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 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!’
(Luke 15:18-20, 28-30)
I have always thought this Bible account has always been named improperly, and that the real focus of the story here is not the younger son who ran away, but the love of the father who gave him his inheritance early, and compassionately and lovingly accepted him back into the family despite his actions. I’ve heard it said that the reason the father ran when he saw the son afar off coming home, was he was worried his son might change his mind and run away, and so he ran after him to encourage him in his love before had a chance to think twice about what he was doing. My mentor SJ Hill teaches that it was undignified for a man in this position to be seen ‘running’ in public, and in this moment he had no concern for reputation or what anybody may have thought if they saw this scene. He merely loved his son immensely and didn’t care about cultural norms.
Both the younger and older brothers were surrounded by the love of a very compassionate father, but neither accessed his affection properly. To one, he was the man who had a lot of wealth and would give out of such treasure if asked, and to the other, he was incorrectly viewed as some kind of slave or task master, and the older brother, as we learn later in the parable, showed his true motives for his service to his father–approval that he didn’t realize he already had (see verse 31).
In The Presence of God But Not Experiencing It
It should be noted, out of the two sons mentioned in this account, the younger brother at least had a more correct understanding of the two regarding the generous and giving nature of his father, and accessed it, even though for selfish and sinful purposes that lacked maturity and foresight to use properly. However, he didn’t properly understand his sonship until he wasted all his inheritance and was living in poverty. The older brother never ‘rebelled’ like he did. However, out of the two, the younger came to this understanding faster, through his hitting rock bottom, and realizing it was just his father’s mercy and not his own works that would accept him back into the family, if it was going to happen at all, but he was willing in his desperation to take the risk and offer himself as a servant (ie slave). The older of the brothers didn’t understand his identity wasn’t based on what he did or didn’t do, but who he already was as a son, and performed as a slave.
How many believers in the Body of Christ resemble this older brother, not out of jealousy for the kindness shown his younger brother when he returned, but out of believing themselves to be slaves and servants, instead of sons? We need to displace the orphan spirit that pervades the Body of Christ, deceiving many into religious duty and striving, in place of rest and realizing that what inheritance God has already given us through Chist Jesus, is ours for the receiving.
The younger son, out of a place of humility still knew and understood enough about his sonship, coming to his senses and humbled himself. It could be said that he realized the kindness of his father, and it led him to repentance (see Romans 2:4, but read the larger context), or waking up from the dead back to life (see v 32).
Law vs Spirit of Grace
The older son, in contrast, was offended by his father’s kindness when he immediately restored the younger brother upon his return and celebrated with a feast. Religious people who strive for the affection of the Heavenly Father are always offended at the grace and affection lavished upon those who seemingly don’t “deserve it”, because in their pharisaical lenses, feel they’ve done the right things and served in the correct ways, they don’t realize they’re basing their relationship to the Father based on their own works. The focus is wrong, and not rooted and based in the father’s love he already has, such as the father told the older son. How many believers, like the prodigal’s brother, are striving for that which they already have through the finished work of Christ on the cross?
There’s no indication from the way Jesus told this story, and the way Luke included it in his gospel account, that the older brother ever necessarily came to the same encounter with the grace and compassion of his father that the younger brother did somehow through his experiential revelation. How sad, but we know it’s a parable, and may or may not have actually happened. But under the new covenant of the Gospel, we no longer work for our Father’s approval.
We need to accept this understanding of Sonship and be transformed by it.
I’m currently reading a REALLY good book called “From Spiritual Slavery to Spiritual Sonship” by the late Jack Frost, and a paragraph in there provoked me to these thoughts. I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy!