ave you ever read about a character in the Bible and thought to yourself, “That’s me.” The parables given by Jesus were given so that people can identify or relate to people within the parable. The Parable of the prodigal son is no exception to this rule. I have often found myself identifying both with the older and younger brother depending on the circumstance.
In Luke 15, Luke shares a parable of Jesus that attempts to reach the heart of the black and white thinker (or the Pharisee). In this Parable, Jesus speaks of the one son who did everything wrong. He essentially told his father he wished he were dead, took his inheritance before the father passed, was greedy, selfish, and lived his life for himself. Meanwhile, this whole time, the older brother chose to honor his father, remained with the father, worked for his father, etc. He basically did everything right. But when the younger brother returned and saw his father’s mercy and reinstatement into the family, the older brother was incensed and refused to come to the party to celebrate his return.
The older Brother mentality is the same as the Moral Operator, which is the same as the Pharisees. Here is the thought process: The older brother saw the actions of the younger brother and his father’s hurt, all while he himself is doing the good and right thing. The interpretation is that the younger brother sinned by doing wrong, while the older brother did not. What is concluded, therefore, is that the younger brother does not deserve what a good person (himself) deserves. The Moral Operator’s abiding law is “If you serve well, you deserve well. If you serve poorly, you deserve nothing.” Tangible rewards and consequences are to be earned solely on merit, nothing more and nothing less. The merit system has worked well for places of employment for bosses and employees, but falls short in deeper, personal relationships.
What the older brother needed to know, was that even though there is right and wrong, the relationship with the offending party is significant when considering one’s response to actions. In other words, actions alone do not dictate rewards and consequences, but rewards & consequences are dictated by relationship, too. The older brother did not consider the relationship as an important factor when considering a reward or consequence. Anything given more or less than what was deserved, especially if compared to what he received (Lk 15:29), was seen as unfair.
What the older brother did not realize was that he himself had developed a self-righteous attitude. He thought that he was better than the younger brother because of his loyal and dedicated works. Yet he failed to see that he needed the father’s mercy and grace as much as the younger brother.
Even the younger brother had thoughts similar to the older brother (although we can’t say if he was a Relational or a Moral Operator, only a self-centered son who later repented). As the younger brother returned, he thought he should be treated like one of his father’s servants. He thought he did not deserve to be given anything more considering all he had done, yet he was most likely surprised by his father’s loving response that was not deserved.
At the end of the parable, the audience (Pharisees, Mora Operators) are left with an invitation from the father (God) to celebrate that a broken relationship was restored (Lk 15:31-32). The older son was invited to recognize and celebrate the importance of a person who comes to repent and to put aside resentments, self-righteousness, and slander towards an undeserving person. Jesus was inviting all of his listeners to see our relationship with him and others as one not built on actions and rewards, but on forgiveness, love, mercy, and grace. These are the essential ingredients of what close relationships are built upon.
The Moral Operator typically has an older brother mentality. He will look at actions and rewards, he will probably compare himself and his actions to others and will probably have the tendency to see himself as better than others and even more deserving. He may see things as fair or unfair and may even become angry when others get what they don’t deserve or when he doesn’t get what he thinks he deserves.
Jesus’ message to the Pharisees in this passage is for them to recognize that the Father’s response to sinners is not simply about actions and the law of works (you get what you deserve). No, Jesus’ message is for them to recognize that when a sinner repents from their ways, the Father is ready and willing to accept them and give what they don’t deserve…a full relationship with the Father that is not built upon works, but upon the Father’s grace. Without grace, relationships often fail or are shallow, at best.
Grace is a difficult concept to accept for Moral Operators (it is even for Relational Operators!), yet it is essential for us to understand and believe. This will be the topic for the next blog: Grace and the Moral Operator.