The parable of the prodigal son is one of the more famous of Jesus’s parables. It is recorded in Luke 15 and follows two other parables, the lost sheep and the lost coin. The parables are set against the backdrop of the grumbling Pharisees and scribes who were upset that Jesus was welcoming sinners and eating with them. In defense of his practice of table fellowship with sinners, Jesus tells three stories highlighting the lengths that people will go to in order to find something that they have lost, and thus the great rejoicing that follows the item being found.
In the prodigal son story a father has two sons and the youngest asks for his inheritance early so that he can leave home. Upon obtaining his money, the son heads off to a distant land and squanders his money in reckless living. Without money, this good Jewish boy decides to hire himself out to a pig farmer and is so hungry he longs to eat the food that the pigs are eating. Recognizing his mistakes and experiencing regret and shame, the son heads back home, not to take his rightful place, but to beg to be a servant. The son removes himself from the family. “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
But the father does not accept the son’s removal. The father runs to the son, embraces him, clothes him with the best clothes, and throws a party in his honor. It’s not just that the father accepts the son back, but the Father elevates him and makes the son whole again. The son does not have to live as a partial citizen, he is granted full rights and privileges of son-ship. He is treated as if he never left.
The older brother is angered by the turn of events. He knows that his younger brother has been wasteful and he longs to see him punished. When the younger son is allowed back in the family, the older brother can not concur and thus removes himself from the family. The older brother refuses to go to the party. When the father comes out to talk with him, the older brother says that he has been a “slave” for his father and refuses to celebrate with “this son of yours.” If this is how the father will act the older brother wants no part in it. He removes himself from the family.
But again the father will not accept the son’s removal. Even when the older brother removes himself from the family, the father still embraces him and pulls him back in. “Son all that is mine is yours.” The father’s love has not changed. Just as he loves the younger brother and welcomes him back as a full member of the family, he loves the older brother even when the older brother is filled with self-righteousness.
It is the love of the father that is the focal point in the story. It is the father who has lost something in the story, and longing to reclaim it. It is the father who goes out to both the younger and older brothers. It is the father who invites both sons back into the family even as they have removed themselves. It is the father who loves both the wayward son and the self-righteous son.
We sometimes struggle with this type of love. We understand the love of the father to the wayward son. We are thankful for grace. We recognize that everyone makes mistakes and we welcome the repentant back to the family. We appreciate this type of love because we can easily identify with the wayward son. However, we struggle with the love of the father toward the self-righteous. We struggle with forgiving and loving those who exclude others from the family of God. We label such people “conservative” or “legalistic” and we wonder how their faith can be so shallow that they can’t understand grace. We vilify the older brother, and once a villain we no longer have to like the older brother. We have been hurt by the older brother in the past and it makes us want to treat the older brother with contempt, “how could he be so judgmental.” Yet, when we do we commit the same sin as the older brother. We consider ourselves better than him and thus we become the self-righteous.
What is so amazing however, is that the father’s love is the same for both sons. The father recognizes that both sons have gone away and the father invites both sons back home. The father’s love extends in both directions, welcoming both the wayward and self-righteous back to the fold. It is that type of love that we must embrace, a love for both brothers, no matter their sin. Because if grace is truly grace, it extends to all people.