There were two brothers presented in the story and one represented a way to be accepted by God and the other, a way to be estranged from God, more so into the Kingdom of Heaven. They represent the state of humanity today because we are either estranged from God or we are looking for a way to be accepted by God with the benefit of going to heaven when the time comes. These two ways were highlighted by Jesus perhaps because the Pharisees/Scribes (representing a way) and the Tax collectors or Sinners (representing another way) reflected this.
The Sinners represented the younger brother who according to the Jews was a recluse; they never observed the moral laws of the Torah nor the rules for ceremonial purity observed by the religious Jews. They engaged in wild living, and going by the parable, he spent all that was giving to him by his father after he left home. In his self-centeredness, he received his inheritance from his father and decides to go away into a far country. As far as the Jews were concerned, what has light got to do with darkness; the woman at the well said to Jesus, paraphrasically, “I am a Samaritan and according to the Jewish sect, Samaritans had no dealings with the righteous Jews”. Even when the disciples got back from the market and saw Jesus speaking with the woman, they were surprised.
The Scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the Law were another group that represented the elder brother who stayed at home with the father. He was guided by some sort of creed that he had to observe; he held to the traditions and moral laws by which they were brought up in the family. Observing the Law as far as he was concerned meant they were accepted by God and the Kingdom of Heaven. So he was quick to despise the outsiders or the sinners.
Many sinners were attracted to Jesus and His teachings, which was a bane of frustration for the Jews; they continually flocked to him, hence their comments on Him, “this man welcomes sinners and even sits to eat with them”. The Jews were never attracted to Jesus except when they wanted to find faults with His words or look for ways to arrest Him, or to oust Him because the spotlight was no more on them. As far as they were concerned, they did not need Jesus because they were righteous in their own eyes.
Is it an irony when the religious, the moralist become offended at the teachings of Jesus while the irreligious and the outsiders are intrigued and attracted to Him?
Their Father, looking from a different perspective had lost the souls of his two sons, one had physically left the house but the other was still there; he became isolated because all he had been building for years was about to vanish into thin air. He had brought them up in a particular way; they had worked for him in his business and neither of them had the passion for taking the business to the next level so that they can hand over to their own children too when the time came. The sons were caught in their unspoken selfish attitude and greed. One had gone with part of the estate; the other was waiting to own the rest, maybe after the death of their father.
As far as their father was concerned, they were both wrong and had to look for a way of getting their attention back. The moralist or the religious and the irreligious were both estranged from God. Their father represents God in this story and all that he had created. The two groups of people and the estate represents the provision He had made so that these two groups can be sustained. Here we are with the sons trying to grab without thinking about the future.
The elder brother confronted his father on why he would have to forgive his brother after all he had done to the family. He became offended and infuriated at the fact that the fatted calf was killed (it belonged to the elder brother); he started to malign his younger brother by saying, “he spent his money on harlots” et al, not knowing that he was also not at home in his soul, although he was physically there. He complained about how the father had not rewarded him, questioned the decision of his father and nagged at how a persona non grata could be rewarded.
He refused to go into the feast and remains outside the door; he was not happy that his long lost brother is back home; he frowned at the fact that the feast was at his own expense and this forced the father to approach his son begging him to come into the feast but he refused and the story ended.
The Father went to the younger son before he was restored and the Father also went to the elder brother and he refused. God will always stretch forth His arms to our dying world in grace, no matter what.
When you associate the blessings of God to how well you do morally and religiously, you miss the whole point because one day you would begin to judge your neighbor and what he has, thinking you should have more because in your own eyes, you are more religious and moralistic than he/she is. What God gives to us is just as He deems fit not on how moralistic or religious we have become.
Apostle Paul concluded the matter when he pointed out that the Gentiles were estranged from God and got into many evils as described in the first chapter of the book of Romans. Likewise, in the second chapter of the same book, the Jews were not left out because they fell short in one way or the other. Hence, the apostle said, “For all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God”. In other words we all need the Grace of God in drawing nearer to God, and not religion, morals or the irreligious and immoral.
Prophets may plant it with their pretended revelations, martyrs may water it with their blood, confessor after confessor may defend it with his learning and with his courage, time may endear it, literature may protect it, and kings may keep guard about it, but He that rules in the heavens, and cares not for human might, shall certainly grasp its trunk, and pulling it up even though it be strong as a cedar, shall hurl it into the fire, because He hath not planted it. Yes, every hoary system of superstition, every ancient form of idolatry, every venerable species of will-worship, shall be certainly overturned, as God is true – C H Spurgeon.