“All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.’ “The older brother stomped off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’ “His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’” (THE MESSAGE)
Grace is only amazing to those who know their need of it. John Newton, the former slave trader, knew how amazing it was because he was aware of his involvement in the evil trade. Anyone who knows how wretched their pattern of life might be can appreciate the wonder of being offered mercy and a fresh start. A gift they do not deserve.
So we can presume the younger brother, the prodigal son of this story, gladly accepted the grace expressed in his father’s welcome home and celebration. But it was different for the older brother. His wrongdoing was not so obvious, his shame not so public. He could not understand why his sibling was treated as he was. He didn’t deserve it, whereas he, the older one, had been a responsible son all along.
Such is the amazing nature of grace. The older brother inhabited a world where you got what you deserved: virtue was rewarded, and vices punished. That is not the world of grace. God’s acceptance of us is not due to our being decent sorts of people. It is due to his loving willingness to have us as his friends. Something Jesus made possible.
There are actually two lost sons in this familiar parable. One was a wanton rebel, the other a stay-at-home respectable rebel. In the end, only one was truly “found”. The joy of being found only comes to those who know just how lost they are.