“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!’

“His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’ ” (Luke 15:25–32)

The good son who always did what he was told, who had never disobeyed his father, became upset over the fuss being made over his wayward sibling. After living a disreputable life, after wasting all his part of the inheritance, he came home to a party. The good son just could not make sense of what he was seeing. He couldn’t see the justice of the situation.

The parable of the prodigal son was told in response to Pharisaical criticism of the time Jesus spent with “tax collectors and sinners.” It followed the parables about a lost sheep and a lost coin. Jesus argued that fairness has nothing to do with how God related with us. It was not about settling accounts, or getting what we deserve. Instead, it was all about God’s great mercy. The good son—like the Pharisees he represented—appeared unmerciful, self-absorbed, and unkind. All he cared about was himself and his desires: he failed to love his brother. And he failed to love his father.

Our relationships with most people are not all about settling scores and balancing accounts. Rather than focusing on what’s best for us, or what we perceive of as fair, we instead simply want to know how we can help those around us. It’s not about whether we think they deserve our help or not. We didn’t earn God’s mercy, and we can’t expect anyone else to earn ours.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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