Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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.’”
The older brother refused to go in.
This is one of the stories of Jesus that I have not been able to escape from for a few years now. I love Tim Keller’s little book, Prodigal God, which was a short application commentary on this parable. He highlights the way that the father in this story doesn’t respond the way that most folks in their day thought he should have.
So many of us can identify with the younger son. Every time I read this I’m aware of my own tendencies to go my own way. The image of “coming to himself,” resonates so loudly with me. It’s a compelling picture of the sin sickness that lives inside of each of us that needs to be healed.
But, in those moments when I’m really honest, I think the older brother is the one who I need to take a deeper look at. He demanded justice for the actions of his little brother. The little brother who for all intent and purposes said to their father, “You’re dead.” This little brother who wasted and squandered everything that the father gave him. All the while, the older brother was faithfully working the family farm and doing what was right. Then when the younger brother returns he is welcomed with open arms. This feels unjust. This feels unfair. As I try to place myself in the older brother’s shoes, I get it.
The older brother’s demand for justice in the situation misses the reality that the younger brother didn’t kill the father. In a very real way the younger brother killed himself. With his return, he who “was dead and is alive again,” must be celebrated! This was a miracle of biblical proportions.
These kinds of family reconciliations are miracles that are seen and experienced every day. Older brothers (and sisters) are left so often standing outside the party because the justice that they wanted handed out didn’t get exacted.
Two moments in this story strike me. First, is that the older brother simply didn’t ask for a party. His father told him that “everything I have is yours.” The older brother never had a party because he was so busy being angry and bitter about his younger brother that he missed the joy of being the son of a loving father.
Second, the older brother is miserable because of his own choice. His awful and miserable experience was because he chose to be outside of the party. He was in the darkness outside because he wanted to hold on to anger, bitterness, and resentment. Throughout the gospels Jesus talks about people being in the place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The older brother was experiencing that reality in that moment.
Too often we think of heaven and hell only in the eternal. I think this story shows us that we can experience the joys of heaven and pains of hell in our day to day, right here and right now. When we live in a place of humble gratitude for the grace that we recognize we need seeking reconciliation and restoration of relationships we can experience heaven now. When we hold onto anger, bitterness, and resentment in our hearts we can experience hell now.
There is great hope for the older brother. He can recognize the reality of who he is, one whose father has given him everything and he join the party.
I want to join the party. How about you?