What prompted Jesus to tell the parable of the Prodigal Son? Luke tells us that the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to listen to what Jesus had to say but the Pharisees and the scribes were murmuring against him. Rather than being attracted by his message they were more concerned about the kind of people who found his message attractive. They grumble that 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'
Blinded by their prejudices, they don't see the good that Jesus is doing in making the Gospel message appeal to sinners. In their eyes a sinner cannot change his ways, but the Gospel message is that with God's help anyone can change. And the power of the Gospel lies in the power of love.
Jesus realised that the ideal community he was trying to foster should be welcoming and delighted when others were brought into a loving relationship with God. He also knew that there were people who were trying to do their best but who could not accept that God could offer the same love to those who were worse sinners than themselves. So Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son.
What St. Paul has to say throws some light on the topic. 'From now on we regard no one from a human point of view.' And the reason is that we have been transformed. And we have been changed because Jesus has been transformed before us. By his life, passion, death and resurrection he has proved himself to be the Son of God and is now capable of bringing others into a relationship with his heavenly Father. This is what makes Paul able to say:
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.
Paul goes on to say that, because now we are a new creation, we are also 'ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.' So not only have we been transformed by our baptism but by our example we should now be encouraging the transformation of others. This is exactly what the scribes and Pharisees were not doing. They themselves may have been transformed by their relationship with God but they were doing nothing to help transform others thus bringing about the kingdom of God on earth.
And Jesus illustrates this theology with the striking parable in which the old father is God, the prodigal son is us as we used to be and others who have not yet seen the light, and the unforgiving brother is us as we are now. At the start, the father divides the inheritance equally between the brothers, showing no preferential treatment for his steady son and not penalising the unreliable younger son. God has no favourites. But when we receive good things from God we should show gratitude and not squander his bounty. The steady son did this by staying at home and helping his father. In the terms of the parable, he worked for the coming of the Kingdom.
But the Prodigal Son went off and was wasteful of the good things his father had given him and soon found himself in difficulties. There is no harm in enjoying oneself but the harm lies in the neglect of what we should be doing when we forget our real purpose in this life. This is how we were before we experienced God's love. So, down on his uppers, the Prodigal Son comes back home. The Father, God, is overjoyed that his lost child has returned and receives him with love.
This family is the Church in microcosm. When the prodigal son returned, his brother should have rejoiced too if he loved him as the father loved him. But he couldn't find it in his heart to be generous, to be loving. He was seeing his errant brother, not through the eyes of a transformed person but from a human point of view. We can too easily be the resentful unloving brother. It's natural to feel resentment when we see someone behaving badly but as Christians we are meant to have progressed from being natural to living at some level of the supernatural. In being transformed by Christ we should now be able to love as God loves and this means behaving as the father behaves in the parable.
As Paul puts it:
God, through Christ, reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
In other words, having been reconciled to God ourselves, it is now our job to bring others into that same reconciliation. Having been called by him, we are to finish the work of Jesus. We should now be the means of bringing others back into a right relationship with God and thus expanding the Kingdom that little bit more.
Reconciliation isn't a difficult abstract notion. All it means is that by following Christ we have now become loving people and must show towards others in our lives, especially those in trouble, the love that God has given to us and that he offers to them.