I recently read a book by Tim Keller called “The Prodigal God” about the parable commonly called “The Prodigal Son.” It turns out the “The Prodigal Son” is a bit of a misnomer, or at least misses the point of the parable, because the word prodigal does not mean “wayward,” but instead means “recklessly spendthrift,” to spend until you have nothing left. This does describe the younger son, who gravely disrespects his father by asking for his part of the family inheritance before the father was dead and who leaves home for a far off land, where he spends all of his inheritance on prostitutes and wild living, but it describes the father in the parable even more. When the son hits rock bottom, he decides to return home and ask to be a hired hand in his father’s household. The father sees him when is still a long way off and runs to greet him. He doesn’t even let him apologize before he calls for a ring, the best robe, and the fattest calf for a banquet, essentially reinstating him as a beloved son.
The elder brother, as you may know, is incredibly offended by this and refuses to take part in the feast. He becomes angry, and tells the father that he has been like a slave to his father, never disobeying him, yet he has never been rewarded with even a young goat with which to celebrate with his friends. He feels entitled to good things and like he can control the father with his stellar record of obedience.
But he has not obeyed out of love for his father. If that were the case, he would not feel like a slave. In the parable, the elder brother never repents of this attitude of self-righteousness, which leaves us wanting, knowing something or someone is missing. Here’s why:
The younger brother was brought back into the family at no cost to him, which is grace. Grace comes at no cost to the recipient by definition, and this is a glorious thing. But, it must come at a cost to someone. Take for example, the instance in which a friend breaks your lamp. You could hold your friend responsible for their actions and ask them to buy you a new one. Or, you could show them grace and tell them they don’t have to replace your lamp. If you want another lamp, though, you will have to pay for it. Grace came at no cost to your friend who broke your lamp, but it did come at a cost to you, who either reads in the dark or replaced the lamp. In the parable, the younger son received grace at no cost to himself, but someone had to pay for him to return to the family. The grace the father showed the younger brother certainly came at a cost to the father’s reputation, but at this point, all the father’s remaining wealth technically belonged to the elder brother because it was his inheritance. In the parable, the actual elder brother was quite angry and resentful about this. A true elder brother, who is joyfully willing to pay to bring the son back into the family, is missing. He is not missing from reality, however.
Jesus Christ is our true elder brother. Whether we identify more with the younger son or the older son, the reality is, we are all lost sons. We disrespect and do not love our Father, shown either in wild living or slavish, self-righteous obedience to religion. Yet, Jesus Christ was willing to pay our ransom with his very life, in order to bring us back into the family. We experience grace at absolutely no cost to us. But it was quite costly to him.
Thank you, Jesus, for paying for the debt of my sin and bringing me into the feast of salvation!