Jesus told the following parable to a group of people who had lost their way. It was more of an indictment than anything else. Following is a paraphrase of the story, taken directly from a collection of Koine Greek manuscripts commonly used in the creation of our modern Bibles.
Once there was a very rich man who had two sons. One a winner, the other a loser. The good son always did what he was told, worked hard on the family farm, and was a big contributor to the success of his father’s operation. The other son was a somewhat lazy ne’er-do-well who couldn’t seem to get his act together.
The loser son one day went to his father, announced that he would be leaving, and asked for his inheritance. Back then, this was tantamount to wishing your father dead – a very shameful act in the minds of Jesus’ audience. The father willingly complied and the son went and sold the bounty all throughout the town, further spreading his father’s shame.
The son went to a “far off place.” In 1st century Jewish parlance he went to live with pagans, losers, trash. He blew the money in some very unsavory activities, got hungry, resorted to eating garbage, and came to his senses. “Jeeze, I’m living in hell. I can go home and at least be treated like a slave. My father’s servants are living better than I am.”
So he crafted a speech that he would deliver to his father. In the Greek it’s apparent that he’s making up an apology but not sorry or “repentant” for his stupidity. There is no mention of sorrow, humility, or wisdom.
The picture being painted is of someone who’s committed the most grievous infractions a person from that culture could think of – dishonoring parents, sinful living, rubbing elbows with pagans, and manipulation. “Kill him” is what most of Jesus’ audience, including his disciples, would be thinking.
His dad, who’s been waiting for him to come home, sees him on the horizon, runs to him and does something akin to tackling him. The son attempts to give the speech, word for word as he’s rehearsed it, but the father cuts him off. He places a ring on his finger and immediately restores his status, privileges, and rights to inheritance. Dad then throws an enormous party and kills the calf that’s only reserved for uber-special occasions.
The good son, understandably, is pissed and standing outside the party, refusing to go in. The father begs him to join the party. “But my son has returned,” the father begs, “Aren’t you happy too?” But the winner son sees people as most of us do. Winners should be celebrated – exalted. You should never throw a party for losers. Dad returns to the party alone leaving the winner son to stand outside and pout. The end.
Jesus tells this story in part to illustrate the fact that God’s view of people is upside-down to ours. The losers are winners and vice versa. If He’s right it suggests that our view of most things is upside-down. Maybe that’s why he so often calls for humility. Getting down on your knees is the highest you can get in an upside-down world.
This parable is one of three (read the whole thing here) that Jesus tells to an audience of “Good People” who are grumbling about the horde of losers that are following Him. The first parable talks about someone who loses their property then gets real happy when they find it. The second talks about a poor person who loses their money then gets real happy when they find it. The third is a story of a man who loses a son then gets real happy when he finds him. Everyone in Jesus’ audience can track with the first two, few can deal with the third.
Funny that the only loser in this story is the one that didn’t want to go to the party.