We are entering our third week of Lent, my friends, and I hope you have been experiencing the joy of repentance and the fullness that comes with entering into the way of life that God has set out for us. This week, we continue our Lenten journey with a new look at the parable of the Prodigal Son.   

Faithful Redeemer! Guide us today by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover joy and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Luke 15:11-32
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout 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 to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

“Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy” — Joseph Hart, performed by Bob Kauflin and Sovereign Grace (YouTube video for in-home worship: Click here for Video)

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love, and power.

I will arise and go to Jesus!
He will embrace me in his arms.
In the arms of my dear Savior
Oh, there are ten thousands charms.

Come, ye thirsty, come and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Ev’ry grace that brings you nigh.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

Lo! The incarnate God ascended
Pleads the merit of His blood
Venture on Him, venture wholly
Let no other trust intrude.

Joseph Hart has one of those “Prodigal Son” stories. At some point in his adult life, he was determined to convince even one of the most prominent evangelists of the day, the great founder of Methodism, John Wesley, that all we should worry about is believing in Christ. Living a holy life, Hart argued, is both foolish and unnecessary.

For a time, Hart proved a man of his word. “I ran such dangerous lengths both of carnal and spiritual wickedness,” he confesses in his spiritual autobiography, “that I even outwent professed infidels, and shocked the irreligious and profane with my horrid blasphemies and monstrous impieties.” It did not last. Hart tells of a time after hearing a piercing sermon on Revelation 3:10 that he ran back to his home, fell down upon his knees, and cried out to God. “My horrors,” he recounts, “were immediately dispelled, and such light and comfort flowed into my heart as no words can paint.”

There’s little doubt that Hart wrote Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy from a deep well of personal experience. His epitaph, carved into the side of a monumental pillar in London’s Bunhill Fields, reads: “Joseph Hart was by the free and sovereign grace and Spirit of God raised up from the depths of sin, and delivered from the bonds of mere profession and self-righteousness, and led to rest entirely for salvation in the finished atonement and perfect obedience of Christ.” Indeed, while the hymn’s rather unambiguous refrain was added later, even those verses original to Hart appear to draw deeply from Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. 

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love, and power.

Here in Luke 15 was a vision of love and forgiveness that resonated with Hart’s personal experience of God’s grace and compassion. “Though an enemy, [Jesus] calls me His friend; though a traitor, His child; though a beggared prodigal, He clothes me with the best robe, and has put a ring of endless love and mercy on my hand.”

As a season dedicated to our own self-examination and repentance, Lent would seem to be an ideal moment for reflecting on the Prodigal Son. We are all sinners, poor and needy, and Jesus’ parable reminds us that all we need do is turn around and start running until we fall headlong into those open arms of God’s forgiveness and love.

This past week, however, I ran across another reading of Luke 15 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, care of Karl Barth, that continues to give me goosebumps. Here we have not simply a picture of a wholly forgiving Father God who welcomes us back with loving arms, but a vivid metaphor at the same time of God’s own Son, our Christ, as he travels deep into “the far country” of our sin and humanity to bring us back into relationship and wholeness with the God whom we’ve left. In other words, Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son is the story of Jesus’ incarnation itself. It’s God’s radical and risky decision to enter into our muddy space for no other reason (and no better reason) than love.

But what if the opposite is true? What if the incarnation of Jesus wasn’t God holding something back, but God showing us what it truly means to be God?

If our eyebrows rise a little bit at the idea of Jesus being the prodigal, then maybe we’re not giving him enough credit. It’s often said that the incarnation means that Jesus gave some of his divinity up, that he had to hold something back of his “god-ness” if he was going to become truly human. But what if the opposite is true? What if the incarnation of Jesus wasn’t God holding something back, but God showing us what it truly means to be God? What if God’s love is so big and so strong that even becoming the prodigal isn’t out of bounds? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” Just how wide and deep is that love?

More than we can imagine, I suspect, which is why I can’t get Karl Barth’s reading of the Prodigal Son out of my mind. Here we’re not simply reminded that God is kindly waiting for us to return home. We’re reminded that God couldn’t wait, that his love forced him to act — to become one of us, prodigal and all, to save us and bring us back. That’s the love of our God. That’s the one we come to in repentance, only to find out that he’s been leading us the way home all the time.

Closing Prayer
Deep loving Jesus, we thank you for your love, a love that would gladly become the prodigal to bring us back to the Father. Come lead us home again this season as we yearn to love as deeply as you’ve loved us.  Amen. 

– Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.2
– Joseph Hart, “Preface” to Hart’s Hymns. See Kevin Twit, “Joseph Hart’s Preface,” accessed March 4, 2021,