The story of the prodigal son is well known. It’s a beautiful parable about redemption. You can find it in a section of Luke which includes several similar teachings. For example, there is the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Then we come to the prodigal son—another story of the lost being found.
Allow me to share the usual way this is interpreted. We are familiar with comparing the wayward son, who asked for his inheritance early and then wasted it in sinful self-indulgence, to the son who stayed. It is usually, and rightly, pointed out that the son who remained was angered that the father accepted back his wayward brother. This gives us a comparison between the repentant sinner and judgmental legalist. This conclusion is fitting when considering the context. Jesus was being judged for eating with tax-collectors and sinners (Luke 15:2). It is easy to see in those condemning him as the second son. They were unhappy with Jesus for accepting those who failed to keep the law.
Another part of this interpretation is that, though the son expected to be rejected, the father—upon seeing him—ran to embrace, honor, and welcome him back into the family. This demonstration of the father’s love for those who have fallen is a beautiful image. We can all imagine the father embracing us and welcoming us back regardless of the sins which stained our souls.
I want to share another element of this story. To which son did the father go? He went out to both. He ran to welcome the prodigal and went out to entreat the angry brother. The father reached out to both. When we look at these two sons, we can see there was not much difference—at least in their attitude. Neither appreciated the father; the only difference was the response to their lack of appreciation. The prodigal demanded his inheritance early. The one who stayed felt he deserved more than the father had given him. This son says he was never even given a goat to celebrate with his friends: “You never let me have a little party, but you throw a big party for this one” (my paraphrase). True, one son knew he did not deserve anything from the father; the other son assumed he deserved much more than he had received. At least, that is how we often see it. But that is comparing the two at different points in their lives. Compare the second son to the first son—before the first son departed. The first son felt he deserved his inheritance early and demanded it. The second son stayed, but we can see that he, too, thought he deserved more than he was getting. Both have a bad image of the Father. Both saw him as holding back from them.
Legalism, like sin, twists our image of the father. It convinces us we deserve more than the father gives others—perhaps more than he has given us. But the greatest sin is assuming the father’s gifts are earned. They are not. The son’s inheritance was not earned. It was simply based on the relationship to the father.
In this way, we cannot earn our place with the father. Therefore, we should celebrate when others who did not deserve their place are accepted. But like the two sons, the Father is drawing near to bring you home, whichever you are. He did this through the person of Jesus Christ.