If you were to ask people what the most difficult thing in the world is to do, you would likely receive as many answers as the number of people you asked. Some might say, ‘To jump out of an airplane with a parachute.’ Another might say, ‘To climb Mt. Everest.’ Still another might say, ‘To swim the English Channel.’ I think one of the most difficult things for a person to do—if not the most difficult—is to say to another person the three simple words, ‘I forgive you,’ and mean it.
When we’ve been hurt, lied to, cheated, taken advantage of, disrespected, or just simply mistreated, it can be extremely difficult to forgive the other person—even when they ask for it. Even when they say they are sorry; we might accept their apology; we may even say we forgive them, but then often we walk away continuing to harbor bitterness and anger toward them, and that bitterness and anger can sometimes linger for years. Eating away at us. Seeping into our bones. Gnawing at our emotions. Over time we try and convince ourselves we’ve forgiven that person. Everything is fine. We’ve gotten past it, but we haven’t. We know it. God knows it. And often, everyone else knows it.
Forgiving others can be incredibly difficult, especially if they haven’t asked for it or have not even acknowledged they’ve done anything wrong. This is what makes the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 so amazing. A story that is clearly designed to teach us something about God’s forgiveness. In the story we read (vv.11-12) “And he said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them.” Now we must stop right there for a moment and really analyze what is happening here in the story. In first-century Judaism, children did not receive their inheritance until after their parents passed away. This was expected and accepted tradition. For example, in the Book of Sirach, a second-century Jewish religious book, it reads: “At the time when you shall end your days, and finish your life, distribute your inheritance” (33:23). Thus, for the youngest son to ask his dad for his inheritance would be essentially to say, ‘Dad, I wish you were dead. I want my stuff now.’ Imagine how hurt and upset the father must have been. The youngest son simply couldn’t wait for his father to kick the bucket and give him his share of the inheritance. What is amazing is that despite his son’s insulting and sinful behavior, the father grants him his request. The father shows himself to be incredibly gracious. This is very much like God the Father. In Matthew 5 Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (vv.44-45). And then in James 1:17 scripture tells us that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from [God] above.” It is God who causes his sun to rise on the good and evil. It is God who causes rain to fall on the just and unjust. It is God who blesses all people with good things despite their moral fortitude or lack thereof. Thus, even though most people in the world shake their fists at God and curse God with their words and by their actions, he graciously gives them what they don’t deserve. God is good and merciful and gracious.
The story then tells us that (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.” The fact that he took a “journey into a far country” tells us that his father had given him a lot of money. How much would it cost a person today to take a trip to Europe or Asia? And then while there he “squandered his property in reckless living.” The Greek word for “reckless” carries the meaning of “wild abandoned living.” In other words, he spent all his father had given him on drinking and women and partying, and just living in reckless debauchery.
Now we must understand that Jesus’ Jewish audience who were listening to Jesus tell this story were probably thinking to themselves, ‘This son needs to be put to death. He has brought shame and disgrace upon his father and upon his family.’ And they would be right to think that. According to the Old Testament (Deut 21:18-21) any parents who have a rebellious son who is a drunkard and a glutton is to be put to death. And that is exactly what this boy is. This boy is a rebellious, drunken, glutton of a son. And so, they are probably thinking, ‘What is this father going to do to his son if he ever gets his hands on him?’
Notice how the story continues: (vv.14-16) “And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So 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.” He eventually runs out of money. And just as he runs out of money, a severe famine hits the land, and so now he is in need, which means that he is now hungry, thirsty, destitute, and probably homeless, which means that very likely all of his so-called “friends” have left him. He once was surrounded by friends and women and crowds, but now that his money is all gone—he’s got no one. And so he takes a job on a pig farm where they apparently did not pay him very well because we’re told that he longed to be “fed with the pods the pigs ate.” He longed to eat pig slop. Keep in mind, this was a despicable, miserable job. This was a job no one else wanted. Jews, according to the Old Testament, were forbidden from doing anything with pigs, so the fact that he is now working on a pig farm means he is either completely desperate or he has denied the faith or both. Either way, this was the kind of job any good Jew would be completely embarrassed and humiliated to have. He has hit rock bottom. There’s a lesson to be learned: sin will always take you farther than you ever intended to go; it will keep you longer than you ever intended to stay; and it will cost you more than you ever intended to pay. Dabbling with sin is playing with fire.
Then we’re told in v.17 that “he came to himself [he came to his senses], and 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.’” He comes up with this idea and this short speech that he probably practiced all the way home in the hopes that when he got there his father would at least take him in as a servant and let him live among the servants.
Now this is where the suspense starts to build, because Jesus’s audience would have been thinking, ‘That father is so going to so kill that son when he shows up!’ So what happens? “And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Now this was something that was never done in ancient Israel. In fact, this is something that is still not done today in the Middle East. Distinguished male adults wearing robes do not run. They certainly do not run to a son who has insulted his father and brought such shame and disgrace upon the family name. But here, the father runs! And when he reaches his son, he says to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” But the father interrupts his speech and orders 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 they began to celebrate” (vv.20-24). The father doesn’t care what his son has done. He doesn’t care that he has squandered the family fortune in immoral and reckless living. He doesn’t care that his son wished him dead before he left. He doesn’t care that he has brought shame and disgrace on the family name. The father only cares about one thing—his son has come home. His son has returned in repentance and has sought forgiveness. And the father forgives him, embraces him, and takes him in. Nothing in the past matters. All that matters is the present, and the restoring of their relationship.
This is a picture of what God does for us when we come to him in repentance, seeking forgiveness. Scripture tells us in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful to forgive us of our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” No matter what we’ve done, no matter how bad we’ve blown it, when we come to God in repentance, seeking forgiveness, God runs to us and embraces us and takes us in. That being the case, the Bible also tells us in 1 John 4:10-11, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” If God so loved us in this way, if God is willing to forgive us of our sins, if Jesus was willing to pray for the forgiveness of those who crucified him (Luke 23:34), then how much more should we be willing to forgive those who have sinned against us? Forgiveness is a biblical, liberating, healing force that we rob ourselves us when we deny it to others.