Most readings of this parable have concentrated on the flight and return of the younger brother—the “Prodigal Son.” That misses the real message of the story, however, because there are two brothers, each of whom represents a different way to be alienated from God, and a different way to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven.

It is crucial to notice the historical setting that the author provides for Jesus’s teaching. In the first two verses of the chapter, Luke recounts that there were two groups of people who had come to listen to Jesus. First there were the “tax collectors and sinners.” These men and women correspond to the younger brother. They observed neither the moral laws of the Bible nor the rules for ceremonial purity followed by religious Jews. They engaged in “wild living.” Like the younger brother, they “left home” by leaving the traditional morality of their families and of respectable society. The second group of listeners was the “Pharisees and the teachers of the law,” who were represented by the elder brother. They held to the traditional morality of their upbringing. They studied and obeyed the Scripture. They worshipped faithfully and prayed constantly.

With great economy Luke shows how different each group’s response was to Jesus. The progressive tense of the Greek verb translated “were gathering” conveys that the attraction of younger brothers to Jesus was an ongoing pattern in his ministry. They continually flocked to him. This phenomenon puzzled and angered the moral and the religious. Luke summarizes their complaint: “This man welcomes sinners and [even] eats with them.” To sit down and eat with someone in the ancient Near East was a token of acceptance. “How dare Jesus reach out to sinners like that?” they were saying. “These people never come to our services! Why would they be drawn to Jesus’s teaching? He couldn’t be declaring the truth to them, as we do. He must be just telling them what they want to hear!”

So to whom is Jesus’s teaching in this parable directed? It is to the second group, the scribes and Pharisees. It is in response to their attitude that Jesus begins to tell the parable. The parable of the two sons takes an extended look at the soul of the elder brother, and climaxes with a powerful plea for him to change his heart.

Throughout the centuries, when this text is taught in church or religious education programs, the almost exclusive focus has been on how the father freely receives his penitent younger son. The first time I heard the parable, I imagined Jesus’s original listeners’ eyes welling with tears as they heard how God will always love and welcome them, no matter what they’ve done. We sentimentalize this parable if we do that. The targets of this story are not “wayward sinners” but religious people who do everything the Bible requires. Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders. He wants to show them their blindness, narrowness, and self-righteousness, and how these things are destroying both their own souls and the lives of the people around them. It is a mistake, then, to think that Jesus tells this story primarily to assure younger brothers of his unconditional love.

No, the original listeners were not melted into tears by this story but rather they were thunderstruck, offended, and infuriated. Jesus’s purpose is not to warm our hearts but to shatter our categories. Through this parable Jesus challenges what nearly everyone has ever thought about God, sin, and salvation. His story reveals the destructive self-centeredness of the younger brother, but it also condemns the elder brother’s moralistic life in the strongest terms. Jesus is saying that both the irreligious and the religious are spiritually lost, both life-paths are dead ends, and that every thought the human race has had about how to connect to God has been wrong.

Keller, Timothy. 2008. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. 1st ed. New York: Dutton.

If you would like to study Prodigal God with a group, I’d like to help. I have just written a 7-session guide that goes chapter by chapter through the book. You can get it on Amazon. It is also available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking.