As we read through Luke 15:11-32, let’s first remember the audience of this parable. Verses 1-2 tell us that all the tax collectors and “sinners” drew near to Jesus. You see, there was just something about Jesus that attracted people and made them feel accepted and loved – no matter what their sordid past may have been. But, of course, the Pharisees couldn’t stand this about Jesus! They grumbled against Jesus, complaining, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” This context sets the stage for our parable of the prodigal son.
We all know the story: A spoiled kid demands his father’s inheritance. The father agrees and divides his estate between his two boys. After packing up for a far country and then squandering his small fortune, the younger son eventually finds himself starving in the middle of a famine. So, dejected and humiliated, he decides to head home, practicing his apology speech: “‘Father, I have done wrong—wrong against God and against you. I have forfeited any right to be treated like your son, but I’m wondering if you’d treat me as one of your hired servants?’” (verses 18-19, The Voice) But even while the son was a great way off, “the father saw him and ran out to him, enfolded him in an embrace, and kissed him!” (You see, the father had never stopped looking for him!) And then, the party is on! The joy of the father knows no bounds – he lavishes his son with extravagant affection! And that’s where our story happily ends, right? Well, not quite yet.
The focus of the parable shifts to the older son. Rather than rejoicing that his brother has returned, the older son bitterly laments to his dad, “Listen, all these years I’ve worked hard for you. I’ve never disobeyed one of your orders. But how many times have you even given me a little goat to roast for a party with my friends?” These words show us that not only has the oldest son labored with the attitude of a begrudging servant, rather than a devoted son, but he has also completely misunderstood the character of his Father! The older brother continues: “So this son of yours comes, this wasteful delinquent who has spent your hard-earned wealth on loose women, and what do you do? You butcher the fattest calf from our herd!”
Jesus’ point in this story is that the youngest son represents the publicans and sinners while the oldest son represents the Pharisees. Like the older son, the Pharisees had been hard at work, strictly adhering to the law and their ceremonial traditions in the hope of earning the inheritance of the heavenly Father. Both the older son and the Pharisees were serving, not from love but from a sense of duty – the goal was to earn their righteousness. But Jesus’ point is that the Father’s extravagant love has nothing to do with what we earn – and isn’t that terrific news for us!? The Father pleads with his son: “My son [huios – my dear, beloved son], you are always with me, and all I have is yours. Isn’t it right to join in the celebration and be happy? This is your brother we’re talking about. He was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found again!” We don’t know how the story ends because this parable is actually an invitation – to the Pharisees of Christ’s day as well as to us. It’s an invitation to accept the Father’s extravagant, prodigal love. Because even though we may think we are the dutiful older son, we are, in fact, that runaway son in a far country. But in exchange for our filth and spiritual poverty, God offers to lavish upon us His robe of righteousness and the riches of heaven! He’s inviting us to biggest party the universe has ever seen! It’s simply an offer we can’t refuse.