A minister friend of mine recently invited me to contribute to his church’s Lenten devotional, and I was assigned Luke 15:11-32 — the story of the prodigal son. Here’s what I wrote.
This story is probably Jesus’ most well-known parable. In fact, it is so central to the Christian faith that it has been celebrated in film, literature, visual art, music, and dance throughout the centuries. Something deep in our souls stirs at the idea God could love us as unconditionally and unreservedly as the father in the story loves his prodigal son.
Yet when I read this story, I tend to identify more with the older brother than I do the younger one. Like the responsible first-born that I am, I go through life showing up and doing my job and fulfilling expectations. I work hard and remain loyal and try to be obedient. I do stuff I don’t want to do and give money I don’t want to give. I demonstrate character when it would be easier and more fun to throw a screaming FIT. I try to take the high road although traffic is light.
There is much to be said for duty and dependability. Working hard and having integrity bring honor to God. However, I often do these right things for the wrong reason, or with the wrong attitude. And sometimes I’m not happy when those who have been disloyal or disobedient change their ways and return to God; instead, like the older brother in the story, I’m angry that for years I’ve followed the rules only to receive what seems like a lesser blessing.
This parable is so famous because it is endlessly rich in meaning. It teaches that to follow God is its own reward — as the father tells his first-born, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” It reminds us to remain humble and not consider ourselves more righteous than others whose sins are simply more visible. And of course it reassures us of God’s mercy and grace no matter what we’ve done.
But for me, this story is also an uncomfortable reminder that I don’t get to control God. If I’m only serving my Father as a way to get blessings and favor from him, my behavior actually lacks integrity. And if he is truly my Father, he is free to parent me and bless me however he sees fit, and what he does for others – even if I’ve been “better” than they are – is none of my concern.
We like this story because of its touching picture of grace, but real grace is not only unbelievable to the one receiving it. It’s also outrageous to others who witness it. The gospel and the cross say we can’t do anything to make God love us less, but this means we older brothers also can’t do anything to make him love us more.