Reading the Prodigal Son parable this morning, and Thomas Schreiner’s article on it in Tabletalk magazine (Dec 2012, pg. 7-9), I was reminded of a few things, and learned something new.
1. Jesus often taught by telling stories, painting characters that reflected His audience in various ways.
2. I remain thoroughly unconvinced of the idea that parables were to tell only one point, and to avoid drawing more than one conclusion from them. Jesus tells this story with both “sinners” and self-righteous present, both prodigal and older brothers. The sinners are affirmed that they receive mercy from God even if others around won’t give it to them. At the same time, the older brother is rebuked for not extending mercy where God does. It is true that you can’t draw out theological inferences, like the nature of the afterlife from Dives and Lazarus. In this parable, we do not get a theological basis for the father’s forgiveness of the son. But there are usually as many different applications as there are main characters in a parable.
3. The older brother was trying to maintain the custom that the younger son was really dead to the family, having left the faith. He tells his father, "He might be your son, but he isn’t my brother" (Luke 15:30). The father and older son are now at odds, because the father asserts that the prodigal returned is indeed “your brother” (Luke 15:33).
Jesus places Himself in the story as the forgiving Father, given the context of where and when He tells the story (Luke 15:1-2). Sinners are coming to HIM - to Jesus, and the Pharisees don’t like it. So He tells a story about sinners coming to a forgiving Father, and the older brother doesn’t like it. This fits with other Gospel stories where Jesus tells the sick that their sins are forgiven, and the Pharisees overhear and are scandalized. Embedded in this famous story is another assertion by Jesus that He is God's Messiah, prophet, and representative. We must come to Jesus for God's mercy.