It’s customary for believers to praise the parable of the prodigal son.
“Isn’t that amazing?” we ask each other, overjoyed. “Look at that father’s grace! It’s exactly how God responds to us!” You are a prodigal son and I am a prodigal son and we are all of us prodigal sons. Isn’t that wonderful, we say. Isn’t that such amazing grace?
And it is wonderful. And it is amazing grace. But I’d like to be honest and say that if the parable of the prodigal son doesn’t sometimes irritate you just a little, you might be missing another truth inside it. Because along with being a story about a father’s grace and unconditional acceptance and love, the parable is also a story about how love violates the very principle of fairness. It is a story about how audacious and sometimes uncomfortable God’s love and forgiveness can be.
Because the prodigal is, of course, the typical wastrel: he squanders his inheritance on hard living and indulgence, then winds up slinking home after he hits hard times to beg back into the family as a servant. He is undeserving, a family embarrassment, a maker of bad choices. He has done everything wrong that it is possible to do wrong.
But the prodigal’s older brother hasn’t. His older brother is a study in contrast. This older brother did not ask for his share of the inheritance early. He remained home with his father as a good son was supposed to and was diligent in his work to the point that he is out in the fields the day his younger brother arrives home. He acknowledges to his father that he has worked hard, has never disobeyed, and has not, apparently, been indulged – not even to celebrate with his friends.
The prodigal earns a feast, the fatted calf, and his father’s embrace. The good son, on the other hand, earns a few words from his father:
My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found (Luke 15:31-32).
I hope this makes you at least a little uncomfortable. And I hope that it does because I see it make believers uncomfortable when it plays out in real life. We’re fine with the father’s embrace of the prodigal in theory, but in practice it’s another matter entirely.
- If you’ve ever cringed when a “sinner” marched back into church post-sin and expected to be welcomed as though nothing ever happened, you’re sitting with the prodigal’s brother.
- If you’ve ever wondered why nothing good seems to come your way, even though you’ve done everything right (and good things always seem to come the way of people who have done nothing right), you’re sitting with the prodigal’s brother.
- If you’ve ever felt bitterness that good guys seem to finish last and the ones who make the most mistakes receive the highest reward, you’re sitting with the prodigal’s brother.
- If you’ve ever differentiated between “the really good Christians who don’t cause much trouble” and “the Christians who mess up all the time,” you’re sitting with the prodigal’s brother.
It’s a human response, because the father’s welcome of his son is not human. It’s not fair, or deserved, or earned. It isn’t “right” in the sense that we see “rightness.” It doesn’t match our standards of justice or fairness.
The same grace is given to all when it is requested: to those who have many sins, and to those who have few. To those who have been “good” in our understanding of the term, and to those who have been bad. That can be daunting to those of us who try to do our best, always – even at cost to ourselves. To those who struggle to do the right thing, always, even when others don’t see. To those of us who feel as though we somehow “deserve” more for our longtime efforts to please God over those who have, as my grandmother once put it, stumbled through the door to heaven still smelling like smoke.
As believers, we must recognize that we have to put those ideas of “fairness” and “deserving” aside, because grace obliterates them. Our walk with God and our relative reward is not about who has been the best for the longest. It is about joy that all of us – longtime followers or new believers, the ones who make the least mistakes to the ones who make the most – get to be there at all, to share in the same family, the same love, the same grace.
And don’t despair. The God who rejoices over the returned prodigal is the God who remembers you, too – you who feel invisible and passed-over in spite of your continued, earnest efforts to please Him and to do right by Him. It’s easy to pass up the father’s words of encouragement to his eldest son for the fatted calf and the feast, but take a moment to pause just for those:
You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
To you who are faithful and feel unrecognized, that is your ultimate comfort. Return to it. Memorize it. Embrace it. And remind yourself of it frequently as you re-calibrate your thinking to remember that is is by grace alone we are all here together: prodigal, responsible brother, or otherwise.
By grace, always by grace, and nothing more.