Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return. The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf! (NLT)
Grace is never fair. It did not seem fair to the older brother in Jesus’ story that a party was thrown for the younger, prodigal son. This dutiful elder son had done his job and stuck with his father. Where was his party? Perhaps we can speculate and suggest he never got one because he didn’t ask for one. We can be so busy dutifully obeying God that we never get around to really celebrating it.
We can assume Jesus was reminding his very correct and orthodox Jewish hearers that you can do all the right things and still be starved of grace. Still not enjoy a warm and encouraging relationship with the heavenly Father. Of course doing the right thing matters. Of course going off to the pigsties in the far country is not the right thing to do. But grace, while it recognises this, does not operate according to moral ledgers.
Grace and mercy are offered to those who go right off the rails and to those who are the more respectable rebels. Respectable rebels are invited to leave the far country of cynicism, self absorption, pride and resentment and join the party thrown by a God who, when it comes to lavish love, has thrown out the ration book. We are all invited to share in the unfair yet generous grace of God.