“The older brother was so angry that he would not go into the house; so his father came out and begged him to come in.” (Luke 15:28)
The two boys really weren’t all that much different, when you think about it — the two sons in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Prodigal, in case you don’t know, means — according to our good friend Merriam-Webster — “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure: lavish.”) They both were concerned primarily with themselves; they just expressed it differently.
The younger son wanted money so he could go off and do what attracted him — which unfortunately involved not only travel but reckless spending. The older son stayed with his father and worked, knowing that when his father died everything would be his; after all, his brother was long gone!
The difference between them was a fairly simple one. The younger son gained wisdom and humility. The older son’s heart was hardened and he remained selfish.
Whoa! I can almost hear you saying, “You’re misreading that parable.” Most of us identify with the older brother. Most of us, especially those of us who attend church regularly and try to do what is right, are in truth like the older brother in some respects. We shoulder our responsibilities rather than attempting to flee them. We do the work which must be done rather than heading off on adventures. We put one foot in front of the other, not expecting anything special — and sometimes getting exactly what we expect. (Occasionally, we have friends, families or co-workers who appreciate what we do and show us, but not always.)
We appreciate the father’s love for both of his sons — and are grateful for that metaphor of God’s love for us — but we understand the older son’s anger. We would be angry, too. And that’s what I should understand, right? It’s righteous anger that the older brother shows, not a hard heart.
Perhaps, but I strongly suspect this is another parable about personal growth. In the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9, Mark 4:1-9, Luke 8:4-8), we learn that our environment affects the way we receive the Word of God and the way it grows in us. In the Parable of the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), we learn that we must learn to live in a less than perfect world, and trust God with the harvest. I suspect this is about learning from our experiences, learning to have a right relationship with God.
The younger son didn’t want the life his father lived — he imagined something different and went out into the world to build that life for himself, failing abysmally. From that, he learned that he hadn’t appreciated what he’d had and returned as one who had grown in wisdom, capable of humility. The older son wanted what his father had and worked hard — like a slave, he claimed (v.29) — but this work didn’t deepen his relationship with his father or his appreciation of the life he had chosen. He lashed out at his father in anger when his father acted in love.
But his father doesn’t give up on him, either. Instead, he is the same loving father who greeted the wayfarer son with love. He goes out to meet his son and patiently explains their relationship: “You are always here with me and everything I have is yours” (v. 31). And then, he goes on to explain the celebration: “He was lost, but now he has been found” (v.32).
It’s not just about us, son, the father said. It’s not about what we do or what we have; it’s about relationship. In this case, it’s about creating a sanctuary so the lost can come home.
The parable does not end with the older son in his father’s arms. The parable ends with the father’s lesson to his son. Because so many of us identify with that son, the question becomes: how do we respond? Do we learn to open our hearts and our lives to others? Do we learn to welcome those who have been lost? Do we embrace them and share with generosity?
Do we learn the lesson and throw ourselves into our father’s arms to receive his kiss? Or do we remain angry and walk away? The choice is ours.