The younger of two sons asks his father to divide his estate and give him his share. This was shocking as he was basically telling his father, “I wish you were dead!” The father gave him what he asked for and, shortly thereafter, the son set off for a distant land and squandered all of his wealth in wild living. When a severe famine broke out in that distant country, the son determined to go home and beg his father to take him back, not as a son, but as a household servant. He journeyed home, and when he crested the horizon and his father saw him, the family patriarch ran to his son and showered him with kisses. He put a robe on his back, a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet – all signs that he was completely accepted and forgiven.
The older son, meanwhile, heard the commotion from the party that his father threw to celebrate his son’s return. When he inquired about the noise he learned that his wayward brother was back, and he reacted with bitterness.
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."The guest my friend brought had an interesting and thoughtful reaction that I have never considered. She is an attorney as it happens, and she noticed the father’s words, “everything I have is yours.” She noted that the older brother had every right to be angry. After all, the robe the father gave his younger son? It belonged to the elder. The ring? The shoes? Each was part of the older son’s inheritance. The fattened calf roasting on the spit? It was the older son’s bullock.
I’ve never noticed that before. I have always thought the older brother’s objection was rooted, primarily, in his father’s failure to recognize his faithfulness and hard work. And certainly that must have played a part in his anger. But his frustration must have also been economic. How dare the father give away what belonged to him? That’s just not right!
The older brother’s biggest problem was that he felt entitled. He didn’t view his inheritance as a gift, but rather as something he had earned. If you earn something, it isn’t a gift; it’s a wage. Naturally, the brother was upset because he saw the father’s generosity cutting into his wages. He couldn’t accept that the father would grace his wayward sibling with such extravagance. It was unjust.
But then grace is always unjust.
One of Jesus’ earliest followers, Paul, made clear the distinction between what is earned and what is gifted in Romans 6:23 – “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The big difference between the younger brother and the older brother was their understanding of grace. One embraced it and was awed by the father’s incredible love. The other rejected it and wallowed in bitterness.
Grace is never fair, and it’s never just.
It’s just grace.
An undeserved gift given to people who have wandered far from the Father and are amazed that he takes them back.