The Dutch artist Rembrandt created my favorite painting called “Return of the Prodigal Son,” which is on display at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Rembrandt based his work on a story Jesus once told his disciples and the teachers of the law. It’s the story of the unchanging heart of God and a man Jesus calls “the prodigal son.”
Jesus begins his story with a father who has two sons. The younger son says, essentially, “Dad, I want my inheritance now. I want to make my own way in the world.” In biblical times, if you were to tell your parents you wanted your inheritance, you were essentially telling them, “I wish you were dead.” Jesus' hearers would’ve thought, “This son is not treating his father as he should.”
To the shock of Jesus’ listeners, I’m sure, the father gives his youngest son what he asks for, and the son goes off and lives a wild life. In America, people go to Las Vegas when they want to go a little wild, hence the saying “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” In Jesus' story, it's as if this young son leaves his home, leaves his legacy, and goes to a place like Las Vegas, where he can party and do whatever he wants. But the problem is that he only has so much money. When the money runs out, the friends and women run out too. All of a sudden he finds himself at rock bottom.
Jesus says the prodigal son reaches the point where he has to work with pigs. In those times, a job like that indicated a complete loss of dignity. He is so hungry he wishes he could eat the pig food. Jesus says it is then the son comes to his senses.
“If I can go home, I can be a servant,” he thinks. “For even a servant for my father has it better off than I do.”
But while he is still a long way off, his father sees his son coming home. And he does something very controversial for this time: he runs to his son. The son probably thinks his dad is going to hurt him. He has done everything wrong and he deserves judgment. But Jesus says the father doesn't hurt the son but embraces him and clothes him in apparel reserved for guests of honor.
I don't know where you are right now in life, but I imagine many people are in a broken place. This past year especially, it feels like everything has fallen apart. Maybe you feel like the destitute son.
All of us have a prodigal story. “Prodigal” simply means someone who has rebelled and wandered off the right path. We all know what it's like to disobey, to feel like we're in trouble, to feel like there’s a sense of wrath or guilt hanging over us. But the good news of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday is that Jesus came and paid the price of our shame — he took it on himself and did away with it, forever.
We are all guilty before a holy God. But God loved us so much that he allowed his son, Jesus, to die to redeem us and to overcome the power of death on our behalf.
Maybe you’re feeling a stirring that there is more for your life than what you’re living right now. The world tries to make us think that money and relationships will make us happy, that living for pleasure will fulfill our deepest desires. But the truth is that only God will satisfy us because each of us has a void in our heart only he can fill.
We’ve all done wrong. We’ve all messed up. But the good news of the story of the prodigal son is that he decides to go home. And we can too.
Nick Hall is the visionary of the Together movement, author of Reset, and the founder of PULSE, a ministry at the center of the largest millennial-led prayer and outreach efforts in the world. Follow him @NickHall.