To a Christian attorney or judge, a legal reading of the parable in today's Gospel reading might seem perfectly obvious:
The father's statement, "Son all I have is yours," means that he made a contract when the prodigal left, and the contract was binding and final. From that point forward, the younger son would get no more of the family inheritance, and when the father died, the older son would inherit all that he left behind. This, the legal mind might argue, is the meaning of the father saying to the older son near the end of the parable, "All that I have is yours." This might be an unorthodox interpretation, but it has a definite appeal. The theological concept behind such a legal deduction would hold that when the younger son came back to the farm, all he got was a party. If one assumes that the younger son continued to live on the farm, all he could do was draw wages like a hired servant. Since the older son was the only remaining legal heir of the father, when the father died the older son would inherit everything, and the younger son would inherit nothing.
There is a certain amount of common justice in the assumption that this is what Jesus intended his hearers to understand. On the other hand, this interpretation of what Jesus was trying to convey when he made up the Parable of the Prodigal Son seems to cut out the heart of his message of love and forgiveness.
The fine point of interpretation obviously hinges on whether the younger son was restored to his former hereditary position after he wasted his share and then returned, or whether he received no further inheritance. Contrary to the legal view, many assume that the younger son was completely taken back into full and total relationship with his father when he returned. The older son would not have been so upset simply about his brother being given a party. He must have understood that the younger son was back in the inheritance picture, and would one day receive a half of what the older brother had come to expect as the full remaining inheritance.
In fact, the story would carry no real weight if the legal view is correct -- if Jesus' point was simply that the younger son was given a party by his father and allowed to become a worker on the farm. It is too conventional, too ordinary, too human to imagine a father welcoming a prodigal's return, throwing a party for him, and yet protecting the older son's investment by not letting the prodigal again become an heir.
Of course, such a view affirms our natural idea of fairness. But that's just the point. That is where the argument breaks down. It is simply too legalistic, places too much emphasis on the unfairness of the prodigal getting an additional portion of inheritance, and relies too much on the concept of rewards and punishments.
Those who choose to call this the "Parable of the Forgiving Father" view the prodigal, younger son as forgiven and accepted by the father, and also brought back fully into the family and eventually given an additional share of the inheritance-unfair as that may seem.
After the prodigal son returned to his senses and came back home prepared to beg forgiveness and take the role of a hired servant, the father never let him say anything. When he saw his son at a distance, he ran to him and without hesitation he gave him the best robe in the house, a ring for his finger, and shoes for his feet-and threw a big party for him.
When Jesus had the father say to the older son, "Everything I have is yours," he described the treasure chest of God's mercy and love that is inexhaustible. God makes each of us equal heirs of God's kingdom. God gives each of us an equal share, whether we come to the kingdom early or late. Jesus illustrated the same thing by having the father say to the younger son, after his return from a season of sin, "you remain my son, and you share equally with you older brother."
Through this parable, Jesus illustrates that the love God has for us is of a quality that normal human values cannot comprehend. The father's restoring his place in the family to the younger son at the expense of the older son is Jesus' way of telling us about God. Regarding the younger son, we learn that God's love and mercy is totally unconditional. God's love and forgiveness come to us without strings. It is not related to the bad or good of our actions, but to our repentance, turning around, and being ready to accept forgiveness, to be born again and start anew.
Through this parable, we learn that the forgiveness and love of God is beyond reason and beyond any human concept of fairness. We learn that God is a spendthrift, giving away what God has to those God loves. No human being can forgive so absolutely or completely embrace the depth of God's forgiveness and love.
In the legal realm, as in most of our world and our normal way of thinking, this view is unfair. In God's realm, however, God has enough love to extend to everyone who will seek God and God's kingdom. If we understand God's love and try to copy it we will ask, "How could the father not take back his son fully?" How can we understand his action of placing his ring and robe and shoes on the rascal son as anything other than symbols of making him an exalted ruler of the estate? How can the lost sinner be truly found and saved lest he gain a full share of the father's endowment?
The parable of the prodigal son is not a story of human sin or divine fairness. It is the Parable of the Forgiving Father, the story of divine love and mercy for us sinners. The parable is a story that is almost too good to be true. It, like God's unconditional love, is almost beyond belief.