The parable of the prodigal son has to be one of the most known stories in the bible. It also seems to create a great deal of controversy during bible discussions. The reason people have trouble with the parable is because it challenges our concept of justice and the required penalty for sinfulness.
We seem to have a hard time believing sins committed can just be forgiven without any penalty or atonement made by us. Yet that is exactly what God has promised to us through the prophet Jeremiah (Jer.31:34) when he says “… I will forgive your sins and remember them no more”.
This parable is a spiritual truth that goes to the heart of God’s relationship with us and ours with him. The truth is we do fail to do his will and often we do things that disappoint God. Since we sin we cannot believe God’s desire is to embrace us without first punishing us. We also cannot accept the fact that all sin is equal in God’s eyes. There has to be some reward for those of us who commit little sins and punishment for those who commit horrific sins.
We have learned early as children there are consequences for breaking the rules and there are rewards for following the rules. As infants our parents not only teach us but they reward us for good manners, correct behavior and for completing the small chores they have assigned us to complete daily. Our first teachers in preschool and kindergarten continue our education by giving us gold stars and smiley faces for good work and good citizenship. Over a lifetime we have continued learning this lesson of rewards for good work at each stage of our growth. Yes we have learned this lesson about reward and punishment very well.
God’s response to our sin is not to condemn us but instead he sees our desire to be in his presence. The parable shows us what you did does not matter but how you respond to your sin matters greatly. This is where our expectations of fairness have us confounded because we have been taught wrong must be punished and good must be rewarded. God is revealing a great truth to us today and it is hard to accept. How can God just ignore every sin the prodigal son committed? We hear ourselves in the words of the older brother who said, “…all these years I served you and received nothing in return.” The older brother is saying it is not fair since he was faithful he deserves more.
God in his treatment of the prodigal son is revealing his approach to sin. His standard tells us a contrite heart merits the same reward as a lifetime of faithfulness. How else can you describe the Father’s treatment of the prodigal son? How else can you describe the thief on the cross being with Jesus that day in paradise? How else can you describe the woman caught in adultery – is there no one to condemn you – then neither do I. The prodigal son, the thief on the cross and the adulterous woman all sinned and violated the law. They deserved to die according to the law of God given to them by God himself. Instead of death, or at a minimum some sort of punishment they are rewarded. This does not fit our concept of fairness.
In each of those stories the law said they were to die for the sins they committed and yet God ignored the punishment dictated by the law and freed each of them. What about the penalty for our sins; what awaits us? Do we trust our instincts or do we believe in God’s promises and actions. God has not changed his approach to sin; his forgiveness continues with only one requirement from us – a contrite heart.
Ah here it is again – our concept of justice …. Reward for being good and punishment for being bad. God is showing us what his mercy looks like and our response is to say it is not fair. Mercy is not fair; mercy is undeserved, unmerited and is freely given to us by a loving God. The prodigal son sought only to be near the father as a slave because he knew he has failed his father. Instead of slavery he received so much more. The older son was not slighted he also received mercy because of his faithfulness. This is what God offers us – nothing more, nothing less.
We need to stop comparing ourselves to sinners and we should be glad we have been faithful. We need to begin to rejoice and celebrate the return and the coming to senses of every prodigal son and daughter and welcome them with joy.
What we need to understand is God judges the intention of the heart. Where is our heart today? Do we desire to be in the fathers embrace or do we desire only to be “slaves in our father’s house?” God does not desire obedience out of duty, our fear of his wrath nor our efforts to earn his embrace. He does desire our hearts to be seeking his embrace at all times because it is there that we encounter his love and mercy.