The third parable (Luke 15:11-32) is usually called the parable of the prodigal son, but like the previous two parables, it is a story about God: “a man had two sons.” How God related to each one is the point of the parable. Both were beloved sons, and God showed mercy to each.
To the son who left home, God’s mercy was essentially, “Stop your groveling and come into the house.” Read the text and you will find that the younger son already had his “I am not worthy” speech ready to give. But while the father allowed him to confess his sin, he stopped the young man right there and he never got the words “I am not worthy” out of his mouth.
Here is the danger for those who have left home–they come to feel unworthy, and can then easily believe even God doesn’t really want them to come back. They have this mistaken notion reinforced by Christians who don’t want to have anything to do with them, and shun them “in Jesus’ Name.” But God is not like that. God has a ring, shoes, a robe, and a fatted calf waiting. Amazing grace!
To the son who stayed home, God’s mercy was essentially, “Cease your jealousy and come into the house.” In words not a lot different from Cain’s in Genesis 4:9, the older son wants retributive justice meted out to his brother. “Why should he get all this” the older brother fumes, “when I’ve gotten nothing despite all my time of faithful service?”
Here is the danger for those who stay home. Religion ceases to be grounded in grace and deteriorates into some form of meritocracy. Our years of faithful service eclipse mercy, casting the noxious cloud of self-righteousness over the whole thing. Religion deteriorates into a system of reward/punishment. But God is not like that. The son who is outside the house because of pride and judgmentalism is invited to the party also. Amazing grace!
The great tragedy is that the son who was closest to home for the longer period of time–and should have been the first to accept the invitation–was the one who rejected it, preferring to remain a lost sheep and a lost coin despite God’s call to come home. And so it is for anyone who eschews mercy and becomes a stranger to grace, both as a receiver and giver of it.