This parable spreads itself across twenty-two verses in this pivotal chapter in Luke's Gospel. With so much lavish coloring, dramatic pathos, and fine detail carefully woven into this word picture, it seems clear that the vividness of the parable is deliberately designed to highlight the parable's central meaning. We're expected to notice and make good sense of the personalities and plot turns in this amazing story.

Indeed, the context of Luke 15, with its theme of heavenly joy over earthly repentance, makes perfect sense of all the major features of the parable. The prodigal represents a typical sinner who comes to repentance. The father's patience, love, generosity, and delight over the son's return are clear and perfect emblems of divine grace. The prodigal's heart change is a picture of what true repentance should look like. And the elder brother's cold indifference-the real focal point of the story, as it turns out-is a vivid representation of the same evil hypocrisy Jesus was confronting in the hearts of the hostile scribes and Pharisees to whom He told the parable in the first place (Luke 15:2). They bitterly resented the sinners and tax collectors who drew near to Jesus (v. 1), and they tried to paper over their fleshly indignation with religious pretense. But their attitudes betrayed their unbelief and self-centeredness. Jesus' parable ripped the mask off their hypocrisy.

This, then, is the central and culminating lesson of the parable: Jesus is pointing out the stark contrast between God's own delight in the redemption of sinners and the Pharisees' inflexible hostility toward those same sinners. Keeping that lesson fixed firmly in view, we can legitimately draw from the larger story (as Jesus unfolds it) several profound lessons about grace, forgiveness, repentance, and the heart of God toward sinners. Those elements are all so conspicuous in the parable that almost everyone should be able to recognize them.

Seeing Ourselves in the Parable
There's a good reason this short story pulls at the heartstrings of so many hearers. We recognize ourselves in it. The parable reminds us of the most painful aspects of the human condition, and those who take an honest look will recognize themselves.

For believers, the Prodigal Son is a humbling reminder of who we are and how much we owe to divine grace.

For those who are conscious of their own guilt but are still unrepentant, the Prodigal's life is a searing reminder of the wages of sin, the duty of the sinner to repent, and the goodness of God that accompanies authentic repentance.

For sinners coming to repentance, the father's eager welcome and costly generosity are reminders that God's grace and goodness are inexhaustible.

For heedless unbelievers (especially those like the scribes and Pharisees, who use external righteousness as a mask for unrighteous hearts), the elder brother is a reminder that neither a show of religion nor the pretense of respectability is a valid substitute for redemption.

For all of us, the elder brother's attitude is a powerful warning, showing how easily and how subtly unbelief can masquerade as faithfulness.

Regardless of which of those categories you fall into, my prayer for you as you listen to the series or read the book is that the Lord will use it to minister grace to your heart. If you are a believer, may you bask in the Father's joy over the salvation of the lost. May you gain a new appreciation for the beauty and the glory of God's plan of redemption. And may you also be encouraged and better equipped to participate in the work of spreading the gospel.

May listeners and readers who, like the Prodigal, have come to the end of themselves be motivated to abandon the husks of this world. And above all, may this message sound a reveille in the hearts of any who need to be awakened to the awful reality of their own sin and the glorious promise of redemption in Christ.

Adapted from A Tale of Two Sons, © 2008 by John MacArthur.