The admirable parable of the Prodigal Son is the most loved of all the parable of Jesus. The focus of the parable is on the “man who had two sons” and the Father whose forgiveness is beyond all human expectation and calculation.
The parable portrays the image of God as a loving Father who offers unconditional love and unlimited forgiveness towards sinners who return to his love. In the Lukan context of chapter 15 and in relation to the two preceding parables, we find an emphasis on the theme of joy (feasting, etc) in finding what has been lost (Lk 15: 24, 32). Besides, the parable answers the criticism levelled against Jesus by the Pharisees and Scribes (Lk 15: 1-3). To some extent we can notice that the elder son’s attitude represents that of Jesus’ critics. However, the father in the parable is ready to offer unconditional love of the elder son who is totally unhappy over the father’s mercy to his younger son, and criticizes both the lavish love of the father and the sinful and wayward ways of the younger son.
The parable thus interprets the meaning and scope of God’s kingdom of love which Jesus proclaims: God’s gracious and forgiving love is available to all in a boundless manner. The Lukan Jesus in the programmatic proclamation of his mission stated that his mission is “to proclaim release to the captives … the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk 4: 18-19). By his action of associating himself with sinners Jesus makes his proclamation a concrete reality. He will continue to carry on making that proclamation undeterred by his contemporaries (Lk 15: 1-3) who are self-righteous (Lk 15: 29-30) and who are angry, and refuse to go in to the celebration of joy for the recovery of the lost (Lk 15: 28, 32).
What happened to the elder son in the parable? Did he eventually repent and join the celebration? The parable does not answer these questions. Jesus’ listeners had to probe these questions themselves. Jesus thus challenges his listeners by this open-ended story that they may recognise that in Jesus God’s unconditional love and forgiveness is offered to all. The parable not only justifies Jesus’ actions but confronts his contemporaries (who act like the elder son in the parable) with an urgent appeal to recognize and rejoice at the invitation of God’s lavish and ‘prodigal’ love and mercy that is offered to all his children, especially the sinners (cf. Lk 19: 10).