Jesus was a master storyteller. One of my favorite classes in college was a course that studied Jesus’ parables in the gospels. They are literary masterpieces. Jesus teaches profound theological insights through simple narratives. The most famous of Jesus’ parables is found in Luke 15 and is commonly known as the "Parable of the Prodigal Son.”
We love it because it is a redemption story. The young man is selfish, reckless, and hedonistic. His path of folly ends at rock bottom when he is working in a foreign country and envies the life of the swine he is caring for. When the young son returns home, he finds himself overwhelmed by his father’s embrace. Before he knows it, his father clothed him in the outfit of a son and threw a party to celebrate his return. It’s a beautiful story, and many preachers have used it as an appeal to today’s prodigals. However, I believe that Jesus had a different audience in mind. Let’s take a step back.
What’s Going On?
In Lk. 15:1-2, it says that Jesus was welcoming the outcasts of society. The Pharisees didn’t like that he was receiving them into fellowship. Why not? Jesus addressed it through three parables. First, he told them about a shepherd who left his flock of sheep to rescue the one who had gone astray. Second, Jesus told them about a woman who lost a coin and turned her house upside down to find it. Lastly, he said that there was a father who has two sons.
Therefore, the parable isn’t over when the younger son returns home. Jesus continued the story by shifting the narrative to the elder brother who had been out in the fields working. As he is returning to the house, he hears the sounds of a great party being thrown inside. When he finds out that the party is celebrating the return of his younger brother he is angry and refuses to go in. Despite his father’s pleading, he will not go in the house.
If we connect Jesus' context with his parable, then we can draw some clear parallels. Jesus is illustrating the attitude of the Pharisees in the defiance of the elder brother. When the elder brother refuses to enter the house, he declared, "Look, 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!’ (Lk. 15:29-30). What drove his anger? Jealousy. He thought that he deserved the kind of party that was being thrown for his little brother. After all, he was the good son! He worked hard, was loyal to the family, and virtuous. However, his brother had been selfish and licentious. Since his father was willing to put on such a decadent celebration for this wayward son, the elder brother did not want to be a part of it. See the parallel?
A Threat to Our Righteousness
The Pharisees were angry that Jesus—a highly esteemed teacher—would be welcoming those sinners and outcasts into community with him. The same community which they had worked so hard to be in! In their eyes, they had earned their place in God’s house by their virtuous lives and obedience to the law. When Jesus opened the doors for the prodigals of their society to come in, it devalued their works, their righteousness.
So, in an ironic twist, it was the very moral elder brother who was left out of the father’s house. He was left out by his refusal to let go of his righteousness. The thought of being in the same house as that immoral brother was unbearable to him. Both the Pharisees and the elder brother were unwilling to let go of their righteousness. This means that the father in Jesus’ parable had two lost sons. The younger son rejected him for an immoral life. But the elder brother refused him because of his morality. He rejected the father in exchange for his own goodness. The lesson is clear: it is not enough that one is merely religious or moral to be welcomed at God’s table.
Everyone calls you to repent of your gross sins and vices. Every worldview tells you to repent from cheating, lying, or violence, but only Christianity requires you to repent of your virtues. That is because the core of Christianity is radically different from every other worldview. Other religions and lifestyles will teach you that you have some problems but that if you can clean yourself up enough, gain some wisdom, or improve your life, then you can achieve salvation or self-actualization.
Christianity, on the other hand, teaches us that no one is moral enough to earn a seat at God’s table. Even the most virtuous, most righteous persons who have ever lived cannot claim a right, by their righteousness, to be approved by God. In other words, none of us has the right to stand before God and demand his blessings on the basis of all of our years of service like the elder brother did. If you want to enter God’s house, then you’re going to have to lay down all of your righteousness and morality. That’s what the younger son realized.
A Seat at the Table
The turning point for the prodigal son came when he came to his senses and confessed that he was not worthy to be his father’s son (Lk. 15:19, 21). He understood that his life had made him completely unqualified to earn his father’s blessings or approval. He knew that he could not go home and receive a welcome based on his good work. Once he made that confession, then he was surprised by his father’s grace. The elder brother didn’t want grace. In his mind, he didn’t need his father’s grace. How many of us are living our lives based on the belief that we can enter God’s house because of all of our service?
If that is you, then let me encourage you to consider Jesus’ warning to elder brothers. We can only be welcomed by God when we lay down our righteousness and give ourselves over to his grace. What does grace mean?
Grace means that the prodigal son was given a seat at a table that he didn’t deserve to be at. For us, grace means that we may be given a seat at God’s table because someone else gave up his seat. Jesus would be the one to make it possible for both the prodigals and elder brothers to be welcomed at God’s table when he went to the cross. The cross was Jesus laying down everything he deserved in exchange for everything that we deserve. He was banished from the Father’s house so that we could be welcomed.