Today, in Luke, we read three parables. The lost sheep, the lost coin and The Prodigal Son. All three touch on the joy in heaven when a sinner repents. I would like to focus the most famous of the three, the parable of the Prodigal Son. As with many things in the bible, particularly the parables, it is open to many interpretations.
For example, as one interpretation you could see in the two sons as the splitting of the nation of Israel into the two kingdoms in the OT with the Northern Kingdom falling away into paganism and now being brought back as the covenant is expanded to include the gentiles. However, I would like to share with you what I think is a more obvious interpretation. I once shared it with someone and was surprised when they said, “I never thought of it that way”. So it seems that the only thing that is obvious is that there is always more to learn. Accordingly:
First, the Prodigal Son is saved. He is in his Father’s house and he has possession of his inheritance. However, then the Prodigal Son is not saved. He chooses to leave the Father’s house and to sin instead. This belies the idea that we cannot lose our salvation. Perhaps not, if we defining losing it as something like losing a set of keys where we unintentionally don’t know where they are anymore. However, salvation certainly can be squandered. Like the inheritance of the prodigal son, it is there for you. It is yours to have. The question is, what will you do with it?
Further, the choice of the prodigal son establishes free will. The Father gave the son the inheritance. As fathers know their sons well we can presume that the Father knew what the prodigal son would do with his inheritance. Despite knowing that the son would squander the inheritance he gave it to him anyway. The father could have stopped him. He could have not given the inheritance. He could have tried to prevent him from leaving. He could have put restrictions on the inheritance. The Father does none of those things. He gave the prodigal son his full inheritance freely and the son was free to do with it what he wished and he lost (squandered) it in sin.
The good news is that the Prodigal Son repents and returns to his Father’s house. Notice he doesn’t just come back but the Father runs out to meet him. While the son is still out away from the house the Father runs out to meet him and begins to make plans for the arrival. Notice, the son is living is sin (as represented by the fact that he tends the swine). It is the Father’s generous treatment of his other servants (all who have enough food to eat). That entices the son to return to the Father. It is because the Father is good to all that the son decides to go to him and ask forgiveness. The son merely has to start back home and the Father runs out to meet him. Once the son repents and starts the journey back to the Father the Father does all the rest of the work.
The Father restores the son to life. If fact, the parable actually says,
… 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again …
This confirms the idea that the son was alive (saved). Then was dead (squandered his salvation) and then is alive again (saved). Just like in the previous two parables there is great joy at the RETURN of the sinner. Notice how the celebration progresses. The prodigal son is given a new robe which in biblical terms often refers to new life and to good works. They then celebrate with a feast. The feast is always the mark of the heavenly celebration, from the Passover, to the feast with God at the establishment of the Old Covenant, to the Last Supper and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in Revelation. To be in the Father’s company is to eat with him. This again another foreshadowing of the Eucharist.
Finally, everyone always beats up on the Good Son, for being upset at this Father for not punishing his brother more harshly (and there is blame there on the part of the “good” son and a lesson for us). One thing that is very subtle in the exchange is that there is an element of jealousy just below the Good Son’s anger. The Prodigal Son got to go out into the world and give in to all his temptations, while the Good Son stayed home, followed the rules, and kept the house in order. Notice what the Good Son says to the Father:
… 29 but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command …
Thus, the Good Son has stayed in the Father’s house, doing the will of the Father, i.e., doing good works. And notice what the Father says to the good son:
…31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
The Good Son is so upset when he sees what the Father is giving to the Prodigal Son that he fails to see what the Father has ALREADY given him. In truth, the Father has already and always given the Good Son everything. The good son is working, trying to be worthy of his inheritance but the Father already considers the inheritance to be his, not because the Good Son earned it but because the Father loves the Good Son, as he loves the Prodigal Son.
Finally, notice that the rewards of the two sons are different. Indeed, the Prodigal Son is let back into the house. He is dressed properly and given a feast. Whereas, ALL that the Father has is given to the Good Son. One can sense that the rift between the brothers will be healed and the Good Son will soon welcome his brother back into the house. However, one day the Good Son will become the master of the house. While the Prodigal Son will remain in the house the Good Son’s position in the house will be higher.
In summary, we see the Prodigal son was saved, lost his salvation because of sin, and regained a place in the Father’s house when he repented. In contrast, the good son was saved, remained in his Father’s house while doing good works, but the works did not earn him his inheritance, rather it was always his.