When describing the love of God for the sinner, Jesus told a beautiful parable that gives a great deal of enlightenment on the issue. However, many try to force upon this parable the concept of unconditional love. There really is no true application of that concept in this parable except where Scripture is misapplied.
The purpose for telling the parable is to correct the darkened interpretation of the Scriptures placed in the minds of the people by the Pharisees. They taught that all bad experiences were retributive judgments of God for sin. That the sinner suffering those judgments could never be accepted of God even if they wanted to repent. And yet the Scriptures tell a different story.
The Old Testament provides us with God’s call to repentance and the terms, or conditions, of mercy. “Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the Lord; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the Lord, and I will not keep anger for ever. Only acknowledge thine iniquity, that thou hast transgressed against the Lord thy God, and hast scattered thy ways to the strangers under every green tree, and ye have not obeyed my voice, saith the Lord. Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion: And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.” KJV, Jeremiah 3:12-15, emphasis added.
Notice how Jesus says something quite similar in His parable. “And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.” KJV, Luke 15:17-19.
The young prodigal son had been rich, is now poor, suffering want while feeding unclean animals, and all during a time of famine in a far off country. How did he arrive to this dreadful condition?
He had chosen to be a disobedient son. He basically wished his father dead by asking for his inheritance before the right time. He wanted the life of the libertine, and to throw off the yoke of rules that governed the house of his father.
Now he found himself worse off than the servants of his father’s household. He came to his senses. He understood that he did not merit any worthiness to be called a son, or to be treated like a son. The best he thought he could hope for is to be as one of the bondservants. The yoke of servanthood would be more humble than the discipline of a son. But where he had been unwilling to be a faithful son, he now desired to be a faithful servant.
He was meeting the first condition, or term, of mercy’s invitation. He recognized his spiritual poverty. Without yet knowing it, he would receive the beatitude pronounced by Christ: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” KJV, Matthew 5:3.