The story of the prodigal son, which is found in Luke 15: 11-32, tells of a young man who squanders his inheritance through wild partying and reckless spending.
But after losing everything, he resorts to taking a job feeding pigs. He’s so poor when a famine hits that he steals chow from the pigs in order to quiet the rumblings in his own stomach.
Hitting rock bottom, the story indicates that this young man finally “came to his senses,” realizing that even the hired hands on his father’s farm were in a better position than he was in that moment.
He set out to go back to his father, and on his way plans what he will 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.”
But before the young man could even get the words out, his father, seeing his son approaching in the distance, starts to sprint, embraces and welcomes his child home.
Imagine the look on his young son’s face when he felt his father’s arms wrap around his frail body.
The parable is such a beautiful metaphor for the redemption and reconciliation that awaits anyone who turns away from wrongdoing and seeks a relationship with God.
It serves as a great reminder that the almighty God always, always meets us where we are.
Anger after years of devotion
Meanwhile, in verses 25-32, the eldest son — the one who committed his life and made the choice to doing his father’s work — is fuming, becoming angrier as he witnessed his younger brother receiving the royal treatment.
I can just hear the disgruntlement begin to percolate.
Who does he think he is showing up after all this time?
He thinks he’s so special.
What about me? Look at everything I’ve done for Father!
The older son, like a petty child, refused to take part in the festivities to celebrate his little brother’s homecoming.
Seething, I’m sure, the Bible says he “refuses to go in.”
In another surprising act, the father leaves the party and goes outside to reason with the older son.
Bible scholars believe that ancient hearers might have expected the father to discipline the elder son; instead, the father listens to his son, and in a loving and understanding tone attempts to impart wisdom as the sounds of revelry reverberate in the background.
The elder son laments:
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!
Was the older son hurt? It sure sounds like it.
Was the older son bitter? You bet.
In his mind, he had devoted himself to doing what the father wanted, and wasn’t so much as thanked for his devotion. He believed he was entitled to the better treatment. He was superior, he thought. But, in fact, he was wrong.
The father, gracious and all-knowing, saw otherwise. Because the younger son was “dead and is alive again” and “lost and is found” this warranted a celebration.
The parable teaches us what is important to our Father in heaven — and that is, when a lost soul comes home. Commitment and devotion are pleasing in the Lord’s sight, too. But when our motives are self-centered, as is shown by the elder son, this bothers God. And it should also bother us.
Which ‘son’ are you?
At times we are that lost child as is the prodigal son, the one who strays. The one who squanders everything. The one who then grovels back to God for forgiveness and reconciliation.
On the other hand, especially for those who’ve walked faithfully with the Lord for some time, it’s easy to follow the pattern of the elder son, who grew bitter, jealous and prideful after years of dedication.
Which one are you?
I believe the older son could have prevented his unrighteous response.
At least, I’d like to think he could.
And here’s how I believe those in ministry and in other leadership roles can avoid resentment while in service to others:
- Be open about your shortcomings and confess your sins. No one is perfect. Not even the most devoted Christian. Routinely humble yourself before God, and a trusted spiritual mentor, as you examine your heart and actions. Romans 3:23 NIV says “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Moreover, no one “should claim to be without sin,” according to 1 John 1:8 NIV.
- Show compassion. God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness, according to 2 Chronicles 30:9 and Psalm 86:15. Throughout the Bible, God rescues and forgives his people when they turn back to Him. In the same way, Jesus showed compassion “when he saw the crowds… because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36 NIV) What this world absolutely needs from those who are faithful to God, is more compassion, more love and more grace. After all, that is what God showed us because “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NIV)
- Share your testimony and minister to others. If you’re a believer, then the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20 applies to you. We are called to baptize and to teach others. Holding a pastoral role, in whatever capacity in your local church, puts you in a position to regularly share how God has changed you and is currently shaping you. Don’t miss out on that opportunity by using your leadership role to talk only about how “great” your life is or what blessings God is bestowing on your life or barking orders about what other church members “need” to do. Rather, use it is a platform to elevate the love and mercy God extends to anyone who becomes a disciple of Jesus. Share your story. As a result, I pray, as the Apostle Paul writes in Philemon 6, that your partnership in the faith “may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.”
- Stop thinking you’re better than someone else. The Apostle Paul urges believers in Romans 12:3 (NIV): “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” He is referring in this passage to roles in the church, but the advice is appropriate for any situation. The statement could’ve certainly helped knock some sense into the elder brother in an ancient parable that continues to teach modern-day believers the value of right-sized thinking in times when all seems ….”unfair.”