Until you have come to the end of the journey home to faith in Jesus Christ, it is likely that all you expect deep down from Christ is punishment. But when the prodigal makes the journey, he discovers a family party. The Gospels contain a number of references to celebrations and parties. This is wonderfully expressive of Jesus’ view of what it means to belong to the kingdom of God, to the fellowship of His people, and to the church that He was beginning to build. We are invited to a celebration.
Yes, there is another side to the Christian life, and it is expressed here—deep sorrow for sin, repentance, and costly grace. But joy in forgiveness is always there. The Christian life may appear from the outside to be a very sober way. It is, in many respects. But from the inside, it is also a life of great joy. As you enter the kingdom of God, you encounter people who share in God’s forgiveness and pardon. You may have lived a life of moral abandonment and been far from Christ, and then been wonderfully brought to trust Him as Savior and Lord. Or you may have lived a life of severe religious discipline and, without realizing it, have drifted far from Christ.
In either case, when you come to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son,” before another word is out of your mouth, He embraces you. Then you realize that He has done more than pardon you and count you righteous. He has brought you into His family and made you His child. Well, where are you? Home? Very close to home but never having really trusted the Savior? Or very far away from home and beginning to hear the Savior’s voice? What are you to do? This parable is sometimes called “the parable of the two sons.” But earlier we hinted that there are actually three sons.
Have you recognized the third son? Count the sons. One left home and returned. A second stayed at home but remained far away. Where is the third son? The third son is the Son who is telling the story. He is the Son who was at home with His Father but came to the far country. If we miss Him, we miss the meaning of the parable. For the characters in it—however true to life they may be—are imaginary. Jesus, however, is not. He is the One who, through costly grace and great humiliation, provides the way for prodigal sons to be welcomed home. This is what the story is really all about. As He told it, Jesus was talking both to prodigal sons and elder brothers, and inviting them to come to Him, to trust in Him, and to experience the joy of being His.