Comparing G-d to a compassionate father would not have been unusual to a first century audience. Some people make decisions like the younger son, others like the elder. The compassionate father is ready to accept his sons when they come to their senses and return home. A father will receive his son even if the son has committed serious wrongs and broken all of the rules. The parable contains strong links to Jewish thought and theology, reminding its listeners of the nature of G-d.
The theme is not revolutionary in its message, but it is very powerful in its mode of expression. The parable's view of G-d as a compassionate father and His concern for every person is also seen in the context of rabbinic parables.
For example, consider Rabbi Meir in Deuteronomy Rabbah:
Another explanation: "You will return to the L-rd your G-d (Deut. 4:30)." R' Samuel Pagrita said in the name of R' Meir: To what may this matter be compared? To the son of a king who took to evil ways. The king sent a tutor to him who appealed to him saying, "Repent, my son." The son, however, sent him back to his father [with the message], "How can I have the effrontery to return? I am ashamed to come before you." Thereupon his father sent back word, "My son, is a son ever ashamed to return to his father? And is it not to your father that you would be returning?" Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, sent Jeremiah to Israel when they sinned, and said to him, "Go, say to My children, Return." Where do we learn this? It is said, "Go and proclaim these words . . ." (Jer. 3:12). Israel asked Jeremiah, "How can we have the effrontery to return to G-d?" How do we know this? It is said, "Let us lie down in our shame, and let our confusion cover us . . ." (Jer. 3:25). But G-d sent them word, "My children, if you return, will you not be returning to your Father?" How do we know this? "For I am a Father to Israel . . ." (Jeremiah 31:9). [Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:24]
R' Meir's parable is closely tied to the text of the prophet Jeremiah who calls the rebellious tribes of the north to return to their heavenly Father whom they had abandoned. They have similarly suffered exile to a far country. The rabbinic parable understands the transgression in light of individual action as well as corporate responsibility. Each person hearing the parable can see himself in the son of the parable. Rabbi Meir's parable of the lost son serves as one great example of centrality of repentance in Jewish thought. A father, according to the parable, will be anxious to welcome his rebellious son who finally comes home. The theme of repentance, reconciliation, and compassion characterizes much of R' Meir's teaching.
The theme of repentance and G-d's willingness to accept the truly penitent is an integral part of Jewish faith and practice. The homiletical midrash, Pesikta Rabbati, records a rabbinic parable dealing with the theme of teshuva, repentance, and the idea that once a person makes the first step in the direction towards G-d, G-d will help complete the return.
Return O Israel, to the L-rd your G-d (Hosea 14:2). The matter may be compared to the son of a king who was far away from his father - a hundred days' journey. His friends said to him, "Return to your father!" He replied, "I am not able." His father sent him a message, "Come as far as you are able according to your own strength and I will come to you the rest of the way!" This the Holy One, blessed be He, said, "Return to Me and I will return to you" (Malachi 3:7). [Pesikta Rabbati 44]
The same theological themes are reflected in Y'shua's parable of the father and his two lost sons. We find another parallel, once again in Deuteronomy Rabbah, where the parable stresses the friction between a father and son. The compassionate father in this parable exhorts his son to remember that, no matter what happens to him because of his direct disobedience, a sinful son will be welcomed home by his father.
Rabbi Abbahu in the name of Rabbi Jose ben Chalafta, it is written, "When you beget children . . . " (Deut. 4:25) and it is written, "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day . . ." (Deut. 4:26). To what may Israel be compared? To the son of a man who said to his father, "I intend to depart into a far country by way of the sea." The father warned, "But the time for sailors to ship out to sea has already passed!" He was vehement about the matter and argued, "You must understand that if you go to sea now, you face certain destruction! In the end your ship will be wrecked and all that you own will be lost. Listen, I am telling you that if you disobey my word and insist on going to sea, all these things will happen to you which I warned you about. However, even if the ship is wrecked, you lose everything in it and all of your personal belongings are swept away and only you yourself are delivered, remember one thing. Do not be ashamed to return to me. Do not say, 'How can I have the effrontery to return to my father.' Now, I am telling you, even if you disobey and all of these terrible things happen to you - you must never be ashamed to return to me and I will surely receive you." Thus the Holy One said to Israel, "I call heaven and earth to testify against you . . ." (Deut. 4:26). Thus He called them, "But from there you will seek the L-rd your G-d, and you will find Him, if you search after Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the L-rd your G-d and obey His voice, for the L-rd your G-d is a merciful G-d . . ." (Deut. 4:29-30). And also He affirmed, "And when you beget children . . ." (Deut. 4:25) [Midrash Devarim Rabbah].
The rabbinic parables, like Y'shua's parables, are filled with the imagery of Divine mercy and compassion, which is always granted to a person who truly repents. G-d is compassionate and longs for the repentance of His people and we have a great need to return to Him. The shame of our sin is so immense that we can't even begin to imagine how we could possibly return. How can we return when the weight of our sin is so great?
In Y'shua's parable, we do not see that the father is intent on calling his wayward sons, nor do we see the father arguing to convince his sons of their wrongs and poor choices. He is, however, ready to receive them when they finally do repent. His compassion is great, but it's not until the end of the parable that we see the father pleading with the elder brother to receive his brother, who was lost but now is found, who was dead, but now lives. The father takes on a more prominent role in his dialogue with the older son who refuses to extend love and forgiveness to the younger.
Although, the similarities between Y'shua's parable and the others are striking, one of the interesting things about Y'shua's parable is that the conclusion of the exchange between the father and the older son remains uncertain. The audience does not know what happened. The story does not conclude. I might suggest that the listener is invited to step into the story and act out the final scene, as it were. The conflict can be resolved in two different ways.
The them of repentance formed a critical pert of the liturgy of the synagogue. In Avot 3:16, Akiva teaches: "All is foreseen, but freedom of will is given, the world is judged by grace and everything is not according to the excess of works [either good or evil]." In other words, it is not according to wages earned, but Divine grace that people will be judged. The compassionate father in Y'shua's parable had two wayward sons, and each of them had gone his own way and they both had a distorted view of their father, his love, and his concern.
Both of the sons were sinners whose sins were remarkably similar. Both viewed their father as a master who holds the purse strings and themselves as the laborers who only wanted more from the master. They seem different and go about different ways of obtaining what they want, but they are both really quite similar. The cause of their wrongdoing is rooted in a broken relationship and both sons need repentance and restoration. Everyone who hears the parable must decide how he will respond to the love of the Father, and that decision determines the conclusion of the parable which is deliberately left open-ended.