I was once in a Bible study with a young lady named Trudy. We were considering one of Jesus’ most famous parables; the one about a father with a rebellious younger son and a dutiful older son. It’s a story that bears repeating. It begins with an impetuous and disrespectful son who demands his share of his father’s inheritance and then takes it far away to spend it on profligate living. When he hits rock bottom, he decides to beg for his father’s forgiveness and a job. I’ll let Jesus tell the rest:
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 was 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.”
In a moment of courageous authenticity, Trudy admitted, “I’m the older brother in this story. I grew up in church. I have always been good. And sometimes I feel like there’s no reward for being good. Lots of younger brothers go off and have their fun, and I don’t get any more reward than they do."
As someone who also grew up in church, and who is, in fact, an elder brother, I understood her point of view. There’s an old joke my pastor used to use when talking with his parishioners: “I get paid to be good. Y’all are good for nothing!”
But Jesus’ parable warns us that such an outlook misses the point of grace: good behavior is not required for God’s acceptance. In fact, it can be a hinderance. At the end of the parable, the older son remains outside the party, while the younger son is back at his father’s banquet table. As a cautionary tale, this story falls well short. It is a poor jeremiad for law-keeping. But Jesus wasn’t encouraging good behavior. He was unveiling the gospel. And the gospel of grace is simply that the Father loves his children.
Journalist Mark Galli said it well in a Christianity Today cover story last year:
God’s mercy toward the ungodly in Jesus Christ changes the calculus of the good life. The criterion of good is not so much excelling at ethics or religions but living and acting with a deep sense that one is a failure at ethics and religion.
The older brother remains estranged from the father because he remains associated with good deeds. The brother who identifies as unworthy is the one who finds his worth imputed, not earned. The difference is not so much the quantity of their sin, but the kind. The gospel can only be embraced by those who are aware that — whether our nose-thumbing at the Father is outwardly expressed or inwardly harbored — we are all younger brothers.
But none of that is what I told Trudy. Instead, I told her what it’s like in the far country. Because even though my church-kid bent is toward older brother pride, I have also spent time in the younger brother’s shoes. And no younger brother who has come to his senses thinks he got away with anything. The far country leaves you with scars, not friends; with nightmares, not nostalgia. And every memory I earned I would gladly return if I could.
What Jesus was saying to Trudy — and to us all — is that God is good, we are not, and it’s best if we keep those facts straight.