The story of the Prodigal Son, Act II. Though often we consider the Prodigal Son the main character, the older son plays an important part in this parable as well. Many read this half of the story and easily see it is a warning not to follow in the older son’s footsteps.
But what exactly are we being told not to do? And how can we keep ourselves from it? So often we think God’s grace is unfair. We, the good Christians, work hard and abstain from sin only to see these “sinners” receive the same grace we do, with barely any effort on their part. The older son thought his father’s mercy and grace were very unfair also, and he was not afraid to say so. Let’s see what was happening in the story. The Prodigal Son had returned, and his father was not mad, wrathful, or bitter. The father ran to him, hugged him, kissed him, and then called together his servants to prepare a party in celebration of the son’s safe return. The father valued his son’s life much more than the inheritance he had squandered and was overjoyed to have his son back “safe and sound” (verse 27). This party is the backdrop for the following scene.
Enter the older brother. This is the one people had called the good kid, the loyal son, and the faithful one. No doubt he received much recognition for being the one to stay behind and continue to serve his father, though everything left was technically his. Neighbors, family, and townspeople praised him for doing what was right. In fact, he was just coming in from the fields as this begins. He had been out working for his father.
Then he hears the music and dancing of the party. When he had left, everything was normal, but now he returns to a huge celebration. Notice no one came and found him; he stumbled upon the whole thing on accident. We all know what it feels like to be left out, and when we are, the first thing we do is figure out exactly what we are missing. The older son calls a servant over and asks what is happening. “‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’” (verse 27) (Killing the fattened calf meant they were having a special celebration. Since this was their best meat, they saved it for an important occasion.) That hurts me to just read it. I might just be biased since I am one, but it seems it’s the oldest kid who is expected to always be responsible, mature, and absolutely well-behaved. If you ever meet a Type-A personality, you can usually assume that person was the oldest child. But we all know who gets the most attention: the youngest child. Adding this to the fact the younger brother insulted his father, left, ruined everything he owned, and then comes back to them again; there is no confusion as to why the older brother is upset. He, the rule-follower, was forgotten in this sudden merriment over the returning sinner.
We can all be very sympathetic of the older brother, but we can also forget he was not the innocent victim in this story. Verse 28 shows the older son who cared nothing for his younger brother’s life. The older son was so mad at this “injustice” that he refused to go to the party, even after his father went out and pleaded with him. He was doing what a lot of us do when things seem unfair in our eyes: he was pouting. The older brother might have been obedient on the outside, but he was not loving on the inside. He did not honor the father because he loved him, but because that was what people do and then good things happen to them. He cared just as much about stuff as his younger brother had at the very beginning of the parable! This was probably the philosophy he had kept in his mind all that time he was working: “Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.” How many people have this kind of a faith? This is called legalism. But when the prodigal son shows up and the father has such great mercy and grace on him, it disrupted his whole idea of equal consequences. In verses 29-30, the older brother even points out all the ways his brother has sinned, trying to stop the mercy and love of his father, and points out all the good he has done. How many times do we get mad because someone has received mercy for their wrongdoing, while we haven’t received the acknowledgment we think we deserve? The older son did not love his younger brother, and he did not truly love his father either. He loved the idea of a reward.
But then the father reminds the brother of all the blessings he already has. He is always with his father, and everything the father had was also his. Why was the older son concerned with petty recognition when his future was set and he was safe from all the dangers around them? And then, the father tells the older son why he celebrated so: “‘But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (verse 32) Love was the reason. The father loved both his sons, but by the end of the story, only one son loved his father. None of those good works were enough to fix the fact the older son had no love in his heart. He was probably wishing his younger brother had gotten stoned, when he should have been happy his own brother had been saved from sin and death.
This is the attitude we should have. We should love each other to the point we do not care who gets what as long as the other person is saved. We forget that none of our good works makes God love us any more, and none of our sin makes God love us any less. God’s mercy is unfair, in our favor. God does not view sin like we do. All sin is the same, and God forgives us of all our sins. We are all new creations, regardless of our past. There is no penance to pay or any way to earn a greater salvation. Jesus is warning us of the false faith of legalism, which destroys the concepts of mercy and grace. We should stop putting so much effort into following every rule and focus on simply loving God and loving each other. “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” (James 2:8) Love is what we have been called to, a faith based on the love, mercy, and grace of our Heavenly Father. If we love God, we will naturally follow His commands and want others to know Him too. Loving God and others is the base for everything else and the most critical part of our faith. Be the love God has shown you!