Sibling rivalry is not a new phenomenon. It is common for brothers and sisters to bicker and to charge their parents with treating one differently than the other. Lucky me, I was a middle child, which means I had sibling rivalry in both directions. My older brother got to do everything before I could, and my younger sisters were allowed to do things that I never was. It was a vicious cycle.
We see this very dynamic at play in the popular parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31). Here the elder son charges the father with treating the younger child in a way that he himself had never been treated. The elder child asserts the father acts unjustly in celebrating the return of the wayward prodigal.
It can be easy to view the two children as diametrically opposed to one another. The younger son rejects the family and leaves home, while the elder son remains with the father. The younger son is radical and irresponsible; the elder son is dutiful and faithful. It’s easy to see which child we are to emulate.
Or is it? When we look deeply into this parable, we find the distinction between the two children is not as cut and dry. In fact, the elder son suffers from the same waywardness as his younger brother.
Jesus tells this parable in a way where both children suffer the same problem and are offered the same response by their loving father.
1. Distance from the Father
The waywardness of the children is based on a denial of their relationship with the father. Each son is distanced from the father’s love and grace. This is most robustly depicted with the younger child. The younger child does the unthinkable.
Not only does he demand his inheritance before his father dies, but he proceeds to sell his birthright and move to a “far away country” (15:13). The parable is clear that this is Gentile territory, as there are no pig farmers in Israel. In essence, the younger child moves as far away from his father as he could manage.
Although the elder son remains on the family property, he too lives with a sense of distance from his father. Upon the celebration of his brother’s return, the elder son gets so angry that he refuses to join the party (11:28).
He remains outside, distant from the family celebration. When the father comes out to plead with him, the elder son angrily spews, “this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf” (11:30).
Make no mistake, the elder son suggests the illegitimacy of his brother, and the philandering of the father. This would have been seen as utterly disrespectful and shameful. Despite appearing dutiful and faithful to his father, the elder son harbors feelings of deep resentment and disdain.
2. Choosing Slavery Over Sonship
At its heart, the two children see themselves as slaves rather than sons. They view the father more as a slave-owner than a loving parent. That is, after all, why the younger son wanted to leave home in the first place.
He believes the father was holding him back and hindering his progress. In the eyes of the younger son, the rules and responsibilities of the father were limiting his enjoyment of life. Even at the point of repentance, the younger son believes he can only be received as a slave.
His prepared speech testifies to this: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, I am not longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired slaves” (11:21). The younger son believes his sin is too extensive to be embraced as the father’s child.
Again, it is not just the younger son who feels this way; the elder son does so, as well. Just listen to what he says to the father: “Look! All these years I have slaved for you, and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me a young goat so I can celebrate with my friends” (11:29).
The elder son yells at the father whom he believes has been uncaring and unjust. In the eyes of the elder son, the father is only concerned with duty and servitude and is not a person of love or grace. The elder son believes he has been continually rejected, forgotten, and unloved.
Are you tempted to view yourself in the same way as one of these two children? Do you fear the sins or mistakes of the past mean you cannot receive the Father’s love? Have you felt that God has abandoned you or forgotten about you?
It can be easy to feel this way at times. Such fears, however, are completely unwarranted. The good news of this parable is that it is not about the mistakes of the two sons: the parable is about the father.
3. The Father’s Response
We cannot underestimate the father’s response to both children. In an expression of relentless love, the father goes out to them. The father meets them where they are. Though the children feel distanced from the father, the father bridges that distance.
With the younger child, we read, “While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him” (11:22).
The fact he saw the son while he was but a speck on the horizon proves that the father’s eye was continually upon the son.
The older son receives the same treatment. When the father learns that he was too angry to come into the celebration, “he went out and pleaded with him” (11:28).
The father goes out to where the son is. He leaves the comfort and warmth of the celebration and journeys into the darkness to receive his child. What love the father shows!
Not only does the father go out to each of the sons, but he also affirms their identity as his child. The two men are children of the father, not servants of a master. The younger child is covered in symbols of sonship, a robe, a ring, and sandals.
Despite his waywardness, the father affirms his identity as a son; “This son of mine,” he says, “was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found” (11:14).
The father makes an identical affirmation to the elder child. After silently receiving the verbal abuse of the elder son, the father responds with compassion and grace, “My son,” he says, “You are always with me, and all I have is yours” (11:31).
The father affirms the identity of his hurting child. The elder child is not a slave but a son to whom the father pledges his life.
4. Let the Father Receive You
We aren’t children of God because of what we do or how well we talk. We don’t earn our status as God’s children. Our identity as God’s beloved son or daughter is rooted in the fact that God created us that way.
The embrace of our heavenly Father is freely offered. Nothing can ever dissuade our Lord from journeying towards us in love. This is the truth of the parable. This is the good news of Jesus Christ.
The loving grace of the Father is unchanging. It is consistent and reliable. Thus, the question that this parable is not whether the Father comes to us. He does. The question is not whether we are declared a beloved son or daughter of God. We are. The question that this parable prompts us to ask is, “how will I respond?” Will I let myself be embraced by my heavenly Father?
I pray your answer is yes.
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The Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada. He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.com, ibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others. He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca. He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
These verses serve as a source of renewal for the mind and restoration for the heart by reinforcing the notion that, while human weakness is inevitable, God's strength is always available to uplift, guide, and empower us.
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