“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.Luke 15:25-32
And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’
But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’
And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’
“That’s not fair!” Every parent has heard these words ring loudly in their ears. The inevitable response we generally default to is “Life isn’t fair.” And it’s true. Life isn’t fair and the world doesn’t care about what is fair by your personal standards. That means actions have consequences – sometimes unintended and undesired, even undeserved. But life isn’t about what is fair or equitable. It’s about how you respond to the circumstances around you. It’s about how you respond to your own circumstances as well as the circumstances of others.
Often lost in the reading of the story of the prodigal son is the response of his older brother, who remained at home working in the fields while his younger brother wasted away his inheritance. Any reasonable person would likely agree that he was justified in his anger and disgust at his father’s celebration of the return of this wasteful son. But if you look closely at the response of the father, you’ll find that the older son was just as wasteful with his own time.
Relationship Exposes Everything
Have you ever been disgruntled because you were passed over for a promotion that you felt you deserved? Didn’t get the recognition that your peers received for a job well done? Didn’t get that raise, even though you felt you were more committed to your employer than the slacker who did get their raise? It sounds unjust, but in each case, the focus isn’t on the job, the work performed, or even the other person – the focus is entirely on yourself and what you believe you deserve. Self-centered attitudes lead to self-centered living, and when your eyes are completely on yourself, you’re blind to the opportunities that are truly before you.
The older son in this case could only see that he deserved everything that the younger son received. He had been faithful. He had put in the work. He hadn’t squandered his father’s wealth. And he spent all his time waiting for his father to give him more gifts of appreciation for his work. Meritorious rewards for a job well done. What the son didn’t realize is that he wasn’t a hired hand – he was a son. In the same moment that his father granted the inheritance of the younger son, not only did the nature of the younger son’s relationship to the father change, but his own relationship changed as dictated by his own attitude of ingratitude. Instead of seeing his father as such, he saw his father now as an employer with whom he needed to seek approval. And that approval would be measured by the rewards he would receive from his father for his work, as opposed to his position in relationship to the father.
Relationship Defines Everything
When you are a hired hand on a farm, you have limited access to the resources of the farm. When you are a son of the farmer, you have much greater access to those same resources as defined by your relationship to the farmer. The same goes with the older son. He had spent “these many years” serving the father, yet he wasted all of his time waiting on the approval of a father from whom he was already approved.
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (Luke 15:31) All of this time he was serving the father, his attitude of service redefined his relationship with the father. In the same way, the Pharisees to whom this parable was directed defined their relationship to the father based on merit – their ability to keep the law and live in obedience to the letter of the law, often to the exclusion of the spirit of the law. As a result, more deference began to be given to the oral traditions of the rabbinic interpretations of the law in the Mishnah than to the heart of the law in the books of the Torah. Their relationship to God became a matter of obligatory subjugation which they in turn enforced upon the people around them in legalistic fashion. As a result, they missed the blessing of a relationship with the Heavenly Father who love them and wanted to extend to them grace.
Relationship Rebuilds Everything
Which brother are you in this story? So often we want to identify as the younger brother, the repentant “hero” of the story, although the true hero was the father who demonstrated grace in the midst of overwhelmingly deserved judgement. All too often, however, we more accurately identify as the older brother. We sit in judgement of our brothers and sisters who humbly return to the father in repentance, recognizing their dependence on a relationship as a child of God, rather than as a hired hand. Even in their own repentance they come fearing a change in relationship as they come home seeking to be treated “as one of Your hired servants.”
A servant/master relationship is very different from a father/child relationship. A servant/master relationship is predicated on merit, work, and earned favor. A father/child relationship is predicated by the blood and love of the father. If your perspective of your relationship to God is that of one who must work for His favor, then you are missing out on the blessings of freedom that is only found in the realization of your position as a child of the King. And the sooner you realize this relationship, the sooner you can join in the celebration and count yourself as having been lost, and now found.