In the famous parable of the prodigal son, we often forget that the primary audience which Jesus aims this story at is grumbling Pharisees and Scribes. “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them (Luk 15:1-2).” Jesus flies to the defense of his ministry to the worst of sinners, by telling three parables, ending in the prodigal son’s story.
A few things are profound in the story. First, the son, in demanding his inheritance is essentially demanding that his relationship with his father be as if his father were dead. He not only desires a dead relationship with his father, but he also flees to a far country (Lk. 15:13), as far from his father & family as can be. The second remarkable thing is the fact that this jewish boy ends up eating the slop of the unclean pigs, and it is in this position of the lowest point that he remembers that even the servants in his father’s household were better off than he was.
The third thing to remark upon is that in his return to the father, his father reinstates him to the household. A robe, a ring, shoes, a celebration feast all accompany the prodigal son’s return. But it is this lavish display of restoration to the household that causes the elder brother to grumble. The father’s entreaty to the older son is that everything the father has was his (Lk. 15:31)! The Israelites were, in fact, the people of God in this earth, and technically speaking, the earth was theirs. They ought to have rejoiced to see the Messiah come and restore the prodigal nations into the family of God.
But the pride of being comparatively more righteous, grows quickly in the wreckage and ashes of the younger brothers sins. As a result, the older brother was very much in danger of missing the celebration, and insisted on staying outside the house (Lk. 15:28). Yes, Jesus gives this parable as comfort to the worst of sinners that they are welcomed back into the family of God through repentance. But it is primarily aimed at the self-righteous, who are aghast that God would not only forgive sinners, but not hold their sins against them, restoring them to their former estate of sons.