The prodigal son's dad and older brother

One of Jesus’ most famous parables is that of the prodigal son. The younger brother blows all of his inheritance then comes back to his dad. Before he can even confess or make his deal, his dad runs out to him and celebrates his return with a big party. The older brother is incensed that Dad would do so much for his profligate sibling. Jesus ends his story contrasting the older brother and the father.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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

The boy is jealous. He can’t understand how his father can be so happy. His father can’t understand why his son can be so unhappy. Perhaps the older boy fears his inheritance is finite such that his brother’s return will halve again the inheritance, which his father is now spending on a big party. But he does not realize his dad’s wealth is not in his stuff, but in his relationships. The older boy is not losing stuff but gaining back a broken relationship. The next parable, in chapter 16 has the same theme. The shrewd manager defrauds his boss and gains relational wealth. Jesus concludes, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Luke 16:9. I think Jesus is telling us that God values relationship, which makes sense since the trinitarian God is love in being.

Johnny, for your entire life, you have only heard the prodigal son story applied to this life. Have you ever considered that this parable also applies to the next life? While you worry that taking away the fear of hell will result in profligate people, the fear of hell doesn’t seem to stop much prodigal behavior anyway, God may be more concerned with how long they will take wallowing with the pigs, weeping and gnashing their teeth before they come to their senses. Maybe it is in this life, but could it also be in the next one? Does God’s deep love for his children cease when they die? Don’t you know a couple parents who have not ceased to love their children even 50 years after the funeral? The key difference between those parents and God is death which is not an obstacle for God. If the possibility of God’s forgiveness extending into the next life upsets you, aren’t you sounding too much like the older brother? Instead of resenting God’s graciousness, couldn’t you try to embrace it? Recognize what God values. Fattened calves are not the end but a means to the end - a demonstration of love. What if love really does win? Is that so bad?

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