Finding fault in others, while missing or overlooking our own faults, is a characteristic that humans have perfected. Jesus observed this human failure and addressed it though his wise teaching many times. In the story of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32), Christ provides an example that is easy to miss, but one Christians should take quite seriously. The message of the older son in this story is often overlooked because the focus seems to be on the wayward son, the rebel. But Jesus told this story to share two types of error into which children of God can fall.
The younger son had little respect for the father and the stable life that he had provided. He selfishly asked for his inheritance so that he could go off and focus on himself. He leaves, wastes everything, hits bottom and then humbly returns to ask forgiveness. Just being accepted back by his father would be good enough. But before this son can say anything, the father sees him in the distance and runs to hug him as an expression of his love. The father then throws a big party to rejoice because of the return of his lost son. Sometimes we think that this is where the story ends, but in reality, the story is just beginning.
The older brother had been out working in the field, and when he returns, he is surprised that there is a party. When he finds out the reason for the party, he does not react well. This older son shows just as much disrespect for the father as the younger son had shown, by selfishly questioning why his brother deserved the attention. It wasn’t an innocent question asked in love because the story goes on to explain that he was so angry that he didn’t even go inside the house.
It may have seemed that the older brother did everything right because he didn’t appear to be rebellious. The reality is that he was tempted to believe that his obedience trumped the mercy of the father. He showed no more respect for the father than his younger brother did. Too often we can be tempted in this same way. We attend church every Sunday. We let people around us know that we are Christians. We take pride in our obedience. Each of these are good things to do but not things that by themselves provide salvation.
In the end, the father tells the older son that “all I have is yours.” One might think that this statement was about the money and land the father had and that the younger brother would get nothing. The story doesn’t work that way though. The father had much more to give than money and land, as the younger brother has already learned.
The story Jesus told addresses our need for the Father and his loving care for us. The Father desires our service, but he desires service that is grounded in our humble devotion. He wants all to be saved: 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” We become like the older brother when we think that we can, through works and obedience, earn salvation by ourselves; when we act like the Father loves us more because we do good things. We must recognize the depth of the Father’s love, the value of being His servant and the inheritance that awaits and live in faithful obedience as a result.
Jesus told the story of the loving Father to teach that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and that we are all loved like children by a Father that loved us so much that he gave His only son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sin. Whether we rebel outwardly or inwardly, he still rejoices when we repent.