The story of the prodigal son captures the complexity of our experience of sin, guilt, forgiveness, and acceptance. Jesus tells the story as tax collectors and sinners gathered round him to listen. The people he attracted were mostly rejects of Jewish society. And the Pharisees and scribes resented that. This is the context of the parable.
The younger, sinful son, represented the tax collectors and other low-life characters who heard Jesus’ words and wanted to reform. The older, obedient and dutiful son, represented the scribes and Pharisees who couldn’t accept that Jesus seemed more interested in sinners. They who considered themselves righteous, could not stand the idea that Jesus was preaching forgiveness for sinners; just as the elder son in the parable couldn’t accept that his father had forgiven his brother.
It would be a mistake to think that the message of the gospel is that sinning—then repenting, is better than righteousness. The younger brother was not better than the elder son. Jesus doesn’t say that. God, however gentle and forgiving he might be, expects us to live according to his laws. There is a growing tendency in the culture of our world today, to downplay the gravity of sin and think that good and bad are just a matter of personal taste. How many no longer believe in sin, in accountability, in righteous living, because anyway, God forgives? The compassion of God must not make us forget that he also commands us to live in righteousness.
On the other hand, while God makes clear demands on us, he is not harsh, unreasonable, and unforgiving. He does not lay upon our shoulders, guilt that we cannot bear. In another part of scripture, Jesus tells us that with God, there is still a yoke and a burden for us to carry. But he also says that it is a “yoke that is easy, and a burden that is light”.
The problem with the scribes and Pharisees was that they were more unforgiving than God himself, more demanding, harsher, and less compassionate. And so in another part of the bible, Jesus says to them, “Woe to you, for you put burdens too heavy for people to carry”. That was also the problem of the elder brother. His righteousness had become self-righteousness, and his dutifulness had made him harsh and unforgiving.
“Look”, he says to his father, “all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders”. In effect what he was saying was, “I have been extremely demanding of myself all this time, while my no-good brother threw his life away, and you still accept him.” What he really wanted to say, of course, was: “I was demanding on myself, you should be the same with him”. Oftentimes, harshness with others is really a reflection of our harshness with ourselves.
A person who shows no compassion towards others, is most likely to be one who shows no compassion to himself. One who is too demanding and unforgiving of others, is most likely to be the same with himself. In the end, the very persons the scribes and Pharisees were rejecting were not the sinners they despised. They were rejecting themselves.
And that is so contrary to the teaching of Christ on compassion. One of his most powerful admonitions is: “Be compassionate, as your heavenly father is compassionate.” And we have to obey. Because there will be moments in our lives when we will discover that the most difficult person to show compassion to, forgive, and accept, is none other than ourselves.
“This man eats with tax collectors and sinners”. As Jesus did, so must we. For it could be, that the sinner we welcome and dine with, is none other than ourselves.