So Jesus told them this parable: Jesus continued, “There was a man with two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Give me my share of the estate.’ So the father divided his property between them. Some days later, the younger son gathered all his belongings and started off for a distant land, where he squandered his wealth in loose living. Having spent everything, he was hard pressed when a severe famine broke out in that land. So famished was he, that he longed to fill his stomach even with the food given to the pigs, but no one offered him anything.
Finally coming to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will get up and go back to my father, and say to him, Father, I have sinned against God, and before you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me then as one of your hired servants.’ With that thought in mind, he set off for his father’s house. He was still a long way off, when his father caught sight of him. His father was so deeply moved with compassion that he ran out to meet him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. The son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But the father turned to his servants: ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Bring out the finest robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Take the fattened calf and kill it! We shall celebrate and have a feast, for this son of mine was dead, and has come back to life; he was lost, and is found!’ And the celebration began.
Meanwhile, the elder son had been working in the fields. As he returned and approached the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what it was all about. The servant answered, ‘Your brother has come home safe and sound, and your father is so happy about it that he has ordered this celebration, and killed the fattened calf.’
The elder son became angry, and refused to go in. His father came out and pleaded with him. The son, very indignant, said, ‘Look, I have slaved for you all these years. Never have I disobeyed your orders. Yet you have never given me even a young goat to celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returns, after squandering your property with loose women, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
The father said, ‘My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But this brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life; he was lost, and is found. And for that we had to rejoice and be glad.’“
Jesus told his most famous parable, the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,“ as a response to the criticism of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law that he was too friendly to tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus’ compassion for violators of the letter of law, like the prodigal son, truly deserved punishment. The younger son expected to be treated like a slave no longer as a son. The elder son expected his Father to punish this erring son, whom he no longer recognized as his brother. But the Father does the unconscionable (to the self-righteous) by forgiving the repentant sinner. The action of the Father went against the sense of justice of the elder son and the Pharisees!
The Father who has welcomed back the repentant son also invites the elder son, however, to adopt his stance of mercy. The Father demonstrates his joy at the return of the lost son! Oh the unfathomable mercy of God! How God seeks for the lost!
Jesus will reveal the full extent of that love of the Father when he would ascend his throne, the cross, and dispense mercy to the good thief in Calvary even as the other thief (the “elder son“) would fail to recognize the one who could save him! May we always have the courage to go back to the Father; may we always rejoice at the return of sinners to the Father.