by Dorette Saunders
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-32) is well- known and equally well-loved since it involves the magnanimous grace a father shows toward his wayward, younger son. Readers of this parable quickly equate the father with God, who patiently waits for us (the younger son) to come to our senses and return home to God, who welcomes us with great fanfare, and generously forgives our sins.
But, lurking in the allegory is another prodigal—the older son. At first glance, who wouldn’t root for the son who stayed home, took care of the animals, and the crops? He is present when he’s needed. Don’t you dare align him with wild women, wild living, and wasteful behavior. Then, why think of him as a prodigal son?
While the word “prodigal” implies wasteful extravagance and recklessness in terms of using one’s resources, it also has the connotation of someone who returns after an absence of wasting their life. Many see the elder son as the “good” one. Yet, Jesus’ story shows that our “goodness” is closely aligned to the motivation of our hearts.
The older brother was not much different from the younger one because while he had not physically moved away or wasted his father’s money, his heart was far removed from his home and family. He had willfully chosen not to acknowledge his father’s love for him.
Look at his response when his brother returns. The Scriptures tell us:
“He got so angry that he would not even go into the house” (Luke 15:28, CEV).
His heart was so hardened that he could not bring himself to celebrate with his father and the others. He did not understand that no matter what the younger son did while he was away, what the father cared about most, was his son’s safe return. The older son was missing the ties that should bind each of us together—love! Nowhere do we see that the fact that his brother was “lost” caused him distress. In fact, instead of rejoicing at the young man’s safe return, he made it all about himself, casting blame and accusations at his father.
“For years I have worked for you like a slave…You have never even given me a little goat, so I could give a dinner for my friends.” (v.29).
Genuine love for his father and for his brother would have caused him to rejoice on this happy occasion. The music and dancing should have prodded him into reveling. But he had allowed a root of bitterness to settle in his heart. Notice his speech:
“This other son of yours wasted your money on prostitutes. And now that he has come home, you ordered the best calf to be killed for a feast” (v.30).
This stay-at-home son had “divorced” himself from his father and his brother, who had now become “this other son of yours.” The Bible tells us, “Your words show what is in your heart” (Luke 6:45, CEV). Can you see him as a jealous, legalistic, bitter man?
Yes, the older son he may have done several seemingly commendable things. But none of them was done out of love. In fact, the older son thinks of his obedience to his father and his work around the home as “slavery.” But, the Bible tells us that God wants us to love him, and our brother and sister, with a pure and willing heart, rather than being able to point to a million good deeds we accomplished.
We should never be angry or jealous when God chooses to forgive someone who we think have gravely sinned. Or be disgruntled when God blesses someone who we think does not deserve it. God, our Father, dispenses his love, grace, and mercy on whomever he chooses. Our responsibility is to keep our channels of love open to celebrate when sinners come to repentance (Luke 15:7), so that the circle of forgiveness and celebration will never come to an end.
PRAYER: Lord Jesus, we sometimes squander your great love for us by focusing our eyes and our hearts on the sins of others. Help us to remember the old adage, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” So God, give us a clean heart so that we, your prodigals, might see our waywardness and return to you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.