This story -- the third in the series Jesus tells to make the same point in greater depth -- has rightfully been the subject of countless sermons, devotions, books, conversations. As just one example out of the multitude, I recommend Henri Nouwen's Return of the Prodigal as an excellent way into the story. The book is a slightly cleaned up version of a deeply difficult season in Nouwen's life when he felt himself alienated, cut off, much like the younger son in the story once the famine struck. It's a meditation on what it means to return to the Father and find yourself loved and welcomed. Nouwen later published his own more personal reflections on that season in the book The Inner Voice of Love. Both books are well worth your time, especially if you find yourself in a season of brokenness, repentance, or perhaps frustrated hope, needing to connect to the heart of a heavenly Father who seems absent but who, in reality, absolutely loves you.
That is the core of Jesus' story. As we said about the earlier stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin, the stories focus on the heart of the Father for those who are lost. This third story of the lost sons are told with subtlety and craft, showing Jesus at the pinnacle of his ability to communicate his Father's love in his words. Every detail of this story is worthy of reflection, and the deeper you dig the more you discover.
Evangelical Christians have traditionally focused on the younger son because he fits the theological framework of evangelicalism so well. He has strayed, his sin catches up with him, he repents and returns to the Father and is welcomed into the household. It's a great story and countless conversion testimonies over the years echo its themes. But that is only part of Jesus' teaching here, because the literary structure of the story focuses on the older brother.
If we ask what Jesus' point was in telling this story, we cannot escape the conclusion that he was focused in the telling on the question of the older brother. The story ends very specifically without resolving the question: What will the older brother choose? In context, you can see why Jesus would tell it this way. The tax collectors and sinners have already welcomed him and recognize him for who he is: The incarnation of God's love for them, the Messiah who leads them to the Father, the King of a new kingdom ruled by God himself. They get it, both in the sense of perception and in the sense of receiving the benefits of Jesus' kingship. No, the question is what the religious leaders, the captains of moralism, will do. The end of the story leaves them standing outside the party, fuming about the unfairness of God in welcoming sinners and not rewarding good people. The father's final words in the story get at the heart of God, as we saw in the first two stories in this chapter: "It is right for us to celebrate," the father says to his older son.
But why is the older son angry? If you've ever been the older son, it's not hard to see. He has done everything right, sacrificing self-indulgence and walking the narrow line of good behavior. He has turned away from his own pleasures for the greater good time and again. He has kept his nose to the grindstone, and frankly he has little patience for those who are not as dedicated and self-disciplined and focused as he is.
Thing is, he is sentencing himself to live as a servant, not as a son. Read the story carefully and you'll see that the older son had received his inheritance as well, but he has failed to take up the authority and joy of his father. The father divided his inheritance between the two sons, yet the older son accusingly says, "You never even gave me a goat so that I might celebrate with my friends." The father's response, in essence, is "Son, the goats are all yours! Throw a party and celebrate!" It might just be that the older son's problem is not with his younger brother ("this son of yours") but with parties themselves. He doesn't know joy. He can't receive celebration into his heart.
What a tragedy, and yet how many Christians live there?
Has God found a way to let his joy trespass into your life? As we grow to adulthood, there is a necessary time of learning responsibility, and this learning militates against joy in some ways. So God eventually needs to break us down in order to impart joy into our lives. Without joy, without that hearty-partying exuberance of God's celebratory love, the gospel becomes a grim game of "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not." Like the older son, sometimes we are called not to take ourselves so seriously, to drop dead to our rigid images of ourselves and to come on into the party.