Most people are acquainted in some way with the parable of the prodigal son. In the Gospel of Luke, Christ speaks before a gathering pharisees and tax collectors (called "sinners") about a man with two sons. The younger son, preferring not to wait until he's come of age, asks his father to bequeath him his inheritance on the spot. "Father, give me my share of the estate", he says at which point the father divides his property between the two boys. The younger son then sets out for a "far country" where he squanders his inheritance in "wild living". All his money gone, he hires himself out to a local farmer who sends him out to live among the pigs. (It's commonly thought that he actually ate the slop given the pigs, but this is a misconception. "He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything." (Luke 16:15 NIV)).
At last the younger son, at his lowest end, decides to return home with the intention to work as a hired man for his father. "So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion . . . " (Lk. 16:20 NIV). Without a word regarding the son's past, the father welcomes him back with open arms, weeping with joy at the boy's return. The fattened calf is killed and a feast is prepared as all of the household, servants included, celebrate the reconnection of father and son. But not everyone is happy. The older son who has, up to now, been largely absent from the narrative, is appalled at the readily forgiving manner his father has received his younger son who's defamed the family name by throwing his money away on prostitutes. He refuses to celebrate with the family and demands an explanation for why his brother has not been held accountable. The parable concludes with the father's gentle reply: "'My son', the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'" (Lk. 15:30-31 NIV).
The story is one of the longest and most detailed of Jesus' parables and likewise one of the most misunderstood. Most if not all interpretations are concentrated on the eager flight and penitent return of the younger "prodigal" son. But this misses a key message of the story because there are two brothers, each of whom represents a different way of being alienated from God. To overemphasize the waywardness of the younger son is to neglect a crucial facet of the parable--the indignant pride of the older brother. At the time, this aspect of the story was intended as a direct indictment of the smug, self-righteous pharisees and their moralizing exclusion of those whom they felt didn't measure up to the restrictions laid down by Mosaic Law. Their sin, that of pride and their contempt of their "brother", was as grave and even graver than the lawlessness associated with more overtly sinful behavior. Tim Keller does a good job explaining it all. In simple fashion yet with an intellectual's keen insight, Keller manages to curtail some of the major dogmatic issues in Christian doctrine. In his little book (only about 100 pages), he dissects Jesus' most familiar parable and in the process redefines the conditions of both "sin" and "lostness", revealing the essential message of the gospel of grace and redemption. In everyone are both lost sons. Each individual possesses characteristics associated with the older and younger brother, and yet grace is offered freely to both the legalistic and the irreligious. Something the author expresses with unique clarity and soundness of mind. (226.806 KELLER)