Why Did the Father Let the Prodigal Son Go?

“A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.” ’ So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.”

Luke 15:11b-24, NASB

This parable told by Jesus is a popular one. Have you ever wondered, though, why the father agreed to the younger son’s demands? Surely he knew his son’s character, didn’t he? The father’s estate was to be divided between his sons upon his death. To demand his portion of the estate first shows at least the younger son’s impatience and avarice. What about the dishonor to the father himself and the entire family? Why would such a loving father allow his son to leave and wreak ruin upon himself?

God cares about the heart. I don’t mean the beating organ pumping blood from inside our chests, nor do I mean merely emotions. I mean that which is who we are, the truest part of ourselves which we ourselves often do not know well but which reveals itself in our words (Matthew 12:34-36). Perhaps the father in the parable knew that his son’s heart was gone astray and that nothing – no coercion, no eloquent words of teaching, no demanding – could change his heart. The father could control his son’s actions, to an extent, but what the father wanted was his son’s heart.

The son had everything he needed in his father’s house, but his heart chased other things. Because his father was insufficient? Not at all. King Solomon was the wisest man to ever live (besides Jesus), and he observed,

“Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live”

Ecclesiastes 9:3b, ESV

The folly and wickedness of his own heart drove the younger son from his father’s house, and he chased all the folly and wickedness of his heart in foolish and wicked living. And he came up empty. Utterly desolate, impoverished and apparently friendless. Dishonored even. Then in the midst of his suffering and hunger, he realized two things, the same that John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” realized: that he had done wrong and that his father was loving.

“My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things – that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.”

John Newton

With this knowledge, the son returned to his father – with his whole heart – and his father rejoiced.

I just watched the movie Roe v. Wade (*spoilers ahead*) and it is narrated by the actor playing the late Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who was once called “The Abortion King” and later (after obstetric sonograms were introduced and popularized in the 70’s) became a staunch advocate for pro-life. The movie portrays the moment that Dr. Nathanson tried to do an abortion using a sonogram and realized that the baby in the womb was a person. As he broke down and cried (and I did, too), God whispered to my spirit, “I brought My son home.” You see, Dr. Nathanson had been raised a Jew, and like the prodigal son, he had strayed far, even calling himself a Jewish atheist. Also like the prodigal son, when he realized he had killed 70,000 persons in women’s wombs, he cried out that he had sinned and ran home to the heavenly Father. He became not only a true believer in God the Father but also in His Son, the Lord and Savior, Jesus the Messiah.

This leads into the second part of the prodigal son story.

“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’ ”

Luke 15:25-32, NASB

Some might say that the taking of 70,000 unborn lives is unforgivable. I would point them to the cross, to the blood of the only begotten Son of God running down the beam and puddling on the ground, to the dying breath of the Giver of Life.

“It is finished!”

John 19:30b, NASB

The blood of Jesus, a price beyond fathoming, was paid for the sins of all who would believe in Him. What sin can possibly outweigh that value or overwhelm that power? Do not be the older son. When a prodigal returns home, rejoice with the Father, for in truth we are all prodigals.

Photo: The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni

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