The story of the ‘prodigal’ son is well known. Its human elements of discord, rebellion, sorrow and joy are repeated in many homes in our own day. One son wants to go his own way regardless of his father’s feelings. The other son seems loyal to the father, but appearances are deceptive.
The younger son wanted his portion of the property. He had had enough of life around the farm. He wanted to make his own way and, hopefully, his own fortune elsewhere. To some extent it was understandable.
It was even legal. Hebrew law provided that the head of a home could dispose of the estate before death. The earthly side of the story was a bid for independence; the heavenly side, rebellion against God.
Events taught the prodigal a sad lesson. He spent all he had on wild living. Jesus stresses that he spent ‘everything’ not just part of his fortune. Having no money and, of course, no friends, he began to be in need.
Famine in the land made it worse. The pig swill he was prepared to eat drove the lesson home. The ‘way of the transgressor’ was proving to be hard. This was not just need; it was slavery.
He had spurned home to gain independence. In point of fact, he was now more dependent than ever: not as a son doing his father’s bidding, but as the hired hand of a master who cared little for him.
Again, the spiritual message is clear. Jesus taught that whoever commits sin is a slave to sin. The prodigal learnt the hard truth of that.
The redeeming feature was that he knew it. The story says ‘he began to be in want’, as though becoming conscious of his need. Finally he ‘came to his senses’ and decided to go back to his father.
This was true repentance. What a welcome he received! His father sees him in the distance, runs to him, throws his arms around him, forgives him and reinstates him. There are great festivities because a lost son has come home.
In the same way, God, through Jesus Christ, has compassion on the penitent sinner. He seeks him out and welcomes him with open arms.
So far so good; the story and its message is clear. The problem now is the elder brother. Where does he stand? What is his spiritual condition?
The punch line of the parable is that the older brother is as much ‘lost’ and in need of ‘saving’ as the runaway prodigal.
The elder brother is angry and will not join in the festivities. He is not only angry, he is jealous too. That is putting it mildly.
He remonstrates with his father (I paraphrase): ‘That son of yours, no brother of mine, is home safe and sound, then’, he sneers. ‘We’re all a happy family again!
‘Listen, father: I slaved while he squandered. I had friends I could bring home to meet you and you could look them in the eye. He, on the other hand, spent his time with prostitutes.
‘Yet you killed the fattened calf for him but couldn’t even spare a young goat for me. It’s all wrong.’
Salvation is God’s gift
At first sight, the elder brother’s anger was justified, but looking deeper we see what he had failed to understand. The father enlightens him: ‘all I have is yours’, he declares, ‘but you never knew me well enough to ask!’
The justice of God cannot be challenged, even if we think it can. The elder brother’s problem was his self-righteousness. He thought he deserved the relationship with his father and its blessings but he did not. He had tried to earn his father’s favour by toil, when he should have received his benefits by grace (that is, as a gift).
We never deserve God’s mercy; it is a gift to the undeserving. What with his anger and jealousy, the elder brother was just as ‘lost’ at home as the prodigal had been in the far country. Neither had a true relationship with the father.
God the heavenly Father is both good and understanding. He receives prodigals, but he also has mercy on ‘elder brothers’. Like the father in the story, he pleads with them.
God has compassion on penitent sinners and pleads with proud ones. That is the bottom line of the parable.
God’s grace meets us at the point of our need. Whether we are penitent prodigals or proud sinners, the gospel of Christ is ‘the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes’ (Romans 1:16).