Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he 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. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “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.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 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!’
“ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘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.’”
Life is messy. Friends come and go. We move. We get lost. We find something new. We love and have our hearts broken. We graduate college and don’t know where we’re going. We fail. We get back up. We cry as our parents tell us after 30 years of marriage, they’re done trying. We get in accidents and cringe when the insurance bill comes in the next month. We laugh until we’re convinced we have a six-pack of beautifully, sculpted abs. We look on in awe as new life is born, and we celebrate the lives of those now gone.
We journey through this thing called life and simultaneously try to figure out what the point of the journey even is. Is it built on a central passion or cause worth living for? Is it to connect with others along the way? Or perhaps is it about reaching a point we never deemed possible?
When we embark on this journey of life, we never intend to make it about the rules. We have great and lofty ambitions of love and joy and what good food tastes like along the way. Yet, often, we end up living immersed in rules, while destroying relationships.
In this parable, Jesus unpacks a somewhat familiar story. Growing up, many children hear the story of the “prodigal son,” and themes of love, forgiveness, and what’s lost being found. Typically, the father and younger son are observed as the major characters, leaving the older son as a minor character, providing a sub-theme to the greater picture of the story. In primarily focusing on the parable in this way, however, we’ve missed something incredible that Jesus was trying to convey to us about journeying through life.
When the younger brother dishonored their father by asking for his portion of the inheritance, the older brother isn’t even mentioned. Silently, he stands in the wings, waiting for his moment to take the stage. He doesn’t rush in, pleading with his brother to think through what he had just done. In fact, nowhere in the story do the brothers even interact, leaving one to wonder whether they had a relationship at all.
Throughout this narrative, the older brother skeptically views his younger brother’s actions. With a critical eye, he makes little tally marks for each wrong turn, every offense made. It’s no wonder that at the end of the story he couldn’t celebrate his brother’s return home. He wasn’t viewing his brother as his brother—he only saw him for the rules he was breaking.
The father, on the other hand, chose to journey through the story in a much different way. Rather than focusing on the rules his youngest son broke, he focused on the relationship he had—and wanted to have—with him. Culturally, the younger brother brought immense shame to his family. Not only had he asked for his inheritance early in the form of cash (in those days, the inheritance would have been in the form of property, leaving his half to be sold to someone outside the family), but his request was the equivalent of him telling his dad, “I wish you were dead.” Both of these major offenses weren’t at the fore-front of the father’s mind though. He was the object of the pain cause by his youngest son, but he didn’t choose to live there.
Every day we choose whether to focus on rules and what we consider to be the “right” way to live, or we choose to focus on investing in the relationships around us.
Maybe, just maybe, the whole point of this story isn’t about losing something and then finding it again. Perhaps it’s about something larger, pointing towards why we’re even on this life journey in the first place.
I don’t think the older brother intended to get so caught up in the rules and completely set fire to his relationship with his younger brother. In the same way, I don’t think we set out in life, aiming to immerse ourselves in the rules, the way life should be lived. We set out aiming to live! What the older brother didn’t realize, and what we can glean from his story, is that in focusing on the rules, or all that his brother had done wrong, he missed out on living his life.
When we choose rules over relationships, we end up with nothing but a set of rules and broken expectations. Are rules important and is pain a real thing? Absolutely. It’s what we choose to do with our pain that matters. People will break the rules. It’s life and it’s messy. We will be hurt and we too will hurt others. In that moment of pain, how we choose to journey through it is what has the potential to write an incredible, life-giving, joy-filled story, or what can leave us with no relationships and a bitter heart.
We’re all on the same journey. How we choose to travel through it is up to us.