The prodigal contemplates returning home because he knows his needs can be supplied in his father’s home:
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!”But while there is the supply of his needs in the home of his father, he is— very naturally— still wrestling with the remnant of the Edenic poison, the God as He-whose-favor-is-to-be-earned lie. What else could the father be to such a sinful son?
I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”As he approaches home his once-despised father breaks all social convention (the boy should have been received with a shaming ceremony). Instead he runs to greet him. The prodigal now stammers out his rehearsed words through the hugs and kisses of his father:
Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.But the final rehearsed words, “Treat me as one of your hired servants” are smothered by his father’s embrace! He will not have his son home only on condition that he “does penance” in order to work his way back into his father’s grace. He does not need to “repent enough” to be accepted.
Poignantly there is in the heart of the same father a deep burden for his elder son. He again leaves the house to find him. Luke’s introduction to Jesus’s narrative makes clear that it is this brother, not the prodigal, who forms the climax to the story: “The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man [Jesus] receives sinners and eats with them.’” That grumbling is echoed in the complaint of the elder son: “He was angry.”
The tenor of the elder brother’s response is well captured in the New International Version:
Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.To which the father responds in love:
Son, . . . all that is mine is yours.What Jesus unmasks here is a legalistic heart, one that has imbibed the poison of Eden. Such a heart sees the Lord as a slave master and not a gracious Father, as restrictive rather than generous. Everything the Father has is available to him. But the elder son’s heart is closed, and as far as he is concerned nothing is his. He was at home, but he was in a more distant place than his younger brother. He thought he had to earn by right what he could only enjoy by grace.
What is particularly illuminating is that we are given the impression that only in the context of a lavish display of grace did the hidden poison of the elder brother’s legalistic disposition fully manifest itself. Perhaps the same was true of the Pharisees? And was it, correspondingly, the lavishness of grace in the Marrow teaching that also caused so much heart irritation?
This is thought to be Jesus’s best-loved parable, usually because our eyes are on the prodigal and his father. But as with jokes, so with parables: there is a principle in both of “end stress.” The “punch line” comes at the end. That being the case the alarming message here is that the spirit of the elder brother, the legalist, is more likely to be found near the father’s house than in the pig farm— or in concrete terms, in the congregation and among the faithful. And sometimes (only sometimes?), it appears in the pulpit and in the heart of the pastor.
Then it becomes dangerously infectious. But what causes it?
Reflection on the Marrow Controversy and the literature it spawned suggests that a legalistic spirit can usually be traced back to the same basic principles, no matter what mask it might wear.
From Ferguson, Sinclair B.. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, chapter 5