I had stayed home and didn’t wander off, but I had not yet lived a free life in my father’s house. My anger and envy showed me my own bondage.
— Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
You’re likely familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. If you’ve spent much time in church, you’ve probably heard more than one sermon on the familiar passage in Luke 15. Most of the sermons I’ve heard center around the younger son in the story—the son who demands his inheritance and leaves home only to squander all he has on “wild living.” (Luke 15:13)
His story reminds us that no sin is too great to be forgiven by our loving Father. It is a beautiful story of redemption and restoration. We always have a place in our Father’s house as long as our hearts are open to him.
But what if we aren’t the rebellious type? What if we’ve never strayed like the younger son? Is there a lesson here for the dutiful rule followers amongst us? Yes, this is a story we’d best not brush past.
If you can’t identify strongly with the younger son, the older son in this story is where you’ll likely want to focus. (And honestly, I think we all have some of each son in us.)
The older son is a portrait of many Christians who work hard for God but struggle to experience intimate relationship with their Heavenly Father. I can easily see myself in this aspect of the story.
After becoming a Christian at nineteen, I struggled for many years with a feeling that something was missing. I couldn’t put my finger on what that missing piece was, so I worked hard to have the “right” doctrine and beliefs. I studied scripture, I prayed, I went to church, I tried not to stray from “good” Christian practice. And yet, I still felt empty and sometimes jealous of other Christians who seemed to have stronger faith or greater breakthrough.
Take a look at Luke 15:28-32: (emphasis added)
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.’
Several things struck me about this passage as I recently read it again. First, the older son’s anger. Not only is he jealous of the welcome his younger brother receives, he is angry at his father. He feels he has been shortchanged. And yet, everything the father has already belongs to him. He lacks nothing. His anger, bitterness, jealousy, and resentment have blinded him to the abundance that already exists in his life.
The older son’s heart is hard. He has no love for either his brother or his father. And thus, he lives in a state of utter blindness—believing that he is unloved.
Are there areas in your life where bitterness or resentment have blinded you to reality? I find it interesting that the older son became so angry he “refused to go in.” Think about it. This man was allowing offense to keep him from entering his father’s home, the home where he belonged. He was left standing outside the place he was meant to dwell, separated from the joy of celebration.
Look at the language the older son uses. He shows no respect toward his father and doesn’t even acknowledge him as father. He speaks about his own role in the household as though he is an obedient slave, and he interacts with his father from that broken identity. Be honest. Does your spiritual life sometimes look like that? I know I’ve stood in the older son’s shoes, wondering what else I must do to earn God’s blessing.
But his father comes out to meet him in his anger and hears his son’s grievance. He gently explains, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” The father speaks into his son’s true identity, reminding him that there is no lack in his life. He is neither a slave nor a servant. He is a beloved son.
My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?
— John 14:2
Some months ago I had a dream in which I stood in the living room of a house. I was meant to be babysitting the young daughter of a college professor. I was very concerned that the house be in perfect condition for the professor’s arrival. I had been told that the professor was a harsh perfectionist and would expect everything to be in order. There was fear in my heart as I tidied the room.
Suddenly, the dream shifted to another room. This room had more light and seemed to be a different home with a different owner. It felt familiar and I knew that I had once stayed there overnight as a child. I moved into yet another room where I discovered a ballroom and realized I had once celebrated a family anniversary at a banquet table in that room. As I explored the house further, it became increasingly more wondrous. Vaulted ceilings, magnificent libraries, a fascinating photo gallery of imperfect scenes made perfect through the photographer’s unique perspective, and even a room made of honeycomb.
I awoke with a sense of awe, realizing that my journey through the house symbolized divine homecoming. I had gradually gone from viewing my Heavenly Father as a harsh master for whom I worked, to occasionally visiting his home as a guest, to eventually realizing that I had a home in his wondrous palace. My Father was nothing like the harsh master I had at first feared.
Where are you standing today? Are you on the outside of your Father’s house looking in—not even acknowledging that he is your Father? Are you someone who goes into the house for occasional visits or celebrations? Or do you truly dwell in his house, knowing it is your true home? Even if you are still just an observer standing far off in a field, I promise your Heavenly Father has a place for you in the home of his heart. His arms are open wide.