412. Now for John MacArthur, I'm Phil Johnson. Join us next time when John looks at what it means to truly repent. That lesson comes your way tomorrow with another half hour of unleashing God's truth one verse at a time, on Grace to You.
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