The Prodigal Son 5. The Responsible Son

The story of the prodigal son:

Sometimes, did you know, other people get blessed instead of you? Sometimes other people much less deserving than you prosper and are honored. Sometimes, God likes to forgive and bless other people to whom you would rather see “justice” meted out. Sometimes God just will not do the right things on the right schedule!

Let’s take a look at another parable:

“”For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. “And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. “And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, “You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. “Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. “And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he *said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ “They *said to him, “Because no one hired us.’ He *said to them, “You too go into the vineyard.’ “And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ “And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. “And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius. “And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, “These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ “But he answered and said to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? “Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ “Thus the last shall be first, and the first last.”” Matthew 20:1-16, NASB.

The guys hired early in the day are upset because somebody else got blessed, someone less deserving than them. We all have such a sense of exacting justice about what authorities should do for us! Jesus is teaching here, the kingdom of God is about blessing people who don’t deserve it; if you don’t like that kind of thing, heaven is going to be a very uncomfortable place for you!

The elder brother in the prodigal son story has the same syndrome. He has an exact sense of justice concerning who should be accepted, who should be blessed, and who shouldn’t. Doesn’t he have a point? If you think about it, the dynamics of this scene are absurd! No one could be more irresponsible than his brother; he took his entire inheritance, and burned through it in perhaps a few months. Then he returns in shame and rags, and his father doesn’t even scold him at all! In fact, he celebrates his return! The elder son, solid and faithful, was never celebrated, but here is this fool who is dressed up, and there is the tent full of music and dancing!! They’re DANCING!!! Yet here he is, he never left, he never did anything wrong, and yet he was never celebrated, never the center of attention. No one danced, no music was played in celebration for him, for consistently doing the right thing.

Should he sin all the more that grace might increase? Shouldn’t he do some dramatic wrong so he can also get a party? What good is the father’s answer here – “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” That’s it? It doesn’t even feel like anything is different for him after that speech; nothing feels like it is really his, and he is still stuck here with nothing except the responsibility, and no stinking party, not even a goat. He is angry, he gets no reward for his hard-earned responsibility and his brother gets fattened calves and music and dancing for his foolishness. The world is turned around, his father is a fool!

In Numbers, we have the strange story of Balak, who tried to hire Balaam to curse Israel:

“Now God met Balaam, and he said to Him, “I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.” Then the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and you shall speak thus.” So he returned to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, he and all the leaders of Moab. And he took up his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, “Come curse Jacob for me, And come, denounce Israel!’ “How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce, whom the LORD has not denounced? “As I see him from the top of the rocks, And I look at him from the hills; Behold, a people who dwells apart, And shall not be reckoned among the nations. “Who can count the dust of Jacob, Or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, And let my end be like his!” Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!” And he answered and said, “Must I not be careful to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?”” Numbers 23:4-12, NASB.

If you read the context, here is a group of people who have been forced to wander in the wilderness for many years, whom the ground swallows up, who have been disciplined and punished and who complain bitterly about all of it. Yet, even unknown to them, God defends them against enemies, and calls them blessed! I wonder if the Israelites would agree?! This is the same spirit as the elder brother; they and he do not see that they are blessed, and the blessing they have and will have are not recognized by them, they do not perceive their position and give thanks. Thus, when someone else is blessed, the brother becomes angry, because what he sees is that this person IS blessed while he IS NOT.

What we really see between these two brothers is this: they both resent their father. They deal with that resentment differently – the younger acts out and parties and squanders, and actually leaves. He is brash and foolish. The other, in his resentment and quiet angry responsibility, stays and smolders. Neither likes the way the father handles things, it is just that the older brother is able to maintain a veneer of respectability while the other wears his discontent on his sleeve. The only difference is how they act out or handle their discontent and ingratitude.

Here is the thing to learn from this: can we look on God, our Father’s blessing and mercy and grace given to someone else, when we ourselves do not feel celebrated or recognized for the moment, and rejoice? Do we like to see others celebrated? Are we envious when others are noticed, received, forgiven, paraded, honored? Can we walk in the quiet knowledge that we are loved and cherished by our father when that is manifested in a common and undramatic, daily sort of way? We will be very uncomfortable in heaven if we can’t dance and enter the celebration with all the angels when the Father bestows blessing and honor and grace on another sinner. Heaven is all about grace, and that means there is going to continue to be a lot of blessing flowing to people who do not appear to deserve it. We can choose either to rejoice and celebrate, or to res
ent and sulk. The father’s will is for all of us to rejoice and dance. Isn’t He wonderful?!

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