Today God’s Word places the parable of the prodigal son before us. Jesus spoke this parable in response to the Pharisees and scribes. They were complaining that Jesus was receiving tax collectors and sinners and eating with them. Jesus was showing grace and mercy to tax collectors and sinners and receiving them into the kingdom of God. Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees and scribes in the characters of the gracious father and the resentful older son.
In applying this parable, there are several things we could do. This morning, I propose to look at what this parable has to say about freedom. This issue is raised in the character of the younger son.
For starters, we could think of how freedom is thought of and exercised in our culture today. It appears to me that the most prominent way of thinking about it seems to be absolute freedom of choice. It can be expressed as a person being free to choose what to do and no other person or entity having the authority to call that choice into question. Our culture appears to be pushing this concept of freedom as an absolute, that is, not only with respect to certain human relationships in limited ways, but also with respect to God and God’s commandments, morals, and ultimate issues of life and death, and human destiny and identity.Freedom of choice can also be pushed by our culture as unrestrained action. One has the right to do it whatever one’s “heart” says to do is good and right without interference from anyone else, not even God.
Freedom of choice appears to bring with it a whopper of an assumption, which is that a person is the master of one’s own destiny. Taken in absolute terms, this assumption is quite false. This is apparent from the parable. It can also be apparent from an honest appraisal of the way life goes. This assumption resembles the devil’s temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden: “You shall be like God” (Gen. 3:5).
Along a different line, there is a concept of freedom that is important in our culture. It relates to freedom from oppression or tyranny imposed by other human beings. This kind of freedom is a good thing, when kept in its proper perspective and when it involves oppression that God’s Word would recognize as oppressive. Being appropriately required by authorities God has established—and one’s own conscience—to abide by God’s commandments is not oppression that God’s Word would recognize.
This freedom, however, is relative and limited. It is relative to certain relations among human beings. It can be expressed in terms of individual rights in relation to limited government. It relates to the various vocations God has embedded in human culture in the civil realm. There is also a limited kind of freedom of choice that involves things within our power. It seems, however, that our culture is pushing these limited freedoms into absolute freedom of choice. When this is done, a category mistake is being made by making limited freedoms ultimate freedom.
Let us now turn to the parable. We can see the issue of freedom of choice at work in the younger son in the parable. The younger son wants his inheritance ahead of time. So, he demands from his father the portion of the father’s estate that is coming to him.
The father grants his request. This is a remarkable feature about this parable, which merits further development. Such development will have to wait for another time, however.
Anyway, the younger son gets the money. His pockets are full of cash. He gathers all his things and goes on a journey to a far-off country.
He conducts himself without restraint. He does whatever he chooses to do. He does whatever he feels and wants. He lives in a reckless manner morally, financially, and with respect to responsibilities. He has no regard for consequence. He is having a grand old time. He must think he is free.
He must have been filled with an exhilaration of freedom as he was heading down the road away from his father’s house, not looking back. Now he can do whatever he wants. No one is looking over his shoulder. He is the master of his own fate. Totally free.
It feels like his steps are lighter than air. He feels like he could leap over tall buildings. He spends his nights partying it up and his days sleeping it off. He spends his money on every indulgence.
Where does this so-called freedom of choice lead? Jesus tells us what happens next.
The money has disappeared. He has spent it all on his passions. Now he is in need. He has no money to buy food. He hires himself out to a man who sends him out into the field to feed pigs. He is really hungry. That man, however, won’t even give him any of the food meant for the pigs.
Now his freedom of choice has turned into slavery. He thought he was free as he was walking down the road in that exhilaration because he could make his own choices as the master of his own fate. In that state, he thought he was in complete control of himself and his own destiny. He thought he was free when he was “choosing” to party it up, when he was choosing to spend his money on every manner of indulgence. But he did not realize that he was a slave to his own lusts and passions. He was a slave to his own rebellion. The fact that the rebellion felt good at the time and gave him the feeling of freedom makes no difference. His slavery to his own rebellion, which translated into real, concrete behavior, had real, practical consequences. The so-called freedom to choose was an illusion, a deception. When he set off like he did, he was really out of control.
He was also not free because he could not control the consequence of his actions. If he really had the freedom of choice and had been the master of his own fate, he would have been able to do what he chose and control the outcome. But it does not work that way in God’s universe.
What then is true freedom if it isn’t the freedom to choose in some sort of autonomy? True freedom is this: it is when one’s will is in willing conformity with God’s good and gracious will. It is when one’s will is willing the good willingly.
We can see this in the parable in how Jesus described the younger son’s repentance. Jesus says that he came to himself. The younger son may have thought that he was realizing his true self in the exhilarating freedom of his rebellion. Jesus, however, says that the younger son came to his true self in his repentance. He came to himself when it became clear to him what his own father’s house was like. He came to himself when it became clear to him that his so-called freedom of choice was really slavery to sin and its consequences.
When he came to himself, he admitted his sin. In his true self, he longs for the grace and goodness of his father. He finds his will being conformed to God’s good will. He is now seeing things from that perspective. He finds freedom when his will is conformed to his father’s good and gracious will. He seeks it and wants it. In this new freedom, he said good-bye willingly to his unrestrained life and went home. In this freedom, he is in control of his passions and actions toward the good.
This is what Jesus describes in John 8 in a different way. He says, “And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free . . . . Whoever sins is a slave to sin. . . . So, if the Son [, Jesus,] sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:32, 34, 36). True freedom is knowing the truth willingly and being redeemed from sin by the Son.
The younger son thought at first that he was free in the rebellion of his will. When he came to himself, he was being brought to abandon the freedom of choice for the freedom of a will being conformed to God’s good will. In this new freedom, the Son finds his father running to him with nothing but welcome, with forgiveness. The son arrives home as the father lifts any burden of sin off his shoulders in redeeming grace.
So, what does the parable tells us about true freedom? It teaches that true and ultimate freedom is not when we have transcended all authority in an unrestrained, autonomous ego that does whatever it wants, that acts in the delusion that it is the master of its own destiny. Rather, true freedom is when our wills are in conformity with God’s good will so as to will the good willingly, as God is good.
When we are being turned by the Spirit away from the false freedom of personal autonomy, we experience willing the good willingly as our willing it. Thus, we experience it as freedom. At the same time, we also experience it as our wills being turned to the good by God.
There is no contradiction, however, between our wills being turned by the Holy Spirit and our willing the good willingly in this turning, because we were made by God for communion with God. There is also no contradiction between the Holy Spirit turning us toward this freedom and our coming to ourselves, because we were made by God for communion with God.
Thus, when God is working this turning in us, we do not experience it as oppressive coercion, even though it is God’s work. When God is turning us like this, we come to our true selves. This turning and freedom are empowered in us as our sin is covered by the grace of the Father in Christ’s redeeming work and the Spirit is given for Christ’s sake.
Like the younger son in the parable, I think we have moments of clarity in the turning to this freedom of willing the good willingly, as God is good. In such moments, this kind of freedom is clear and powerful. It may not be a constant experience, however, because we still have the corruption of sin within us, and we still live in a fallen world full of rebellion and temptation. There are many times when willing the good willingly seems far from conscious experience. This is especially the case in the grind of life, where we experience the weakness of our flesh and are still assaulted by the devil and trials and tribulations of life.
Still, our sin is covered by Christ’s shed blood. Christ also promises, and we believe, that the Holy Spirit is always working this freedom in our lives through His Word in repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ. And this true freedom is the reality that the Holy Spirit will give in eternity in its fullness through the Father’s grace in Christ.
On this Fourth Sunday in Lent, as in everyday, let us thank the Father and the Son for this work of the Spirit, this freedom work. And let us pray for this freedom always.