If you have spent any considerable amount of time in a church Sunday School class, you may have heard the Biblical parable of the “Prodigal Son”. This story is also called the “Lost Son” in some Bible versions (among other titles). If this narrative does not sound familiar, allow me to briefly summarize…A young man approaches his father and demands his inheritance so he can start “living his life” immediately. The father reluctantly agrees, and gives this boy the biggest payout of his life which leads to this young man living on impulse and squandering everything.
Scripture indicates that the wealth the boy was given was “liquid currency” meaning immediately spendable income. In ancient inheritance practice, this son would have also been entitled (unless the father deemed differently) to a certain portion of the family land. The older brother (there were only two sons in this family), in the case, would have been entitled to double the portion of inheritance that the youngest would have received. After spending all of the money and becoming homeless, the prodigal (meaning “one that squandered monetary resources”) returned home to a very warm and mercy-filled reception. The older brother was angry at this grace given to his sibling.
So, normally, we read this story and get a “warm-fuzzy” feeling when we realize the immense love shown to the young man who obviously did wrong. Then, we easily wag our finger at the older brother…acknowledging his lack of mercy. But wait… Let’s not condemn the older brother too quickly. It may be possible we are assuming something about him that isn’t true. If we are not careful in our reading, it could seem that the older brother was jealous and even competitive with his younger brother. This may not be the case. It could be that the older brother simply forgot his own status. He also could have forgotten what was rightfully his which in this circumstance amounted to exponentially more than the younger brother (due to the fact that land couldn’t be spent impulsively like money).
This older sibling was concerned with justice, and he had such a love for his family, that he found it to be a personal attack when his younger brother asked for “his portion” of the wealth. In those days, this was essentially telling your father that you are ready for him to die. This amount of disrespect was unmatched by any other action. Especially to a father that was only able to produce two sons in his adult life (which was an extremely low amount considering the assumed wealth and size of estate of this family). This older brother worked very hard because he knew that most of it was going to be his…or at least he would be the steward of it (assuming it could also stay in the family for the family). While this man looked at this action communally (what was best for the household), his father cared about the individual. Neither one was actually wrong according to ancient thought. This story just helps to remind us that there are times where we need to snap out of our cultural routine and focus on bringing the individual back into the fold.
Don’t be so quick to assign a villain to this story. The father knew that his son was more valuable than what temporary currency he spent. The older brother also knew that everyone would bear the burden of his sibling’s wrong choice. It was just simply taking him longer to process. We also learn by reading in between the lines that God’s grace is disproportionally generous to our transgressions.
In the end, the older brother needed to go on a learning journey too. Just like his brother.
Now, ultimately, this is a parable, but Jesus expertly uses it to instigate a thought process in His disciples. One that would lay the foundation for how the Kingdom would be structured.