Jesus' parable about the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 beautifully describes the character of God as forgiving and receptive to those who chose to dishonor him with their lives and then recognize the error of their ways. It also seems to paint a picture of the Pharisees as a bitter, jealous, exacting big brother. While I do believe Jesus meant to reflect the attitudes of the Pharisees in the character of the older brother, I think there's room for grace, too.
Jesus says the older son was in the fields working (vs. 25) when the younger brother returned and the party began. He was where he should be, doing what he should. That's commendable, and the father later recognizes that. Then, after a hard day of labor, the older son arrives at the house and finds a party going on (vs. 25 still). If it were me, I'd certainly have felt unloved and forgotten: "They didn't even remember to come invite me to a party at my own home?" And he had to find out from a servant, not a family member (vs. 26,27).
No wonder he was angry and didn't want to share in the festivities. But, here's where I think he made his first mistake. When his father came out to him, leaving behind the party for a personal interview and connection with him, the older son defended his faithful service and loyalty while comparing himself to his foolish younger brother (vs. 29-30). Neither the Pharisees nor we should judge or evaluate someone else's relationship with God. Only God holds the measuring tape; he doesn't need us to point out the mistakes of others, as though he might overlook them were it not for our powers of observation. And there the big brother made his second mistake. It wasn't the younger brother's behavior being celebrated. It was his life, his mere existence and safety. The father says "this son of mine/your brother was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found" (vs. 24 and 32).
I think too often we get in our minds that God is unfair when good things happen to bad people (and vice versa, but that's for another day). But the father in the story never condones or approves of his younger son's behavior. It's the life he celebrates. It's the repentance he rejoices over. This story doesn't necessarily indicate the younger son will be reestablished with all the rights and privileges he had before; he may have to live with consequences. In fact, the father tells the older son "everything I have is yours" (vs. 31). But that's not for the brothers to decide; it's at the discretion of the giver, the father.
And here's where Jesus' grace is reflected most clearly, I think: there's no ending to the story. We don't know if the older brother joined the party. Jesus left room for the Pharisees to participate; he didn't assume they'd run away in (perceived) self-righteousness. After the father's explanation and affirmation of relationship (vs. 31), Jesus leaves a cliffhanger for us to decide: Did the older brother accept the father's reasoning or did he turn and walk away? Will the Pharisees imagine themselves joining in the celebration? Will I?
Father, help me to see the value of all people, including myself, not for what they do or don't do, but for the image in which they were created--Yours.
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