The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most popular stories in the New Testament. In fact, I have written about it in this space before. The narrative of the young man who takes his inheritance and wastes it is a standard part of the collective Christian conscience. We love to hear about the grace of the father as he welcomes home his wayward child. When I first wrote for Spectrum about the Prodigal Son, it was to remind Christians that, in addition to embodying the wayward son, we can also represent the older brother in that story. Because of this, we should look at it as a cautionary tale about how to treat our brothers and sisters who come home after spending their resources in “riotous living.”
This parable came to mind again as I was trying to figure out why the American Christian Evangelical Church takes the positions that it does. I spent some time meditating on why the church seems so caught up with rules and regulations, as opposed to introducing people to a kind and loving savior. The Christian Church (especially the American Evangelical variety) is mostly seen as a political wing, as opposed to a spiritual community. Over the last fifty years, the church's focus on a political agenda has taken precedence over its spiritual mission. The infection of Chrisitan nationalism leads us more to the changing of laws as evidence of God’s favor rather than the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the human heart. Why is it that we seem so ready to condemn the world, when the Bible tells us that even God would not send his son into the world for the purpose of condemnation? Authors across the New Testament establish that belief is the foundation of salvation and a relationship with Christ. So, in a church based on the adherents’ faith, it seems very counterintuitive that we lead so often with works. The situation is certainly nuanced and complex, and sometimes it does have to do with genuinely held beliefs. Many Christians, for instance, believe that specific behaviors are sinful and that the people who partake of them will go to hell. So, they want to shout a warning because they are concerned for the well-being of that individual or society.
At the same time, I think a part of that mindset that is selfish. Let us again consider the prodigal son’s older brother. He was certainly mad at the father for taking the younger son back, and he was also envious that his brother was getting a celebration he never had. However, it has always felt to me that there was something else going on in his mind. I think the older brother also felt stupid. In other words, he was not getting a good return on his investment. If the younger brother was able go out and engage in "riotous living," then come back and get more than what the older brother ever had, then what was the point of the older brother's faithfulness? The older son felt he had to live in a specific way because it was what he thought the father wanted. Then, he found out that he could have thrown away his inheritance and received more than he had in the first place. How envious he must have been, and how stupid he must’ve felt for following the rules all that time. And how envious we must be and how stupid we must feel. Why are we struggling to follow these rules and live the way we believe God wants, only to see these sinners swoop in at the last minute to get all the same things we have (or even better)?
I think there are two things for us “older brothers” to remember. First, remember that the younger brother went through a lot to come home. The older brother is already in the safety of his home. He already has the position that his brother is longing to find again. Instead of focusing on the money and the wild living and being envious of that, we should focus on the tattered clothes, the dirty feet, and the pig pen. Second, older brothers should remember that every person’s walk is their own. Everyone has their own story and there is value in that story for the community. The challenges of the older brother are important to show experience and control. The challenges of the prodigal son are also important as a testimony of why living for Christ has value. We exist in community with each other not because we have the same journey. We exist as a community to share the faith of Jesus with others. If we would cherish and respect everyone’s journey and focus on the mission God established for us to fulfill, we might see the change in society that so many churches seem to think is only possible through politics and legislation.
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at TheHinesight.blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found by clicking here.
Title image: Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1668), The State Hermitage Museum. Cropped by Spectrum.
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