The Parable of the Prodigal Sons (Luke 15:11-32, NRSV)

Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe‐the best one‐and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’"

Jesus begins by saying, "There was a man who had two sons." Each son represents a way that people choose to live. Both are ultimately self-destructive.

Maybe you will identify with the younger son. The younger son chooses the "irreligious" way of life which says to God, "I don't need you, I'll justify myself by self-discovery and self-indulgence." Eventually, a person realizes that trying to justify ourselves by seeking things, and not seeking the God who is the source of all things, will ultimately be unsatisfying. It's like clutching at shadows but never grasping the true object. We were created by God and for eternity with Him, not for temporary things.

Younger sons & daughters, read: A Father's Love (excerpted from Max Lucado's book He Chose the Nails)
A modern retelling of the younger son's story.

Or maybe you will identify more with the older son. The older son chooses the "religious" way of life which says to God, "I don't need you, I'll justify myself by my works and by moral conformity." But how good is good enough? We are all in danger of falling into this kind of self-justifying works-based mindset. The "religious" way is just as misguided as the irreligious way because it is like trying to pull ourselves out of quicksand; the more you struggle, the worse it gets.

Older sons & daughters, read: How Good is Good Enough?
The whole idea of earning your way into God's favor is totally common-sense … and totally, tragically wrong.

Each son in the parable had a strategy to get things: One was trying to be really independent the other was trying to be really good. Neither is necessarily a bad thing, but they made it their main thing, and so these both become merely different forms of self-justification. Both ways are sinful because they dishonor God, making Him second, when He alone deserves glory.

Thankfully there is a "third way" to the irreligious and religious ways: The gospel way. Only God can justify us (make us right with Him and restore the relationship between us). Grace is God loving us enough to send His son, Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, to die as atonement for our sins. (Atonement means "at-one-ment", paying the penalty on our behalf.) He was then raised from the dead, conquering even death, so that we too may have eternal life if we accept God's gift of His grace and follow Him. This is why the Bible describes life without Jesus as being "lost"; when we follow our own ways, we end up astray.

The parable of the sons ends without telling us the older son's response: Will he continue in his steadfastly untenable way, or will he choose the gospel way? More importantly, which way will you choose?

Further reading:
Jesus Christ: Who is He?
Watch the Jesus Film online, free
What is the "gospel", aka "good news"?

With thanks to Tim Keller's writing & speaking re the Prodigal Sons.