Some of Jesus’ followers were tax collectors and gross sinners. (Luke 15:1) The Pharisees and teachers of the law were disturbed that Jesus welcomed this fallen class and even ate with them. They believed the “sinners” were living outside of a relationship with God. These might even be considered lost beyond recovery. To refute the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus told three parables. The third was the story of the prodigal (wasteful, lavish living) son.
The two sons in the story represented two classes in Israel – the older son represented those who conformed to the law and its requirements. In the parable this son remained at home. He pictured those Israelites who wanted to stay with the father (God) and enjoy the promises and blessings.
Both sons (or classes) were equally heirs to the Father’s promises, but the younger son represented those who were more willful and ignored God’s commandments and His precious promises. They expected pleasure from their choice of lifestyle.
But in the story the younger son found only hunger and discontent in his wanderings. (Truly, this is the state of those who turn away from righteousness.) In discouragement and humility, the younger son turned back toward home and his father. He recognized his sin and was convinced he would not be welcomed back into the family as a son. Yet he believed in his father's mercy and generosity. He hoped his father would accept him as a servant.
Sure enough, the father saw the son from a distance, recognized his anguish and humility and welcomed him back. The father proclaimed that his son had returned from the death condition. He provided the son with all he needed and more!
Jesus wanted his wayward listeners to understand that although they had strayed, if they were truly repentant and contrite, they could return to God's favor. Psalm 34:18, “The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, And saves such as have a contrite spirit.” God would help them to lead holy, productive lives.
But Jesus had a lesson for the scribes and Pharisees, as well. If they had appreciated God’s love and forgiveness as demonstrated in the law, they also would have had compassion toward their brethren. However, most of them were more concerned with appearances and ceremonies. Matthew 23:5 (CSB), “They (Pharisees) do everything to be seen by others.” The parable illustrated a great contrast between the heart of the “obedient” older son and his father’s heart.
Our Lord was warning the scribes and Pharisees that though they spent time honoring God “with their lips,” their hearts were actually far from Him. (Matthew 15:8)
Those whom the Lord Jesus is calling to be priests and kings with Him in His kingdom will have to be like their Heavenly Father. They will need to earnestly follow righteousness and have heartfelt compassion for others.