Parables tell a story which is meant to teach. The stories Jesus tells are all very straight-forward. These are not fairy tales. They use real-life circumstances and characters, such as rich men and thieves, birds and flowers, land purchases, lost coins, precious pearls, sheep, and dysfunctional families. That doesn’t mean you’ll always understand or agree with exactly what the parable is teaching, but the hearer is presented with a lesson in straightforward language. Parables are about everyday life, and because this is the case, it’s easy to see yourself in the parable. Even the Pharisees recognized themselves in many of the parables Jesus taught. They understood where they fit in the story being told. They knew what Jesus was trying to get through to them.
We so often focus on the younger son and his sins of greed and wastefulness. And we do find it easy to relate to him. The younger son has his feel-good story: his arrival at rock bottom; his repentance; his tearful reunion with his father. The older son has anger and frustration, and he feels his anger is just because he’s the one who has been a faithful son and servant to his father throughout this whole sordid affair. But they have this in common: both believe that their father's love depends on what they do. Both believe that their place as sons depends on their obedience. The younger son believes he has forfeited his place because of his sins. The older son believes that he's more of a son than his brother because he's been working hard in the fields. Therefore, he should be favored because he's earned the right.
Both arguments make sense, but both of them insult the father's love. The younger son says, "My father's love is conditional. He cannot love me as a son because I have sinned. He will only help me if I earn it." The older son says, "My father's love is conditional. He should love me more because I've earned more." They come at it from opposing directions, but both are saying that their father's love is limited, conditional.
The father of the parable is none other than God the Father, and those two sons are very much like the tax collectors and the Pharisees. On the one hand, penitent tax collectors might well be tempted to think, "I have sinned against God so much that He will only forgive and love me if I prove that I am worthy. Once I earn it, then He will forgive me." On the other hand, the Pharisees are tempted to believe, "God loves us so much more than those tax collectors because, while they've been living a sinful life all this time, we've been hard at work to keep the rules." But they have this in common: they both believe that God's love for them is based upon their performance. It makes sense to sinful ears; but it also says that God's love is conditional.
When you were a child, what did you do to earn the right to be a son or daughter in your family? Did you pay dues? Take vows? Sign a contract? No. You did absolutely nothing. You were born—given unearned life—and that is how you became part of the family. When you obeyed your parents, were you more of a son or daughter? No. When you disobeyed them, were you less of a son or daughter? No. You suffered disapproval, but you were still part of the family. You could remove yourself from the family, but you could not earn a place in the family. In the same way, the Lord says to you, “You are mine.” You belong to Him because His Son Jesus paid the price for your salvation by His death on the cross. He had made you His child in the waters of Holy Baptism, where that salvation was applied to you in the water. He brings you to the family meal at His holy Table. You can’t do it; He did it for you. You are a beloved child of God, forgiven of all your sins. He will always keep a place for you. In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.