The story of the prodigal son is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. There always seem to be new nuances of meaning for those who study it. Today I listened to an exposition of the story by Steve Stanton, the leader of the Overseas Student work here in Bournemouth. For those who don't know, Bournemouth is the major center for learning English in England. Over 35,000 foreign students come here to learn English every year - the total population of Bournemouth is 165,000.
Stanton introduced me to some points in the story that I hadn't noticed before. For example, both sons wanted things from the father, but didn't want the father himself. How that so accurately portrays the relationship of most people to God. We are happy to receive God's gifts of life and all that creation affords, yet we spurn an invitation to be part of God's family in close relationship with him.
The second point is how easily we adopt the idea that we can work our passage. When the prodigal comes to his senses, his intention is not to fall on his father's mercy and be reintroduced into the family, but to think that he can work off his debt by becoming his father's slave.
The older son has the same attitude. Of course, he is meant to represent the Pharisees who had been criticizing Jesus for eating with sinners. But his complaint is "All these years I have been slaving for you." (Luke 15:29) in other words, 'working his passage'. He too wants what the father can give - a young goat - but not the father himself because he wants to 'celebrate with his friends'.
The father's response is to eschew the requirement for works but to offer free grace to both the sons. He brushes aside the Prodigal's prepared speech and puts a ring on his finger and a cloak on his back and kills the fatted calf to celebrate his lost son being found. As for the elder son, his father sees him sulking, but rather than scold him for it, invites him to to join the party.
So here too, salvation is all of grace and none of works.