The parable of the prodigal son presented a worldview that was antithetical to how most of Christ’s audience thought. Everything the father was doing for the son was exactly the opposite of what what the crowd expected. It was contrary to that society’s customs—as well as most modern concepts of justice and equality. And it flew in the face of common sense.
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20–24)
Think of it: Upon his shameful return, the prodigal instantly received all the same rights and privileges as his elder brother, who had never once overtly rebelled the way the prodigal did. It was as if the journey to the far country had never happened. The father had absorbed blow after humiliating blow from this dishonorable son, and yet he was willing to set the past aside and freely endow this black sheep with every conceivable privilege. There was no waiting period, no proving time, no hoops for the boy to jump through, and no readjustment phase. All the privileges were free and unrestricted. The boy was entering all at once into full-blown sonship at the highest level.
What was the message? We need to remind ourselves that this is a picture of God’s lavish grace, which triumphs over every imaginable kind of sin. God saves sinners—including the very worst of sinners. And when He does, He instantly elevates the newly reborn sinner to a position of privilege and blessing that is exceedingly and abundantly beyond anything we could ever ask or think (cf. Ephesians 3:20).
While the grace and privilege extended to this son may seem exaggerated, it is no caricature. It is not really even extreme enough to serve as a proper illustration of the grace God actually grants to repentant sinners. It’s merely a scaled-back, toned-down, barely adequate figurative depiction of what authentic grace is like—because mere human words and imagery are completely inadequate to illustrate the reality of God’s mercy.
Yet this whole idea—that lavish love and extreme grace could be bestowed upon a penitent, trusting sinner—was absolutely bizarre in the legalistic minds of the scribes and Pharisees. It’s a concept that deeply offends most atheists today, as they fume about a God who forgives the worst of sinners but damns “morally upright” unbelievers.
Christ’s audience understood the concept of high honors. They were convinced that legitimate privileges such as these could only be earned through a system of rigorous works and the strict accounting of personal merit. That’s what their religion was all about.
But the scribes and Pharisees were so seriously wrong that the very religion they counted on to earn themselves eternal life would actually spell their destruction. That’s why Jesus was calling them to confess their own need for divine grace and repent of their self-righteousness. Any man-made addition to the finished and sufficient work of Christ denies its sufficiency—and brazenly insult the extravagant grace God has already poured out on His redeemed.
(Adapted from The Prodigal Son)