For as many years as I have read and reflected and preached and prayed over this parable, I have been drawn to three words in this passage. Those three words change the whole course of the story.
The three words come when the Prodigal came to himself.
What exactly happened when he “came to himself”? I’ve heard many sermons that fix upon that phrase as the moment of grace. We imagine that the Prodigal feels deep conviction for the sins he has committed, and we imagine him going to his knees to confess and repent.
Frankly, that’s a stretch.
Read the passage again and look for any word such as sorry or remorseful. Is it all about his guilty soul, or is it actually about his empty stomach? Does he sincerely repent, or does he just have good common sense about getting a square meal?
We cannot be certain of the answer-or, more to the point, Jesus keeps it dark. For in a parable we see exactly what the Master desires us to see. And what He wants us to know for now is that the Prodigal knows he needs help. He surrenders. If there is any slim hope of his reinstatement at home, then at the very least he must repay every cent he has squandered. Working as a pig farmer, he knows he will never make it that far. As a matter of fact, he hasn’t even been paid for his labor (“No one gave him anything” [v. 16]). He only thought that slopping hogs was reaching the bottom; slopping them for free-even lower.
So now he is desperate enough to consider slinking home. He sees himself at the very bottom of the pecking order, no longer a son but a servant. In time, maybe over a number of years, he could work off his debt.
It is essential that we, Jesus’ listeners, understand that the Prodigal is still unprepared for grace. He is still running his own plans, only sadder and wiser in running them. Whether he realizes it or not, he is still securely within the borders of the far country, a self-chosen exile from the rescue of unconditional love.
We might prefer that the Prodigal “redeem himself,” but that would be a misunderstanding of this parable and a misunderstanding of grace. No one on this planet has the ability to redeem him- or herself. Every one of us, like the Prodigal, must ultimately throw him- or herself on the mercy of the court.
But wait-are we certain the Prodigal isn’t penitent? Listen to his speech he is preparing to give: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.
Again, Kenneth Bailey offers us a surprising glimpse behind the details. The Pharisees in Jesus’ audience would recognize the son’s speech as the words of Pharaoh when he tried to manipulate Moses into lifting the plagues (see Exodus 10:16). The Egyptian ruler certainly had no contrite heart; his words were simply damage control for the natural disasters that were ravaging his land. He would have said whatever Moses wanted him to say.3
Many a humble word has been spoken when someone is at the mercy of someone else. Words are cheap and inadmissible as evidence of a repentant heart. The Prodigal was simply seeking access to what he hadn’t already consumed of his father’s estate.
In other words, he is like you or me trying to save ourselves, completely on our own. — Captured by Grace: No One Is Beyond the Reach of a Loving God (Dr David Jeremiah)