A Tale of Two Sons
It's one of the most famous stories in all of history. Famous playwrights have adapted it for the theater, world-renowned artists have tried to capture the emotion contained within it on canvas, and the plot has resonated with humanity for centuries (with both Christians and non-Christians). It's a simple story with few characters. It's the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).
Jesus is a good story-teller. He gets to the point, presents the right details, and uses relatable objects and people. Here, he uses a dad and his two sons. I think it is safe to assume that the father in this parable was a good dad. He was kind, caring, and a wise steward. He was going to be able to provide inheritances for his boys. When they were set to begin their adult lives, and perhaps become fathers themselves, he would be there to help them get started. By all accounts, a good dad. But that's only part of the story.
See, his boys don't respond to his care appropriately. Actually, they respond tragically. One takes his inheritance early--essentially saying he wished his father were dead--and squanders it on wild and reckless living. His other son refused to celebrate alongside his father when his brother finally comes to his senses and returns home. He really throws a fit. Yes, one seems like a bigger deal than the other, but both brothers are meant to teach us something.
Jesus uses the two brothers to teach us the two common approaches to God's authority that we find present in all of humanity. Some are like the younger brother--rebellious. It's their life so they are going to do it their way. They could care less about morality, truth, or God's commands. Judgement is a joke to them and, if they can stay occupied with sin long enough, they won't ever pause to contemplate the seriousness of eternity. Their sin is easy to see (and they don't hide it). Total rebellion.
But others are like the older brother. We can call them "religious." They follow all the rules and wonder why others don't do everything exactly like them. In their mind, the way they act, the way they feel, and the opinion they possess are all the right ones. In the story, the older brother has difficulty showing and understanding grace. He doesn't understand grace because he thinks he doesn't need grace. Some are just like him. They can please God themselves--they don't need a bloody, beaten, and hanging Jesus. They don't need a Savior at all. They can save themselves.
Whichever son you find yourself like, the end result is the same.
Both lifestyles and worldviews create a broken relationship with the Father.
Being 'good' or being 'rebellious won't save your soul.
A Third Son
Parables have one meaning. They are a small story with a big point. They are not constructed to be picked apart as if every detail has particular meaning. That doesn't mean that there isn't truth present in parables beyond the main point (like the two predominant worldviews in this parable), but we shouldn't place the peripheral truths ahead of the main truth a parable is teaching. So, what is the main truth this parable is intending to communicate?
Heaven's response to a sinner "coming home."
The Heavenly Father's heart towards those who repent and come to their senses. When we read about the father's excitement concerning the return of his son, we get a glimpse of God's heart towards his wayward creation. We get a glimpse of God's grace, mercy, and love. And it doesn't matter where we have wandered--into rebellion or goodness. When we return home, God is there to run to us. Why?
Because there is a third Son in this story--the Son telling the parable.
Jesus, the Son of God, makes it possible for sinners to return home. We come up the driveway dressed in the righteousness of Christ and this causes the Father to run to us. To overwhelm us with grace. See, Jesus is not like either son in the parable he told--he is perfect. No sin or errant worldview that separated him from the Heavenly Father. And, through repentance and trust in the gospel, we can come in his name and share in that same intimacy. Whether you are wandering in rebellion, or quietly trusting in your own goodness, Jesus asks you to abandon those destructive paths and come home. In his name--to share in the Father's joy.