“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:32)

One of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables is that of the prodigal son. Yet Jesus spoke this story as a rebuke to the religious legalism of the scribes and Pharisees who made it their business to try to trip Him in order to find a reason to criticize and reprimand Him. The heart attitude of the Pharisees was devoid of love, the essence of God’s law. Their legalism deprived sinners of the truth of God’s saving grace. People came to them seeking God’s love and mercy and found only bondage to rules or rejection. Such legalism was the one sin that Jesus rebuked more than any other.

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one such rebuke. This parable concerns a small family, a father and his two sons. The younger son represents sinners. All sinners behave selfishly and turn their backs on God. All deserve rebuke and punishment. The elder son represents the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, religious fundamentalists and legalists. Such people demand that sinners be punished, not forgiven outright if at all. They demand a penalty be paid before a right relationship with God can be established or else vigorously condemn those guilty of the most flagrant sins.

The father, who loves both of his sons, represents God the Father. As the father forgives his younger son without reservation, so God the Father readily forgives sinners who repent. He restores them to full fellowship without demanding any punishment and rejoices as He does so.

Like the elder son, the Pharisees would see this as a great injustice for they did not understand the gracious nature of God’s love. They expected blessings in exchange for outward obedience. They did all the right things for all the wrong reasons. As for we who read this parable in the 21st Century, we learn that God loves all of us just as we are. We don’t have to do things to make Him love us more. God’s love is unconditional. He accepts, values and cherishes both sinner and saint. He does not ignore sins, but chooses to love in spite of them, no matter how revolting they may be. The Father is always ready to forgive for God in Jesus Christ has suffered the penalty that God demands for all sin. 

This is good news for sinners. God’s unconditional love enables all to approach Him without fear of rejection or threat of punishment. Because of His love, we can trust that He hears and forgives the heartfelt cry of the repentant heart.