I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.
Who exactly are the ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance? Who are the nine coins not lost? Who is the elder son?
The interpretation isn’t as easy as it would seem.
On one hand, Jesus could mean “just persons who need no repentance” ironically, because, who doesn’t need no repentance?
But yet, in each of the parables, while the “lost ones who need repentance” are clearly the focus, still, the ones left behind are by no means excluded from the party. “There is more joy in heaven” for the repentant lost one, true, but that doesn’t mean there’s not “joy” in heaven over the “just ones.” The same is true with the elder son. He’s clearly the “one who needs no repentance,” but there’s no implication he’s not still in a favored position. There’s no suggestion that he really needed to repent just as much as the younger son. Rather, the implication is that, exactly as the father said, everything he has still belongs to him, and he’s always been with him.
So who does the elder son represent? The Pharisees? That is the actual context. Or perhaps, the Jews? Was Jesus dealing with His blood relatives as still “in the family”? Was He giving them a warning, that they should join the party and not be jealous? Or perhaps was he forecasting the inevitable, that, as St. Paul wrote, “to provoke [the Jews] to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles.”
Or does the elder son represent any and all who are in fact in a state of grace, Christians included, who should not begrudge unrepentant sinners coming to the faith.
Which ones are you and me? I personally identify with the sinners and tax collectors, just because “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” Yet, in practice, as a baptized and practicing Christian wrapped in Jesus’ “just” righteousness, I’m among the “just persons who need no repentance,” repentance understood as coming to faith – I’ve already come to faith. And if, on judgment day, God were to declare that a bunch of sinners who had never stepped foot in a church were somehow to be among the saved, I might take the attitude of the elder son.
How would 99.999% of everyone ever react if, on Judgment Day, God said Adolf Hitler was in? “Oh, but he didn’t repent!” Neither did the coin. The coin did nothing but get found. And the party was over that coin being found.
At the end of the day, we are side characters to a story a rather strange Lord is playing out. Strange because of what we learn from the characters in the parables, the shepherd, the woman, and the father. Our Lord is operating at a level we cannot possibly understand. His love and grace is unfathomable, as unfathomable as spending a thousand years with one group of people, only to turn on a dime and suddenly welcome into His plan the very people who tormented His people all along, all to make them jealous. Huh? Has anyone ever figured out what St. Paul meant in the latter chapters of Romans regarding the Jews? Who cannot conclude as St. Paul concluded, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the LORD?”
There is awaiting us a great party revolving around a gracious and loving Lord. Ours is to join that party, and celebrate whoever is found. If that is us, how awesome. If that is someone who seems to us “undeserving,” who are we to not join that party? We are not the hosts of that party. A rather strange Lord is. Strange on the side of love , mercy, and grace. At the end of the day, isn’t that always a reason to celebrate?