Only when we see ourselves as sinners can we understand and appreciate God’s marvelous grace. And it is in offering grace to others that we demonstrate Godlike character. Jesus’ story of two prodigals illustrates these truths.
The story of the prodigal son is perhaps the Lord’s best-known parable. Yet as familiar as we might be with it, we think of it as the parable of the prodigal son. However, this is really a parable of two prodigal sons.
- Both sons are lost—one son becomes a prodigal when he runs away from home; the other son is a prodigal while staying at home.
- Both sons defy their father’s wishes.
- Both sons break their father’s heart.
- The father leaves the house in order to find both of them.
- In fact, both of them need to be found.
Remember, this is the third of three parables in Luke 15. Jesus is telling these parables in response to the Pharisees and scribes, who grumbled over the fact that Jesus was eating a meal with all kinds of sinners who would never darken the door of a synagogue.
Jesus is making the point that His mission is to seek and to save those who are lost. The lost need to be found. And when they are, the hosts of heaven rejoice.
So far, we have seen the younger brother demand his inheritance before his father has died. That was a shameful demand. But the father divides the inheritance, and his younger son takes off. After wasting his inheritance in reckless living, the Bible says he came to his senses. Out there feeding pigs but starving to death himself, he comes up with a plan and decides to return home.
Now most people read this and think he has repented out there in the pigpen. But this is not real repentance. He has come up with an apology, but Jesus actually quotes him as saying the same words Pharaoh said to Moses in order to escape from the plagues. Pharoah said, “I have sinned against God and before you.” And that’s exactly what the prodigal is going to say. But then he plans to add this last phrase: “Treat me as”—literally, “make of me”—“one of your hired servants.” The Greek word for “servants” refers to hired craftsmen. He’s planning to ask his father to finance an apprenticeship and make him into a professional craftsman and put him on the payroll. He can continue living an independent life, and—who knows?—he might even pay his father back. But he is not going home to confess; he is going home to try to save face.
What happens next, though, is shocking—especially to the scribes and Pharisees listening to Jesus tell this dramatic story. Four scenes quickly unfold here, and the first scene highlights the father’s grace. Verse 20 says, “While he [the son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” The word here for “ran” literally means to race. In this culture, older men did not run. Running was considered beneath the dignified posture of an older man in the Middle East.
Why is he racing to his son? Or better yet, who is he racing to his son? In this day and age, the prodigal’s sinful decisions shamed not only his father and his family but the entire village as well. Two things might very well happen to this prodigal son. The villagers could follow the letter of the law and have him stoned to death, or they could perform what is called the kezazah ceremony. They would fill a jar with burnt beans and throw it at his feet, signifying by this public act that he would never receive anything from them—he would be banished from their village forever.
Let me tell you, the father is racing to get to his prodigal son first. This is where the parable becomes a picture of God the Son, who left His Father’s house and came running to seek and to save the lost.
The second scene highlights the son’s guilt—verse 21: “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”
Notice that he does not make that last statement about financial assistance. He is blown away by his father’s love and compassion. The prodigal’s tone completely changes. Now he simply says, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son”—period. There is no negotiation—just humble, true confession.
The third scene highlights the father’s gifts. Verse 22: “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.’”
The “best robe” is literally the “first robe.” This is the father’s robe, worn on feast days and grand occasions.
The father says to do this quickly. Why? So that any arriving mob from the village would understand there has been reconciliation. The son is under the protection of his father; he is effectively wearing his father’s reputation. What a picture of salvation, where we, filthy sinners, are robed with the righteousness—the reputation—of Christ.
The father has a ring put on his son’s hand and shoes on his feet. The ring is a seal of family authority, granting him the right to transact business in his father’s name. Likewise, beloved, as God’s children, we transact eternal business in God’s name today. Shoes symbolized family membership; slaves did not wear shoes, but family members did.
Then the father calls for a celebration feast, saying in verse 24, “My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
Now what did this son do to deserve this? Nothing! And that is the point: you don’t pay God back for salvation—it is a gift of God’s grace.
This brings us to the final scene, beginning here in verse 25. It highlights the brother’s grumbling.
Verse 28 tells us the older brother arrives home and is immediately resentful; he refuses to join in the celebration. His father is receiving a sinner and eating with him, and he is grumbling.
The Lord is obviously identifying him with the Pharisees—they are unwilling to eat a meal with someone they think does not deserve it, and they are grumbling.
When his father comes out to him, the older brother has this to say:
“‘These many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’” (verses 29-30)
Now I must admit that I find myself agreeing with him; I kind of feel sorry for him. It doesn’t seem fair to me either. But remember this: grace is never about fairness; grace offers undeserved forgiveness.
This older son looks good, but he has the heart of a Pharisee. He has kept the rules; he is respectable, dependable, moral, obedient. He deserves this kind of treatment from his father. But he is missing the point. Grace is not a reward; it’s a gift!
The truth is, the older brother cared more about himself than his father’s happiness. He cared more about himself than his brother’s restoration.
Where do you see yourself in this parable? Do you see yourself in the older brother—as one who has kept the rules and believes he deserves better treatment from the Father? If that’s you, let me encourage you to confess your heart attitude of pride and thank God for the gifts of undeserved grace.
Do you see yourself in the younger brother—as one who has run away from God but now realizes he is unworthy of the Father’s gifts of grace? If that’s you, right where you are—right now—humbly ask the Lord for His gracious gift of forgiveness and salvation. Remember, these gifts are yours for free, because Jesus paid it all.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (Eerdmans, 1983), 168, 181.
 Ibid., 185.
 R. Kent Hughes, Luke: Volume 2 (Crossway, 1998), 144.