In this parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus is responding to the complaints of the Pharisees and scribes (i.e., experts in Biblical law) that "He receives sinners and eats with them" (Lk. 15:1-2). In His response, Christ prefaces this parable with the parables of the lost and found sheep and the lost and found coin, concluding each with these words: "Rejoice with me, for I have found [what was lost]," a joy shared in heaven among the angels (Lk. 15:6-7, 9-10).According to Christ, being "lost" is a drifting away from the Kingdom of God in sin, and "finding" is a process of return in repentance. Then [Jesus] said: "A certain man had two sons" (Lk. 15:11). Christ invites us to understand all people as children of God the Father, whether you are a "tax collector and sinner," or a "Pharisee and scribe." As St. Paul writes: Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ (Gal. 4:7).
Sonship entails a relationship with God with certain freedoms and responsibilities. As human beings created in the image of God, we all must answer to God who is our Maker and Redeemer. In the parable which follows, we see two typical examples of how we treat our relationship with God.
The younger son decides to ask for his inheritance, abandon his father's house, and proceed to squander everything he possesses in dissolute living. Having estranged himself from his homeland, the younger son becomes no better than unclean animals. However, in this state of utter depravity, he comes to a place of spiritual clarity: But when he came to himself, he said…, 'I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.'" And he arose and came to his father (Lk. 15:17-20). St. Theophan the Recluse wrote: "When he came to himself means he has come to his senses; I will arise and go indicates he has decided to cease his former life; I have sinned is repentance, and his father clothes him (forgiveness and absolution from sins) and prepares him a meal (Holy Communion)" (The Path to Salvation, chap. 3).
The younger son returns home seeking only the mercy of his father without any claim to position or favor, only to find his father who has been watching expectantly for his son’s return. The father embraces his son with love and celebrates the return with a feast because his son's return is a matter of life and death. This my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found (Lk. 15:24).
Abiding in God the Father's house is life; squandering and forsaking it is death, but returning to the Father in purity of heart is restoration to life again, and joy, and thanksgiving.
Now his older son was in the field… he was angry and would not go in…, 'Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I have never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him’ (Lk. 15:25, 28, 29-30).
The older son thinks of himself as the "good" son deserving of privilege and recognition. The older son is prideful of his dutiful service to his father. He is angry and jealous of his brother's reception because he sees it as an insult to his own standing rather than an expression of the father's love for both sons. Are we not all tempted to react this way ourselves when we don't receive special adulation, especially if we keep the rules of the Church, remain faithful to God in our lifestyle, and maintain such a practice year after year without fail?
"Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found" (Lk. 15:31-32).
The father's words are sobering in their truth. In God's house, every member of the family has unlimited access to all the good things of God. These good things are freely given and freely received for the joy and well-being of all in the household. We may think of God’s gifts as payment for our performance, but such an attitude only breeds contempt and resentment (older son). We frequently waste God’s gifts for our own godless purposes, separating ourselves from life and salvation (younger son).
Yet the father remains steadfast in his generosity, his love, and his patience, always providing for his children. God desires all to experience His providence, to return to it in repentance and faith when we stray, and to live within its goodness both now in His holy Church and forever in the Kingdom of God.