Lessons In Mercy From The Prodigal Son’s Brother
Updated: Aug 25, 2019
Having grown up in the Central Christian Church, the Parable of the Prodigal Son isn’t new to me (the van Rijn rendering displayed at Level 3 is very hard to miss, anyway). This most famous parable emphasises the offering of redemption for the past and hope for the future.
I disliked it once I read it.
The Parable begins in Luke 15:12, in which the younger son demands for his share of his father’s estate. This would be an unpardonable offence, tantamount to saying to his father: “I wish you were dead”.
Yet his father agrees, and we realise that he has travelled to a distant country, and in the process selfishly squanders everything on worldly pleasure and shallow fulfilment (Luke 15:13). A famine follows (Luke 15:14) and the younger son sells himself into physical slavery to a Gentile and feeds swine (Luke 15:15). This is a life so miserable that he longs to eat the pigs’ food, and upon reflection realises that even his father’s servants lived better than that (Luke 15:16-17). At this point, the younger son is willing to give up his rights as his father’s son to take on a position as a servant (Luke 15:18-19). As he nears his father’s house, the father breaks convention and runs to greet the returning son with a kiss (Luke 15:20). Before the younger son can finish his confession, the father unconditionally forgives him and orders a celebration.
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’" (Luke 15:22-24)
This filled me with righteous indignation. How unfair is it to have a party for a bad child and not the good one? Apparently, my sentiment was shared by the elder son.
“Unfair!” he shouted, “so unfair!”
Okay so the elder son does not say this exactly, but I would have. Instead, he goes into an indignant, self-pitying rant:
"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 15:29-30)
As the firstborn child of four children, I sympathised with the elder brother. I understood the responsibilities he had as the eldest child, and comprehended the resentment he felt as a “disobedient” younger sibling flouted the rules with no consequence. He had the right response in this regard, I thought, in fact the only sane response. It was a justified response, having toiled in the fields, to expect some acknowledgement. Yet he received nothing while the lesser son had the fattened calf killed in his honour after squandering his inheritance.
It took me a while to get out of the mentality of the older son. Upon studying the Bible, it slowly dawned on me that when it comes to our relationship with God, we are all the younger son; the self-centred nature of sin separates us from God our Father, and in our most desperate moments we turn to him completely aware of how undeserving we are of anything at all. God’s forgiveness is, however, all-encompassing and unconditional. Despite turning our backs on Him, God patiently awaits our return, giving up his Son to redeem us of our sins. We are the younger son. Blinded by my pride, I had viewed myself as the older brother, leading to a distorted and bitter view of God.
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)
It’s also easy to look past the elder son’s indignation to forget that he, like his younger brother, is lost - he is lost in his skewed idea of a Father-Son relationship. “All these years I served you”, says the elder son, “not once did I disobey your orders”. Trapped in a worldview of merited favour and competitiveness, he forgets that his father does not desire labour or obedience, but rather a relationship. Yet even as he stays in this harsh world devoid of compassion, his father seeks him out. Just as the father had ran to greet the younger son, he left the party, realising his older son was still out in the fields.
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him." (Luke 15:28)
Jesus has used this parable to help us understand God’s heart to seek a relationship with us.
Just like the father in the parable valued his relationship with both his sons more than anything, our redemption is a gift which allows us to return to God despite having partaken in sin. Yet pride often clouds our judgement, and we often fall into the trap of the elder brother, trapped in a cycle of attempting to earn and justify God’s love.
But God’s grace cannot be earned through works or deeds, and as we become petulant and self-absorbed, increasingly concerned with fairness and justice for ourselves rather than compassion and mercy towards others, we forget that we too are lost, and are just in need of forgiveness and mercy as the next Prodigal Son. God does not owe us a good life based on our good works.
“But the Lord replied, 'Have you any right to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4)
Too often, when studying this parable the focus is on the return of the prodigal son and the all-encompassing love of his father. But the parable ends not with the return of a wayward son, but a reminder of the unmerited favour we receive from God, and an invitation to share in joy.
"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 15:32)
Jenna Tan (Campus Ministry)
Jenna is the daughter of Chin Hoe and Soon Keow and the eldest among her siblings. Growing up in church, she learnt to be passionate about learning God's Word since a very young age. She is currently studying law in London. She wrote this article when she was a teenager.