“But he was angry and refused to go in.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
For every person who leaves, there is another who remains. For every wanderer, there is someone who holds down the fort. As we’ve seen over the past few days, the life of the leaver doesn’t turn out smooth or easy as planned. Leaving doesn’t solve any problems, it creates a whole host of new ones. The same is true, though, for the one that remains. The stayer faces all kinds of challenges. Indeed, adjusting to holding down the fort with one less than usual isn’t easy. But the biggest problem is something we might not expect.
The younger son had blown it. Nobody doubted that. Not him. Not his dad. Not his boss at the pig farm. Nobody. But he’d come home. He’d come home with real repentance in his heart and his father had received him with grace and forgiveness that went way, way beyond anything he expected.
But almost lost as a detail at the point of his return is the fact that the first line of the story introduced us to a father who had not one, but two sons. Where had he been the whole time his brother was off galavanting about the countryside living like a fool? He remained at home, faithfully working every day for his father. He hadn’t left. He hadn’t wished for his father’s death. He hadn’t blown huge amounts of family money on having a good time. He hadn’t done any of that.
What he had done, though, was slowly nurse a grudge against his brother. This grudge gradually became a bitterness that was now the lens through which he viewed his life. His disbelief at his brother’s foolishness became a self-righteousness which, over time, morphed into an angry arrogance that had made him hard.
While his father had worried and pined after his lost son, he stewed over the fact that he alone had remained faithful. He had probably never given word to any of this, it had simply grown in his heart over the years. But when his brother walked back down the lane and was greeted with a lavish celebration, the dam broke and all that emotion came rushing out of his heart, spilling over onto anyone who got too close. Anyone like his father.
You see, this is the danger for the one who remains. The danger is that we don’t simply remain and keep on the path we were walking before. The danger is that we grow bitter about the fact that we didn’t leave. We develop a bitter heart toward the one who left. More broadly, we develop a bitter heart toward the ones who wander. We develop this bitterness and then get angry when we see them repent and receive grace.
We get angry that they get recognized for returning from leaving whereas we never got recognized for never leaving in the first place. We get angry and what can actually wind up happening here is that while we may not leave physically, we separate ourselves in our hearts and create an emotional and relational distance that can wind up putting us further away from home than the one who left ever got in spite of the physical distance that existed then. Indeed, the father goes out to the older son who won’t come in to the party because he’s been consumed by his bitterness.
Why does this happen? Because in our anger at the one who left, we allow our focus to shift from gratitude for all we have available to us by remaining at home to bitterness toward the one who left. The longer these hard emotions absorb our attention, the less we are able to see the rich treasure we have access to at home.
That’s exactly what the father says to the older son here when he complained that the younger son got a fattened calf party on his return from foolishness. “Everything I have is yours.” This was literally true, by the way, because the younger son had already burned through his part of the estate, but the point is that the older son could have been enjoying the fruits of what was his the whole time. Instead, he got so focused on his bitterness at his brother, he couldn’t. His faithfulness became a bitter drudgery that sucked the life out of his soul.
Being the younger son in the parable of the prodigal son is no picnic, but the greater danger is in becoming the older son. Being the younger son can leave your life in shambles that are hard to repair. Being the older son can leave your soul in shambles. That damage is even more difficult to fix.
So, which son are you? The best is to be neither of them in the first place, but the odds are that you’ve been one or the other or both at one time or another. If you are the younger son, repent and come home. Your father is waiting to receive you with open arms. If you are the older son, forgive and get off God’s throne. There’s no life in that path and it’s no use holding a grudge against someone God has forgiven and pronounced clean. Come back to the father who receives all his children with love no matter the path they’ve taken. Don’t leave and don’t create relational distance out of spite. Stay and enjoy the life that is truly life.