In a sense there were two prodigal sons, and both grew up in a religious culture that praised rule keepers and punished rule breakers. Notice how this chapter begins: ‘All the tax collectors and sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners”… So He spoke this parable to them.’ (Luke 15:1–3 NKJV)
Here Jesus talks to two different groups:
(1) Rule breakers like the Prodigal Son, who know it’s only through God’s grace we are saved.
(2) Rule keepers like the older brother, who think they can earn or contribute to salvation by doing good works. That makes rule keepers judgmental towards rule breakers.
The older brother refused to attend his brother’s homecoming party. Why? Basically: ‘Father, unlike him, I have served you and kept your commandments. This isn’t right or fair.’ (See Luke 15:29). Sound familiar?
Here’s what the father told him: ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.’ (Luke 15:31 NKJV) Observe the word ‘son’. Jesus was teaching that we’re saved by ‘relationship’, not ‘rule keeping’. The older brother thought his father’s acceptance depended on his performance. Yes, there’s a place in God’s Kingdom for performance. Your rewards in Heaven are based upon your performance on earth.
But your redemption depends on Christ’s performance only: ‘By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.’ (Ephesians 2:8–9 NKJV) Yes, God will challenge, chastise, and cleanse you in order to change you into the person He wants you to be. But you are saved by grace alone.