You might be familiar with this story, but stay with me.
Let's watch the story play out from the perspective of the third character who - at least in every time I have heard or been taught this story, is rarely mentioned.
We start in Luke 15. A man has two sons, and one of them decides to break away from his family, get early access to his trust fund and live 'free life'. He went on what sounds like an extended gap year, spending all the money he could and fulfilling every fantasy that he probably saw advertised at the time. After a while though, it gets boring, he runs out of money and ends up with a really low-paid job and a terrible boss. So naturally, one day in the struggle, it clicked - why work as a slave here, when I can help my father build our own family business?
So, he goes back home. With his tail between his legs, dragging his feet and probably unsure about how his family would react after such an abrupt breakup. But before he even gets to his front door, his father spots him from a distance, runs our to meet him and embraces him with open arms:
We must celebrate with a feast for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began. - Luke 15:23-25
It's a great story of restoration - a father who was without a son gets reunited with someone who is desperately homesick. Everyone's a winner, right?
Reframe what's 'fair'
The son who left home, not only left his father but his older brother. His older brother played by the rules. He was the one who 'did what was right' all along, working in the family business throughout - he was even in the field when his baby brother came home. Hearing all the commotion, another worker told him what had happened.
You would think that after months and maybe years of being separated from his brother with no contact (remember, this was in the Bible days, there were no phones), he would be overjoyed. But instead 'he became angry and refused' to join the party. Instead, he said to his father:
‘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!’ - Luke 15:29-30
It's always easy to say what he SHOULD have done, and how he should have reacted. But imagine yourself in his position, be realistic. Even if you were happy to have your lost sibling back, would you question the injustice of someone abandoning their family and returning without facing the consequences?
What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight. - Luke 16:15
What society sees and calls monumental,
God sees through and calls monstrous. - Luke 16:15
The Bible doesn't always tell us what we want to hear.
Some truths are difficult to digest, after all, it's as sharp as a sword which pierces the soul. I guess that's why an indicator of spiritual maturity is coming face to face with concepts that tell hard truths. To stop looking for our version of what is right, and to welcome the possibility that it is actually us that needs to get inline with the bigger picture.
Effort ≠ reward
This same idea is explained in the story of the workers in the vineyard. Throughout the day, the vineyard owner went to recruit workers - at 9am, midday and 5pm, in exchange for 'whatever is right'. When it was time to get paid, and the longest workers realised that everyone was getting paid the same, they said:
‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ - Matthew 20:12
In most people's perspective, this was an unfair exchange, right? The more effort you put in, the more reward you should get - that's how the world works. Just like the older brother in the first story, those who started in the morning shift felt the sting of injustice. What was the point of working so hard only to get the same as someone who came in at the last minute?
The landowner in the vineyard replied:
Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’
“So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.” - Matthew 20:15-16
What's funny about this response is that there is no sense of remorse from the landowner, instead, he's very practical and it's clear that his decision trumps whatever the masses 'think' is right.
What people see as 'right' isn't always what God defines as good and right. It's clear that was mattered more than their efforts was their position: son or employee. 'Being a good person' or living by 'good performance' is not what positions us for the ultimate reward. But this is a difficult concept accept because everything we've been taught in society is that we get what we put in, so the more you put in the more you get out.
We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement - Galatians 2:16
So, what now? What's the point?
I sat with my Bible trying to understand why this would ever be the case: if we all get the same outcome in the end, what is the point of a lifetime of living out certain values?
There are so many ways to answer this question, but two key themes came out strongly for me:
1. Are we really missing anything?
If we're really honest - what do we miss by being 'first to the faith party'? In the story of the workers in the vineyard, we learn multiple times that the people were all standing around doing nothing.
Sometimes doing 'your own thing' is just an empty use of time. It may not make you worse off, but it definitely won't make you better. That's because, in all of our knowledge and intelligence, we cannot accurately predict what 'works' for us - how many times have you tried only to look for something else, or something better?
From the outside, living by some principles may seem like a series of restrictive rules, but when you learn that while everything may be permissible, it's not always constructive. You learn that actually, living by a set of standards enables you to live the best version of your life, without wasting months and years down a rabbit hole, looking for 'it' but never finding 'it'. That's exactly what happened to the younger brother and he hit a wall and became someone else's servant. And his experience in that place was so bad that 'even the [food] he was feeding the pigs looked good to him.'
A painful irony emerged: the freedom he was seeking by claiming his inheritance before his time only imprisoned and confused him further. It wasn't worth it.
A bonanza at the beginning is no guarantee of blessing at the end. - Proverbs 20:21
So maybe, starting as early as we can is the antidote to a life of constantly chasing highs, with devastating peaks in between.
2. Keep your eyes on the bigger picture... it's not only about you
Maybe we're looking at faith through too much of a narrow lens. We love learning what God can do for us, so when it looks like we might be 'missing out' on something we get nervous, but it's clear throughout the Bible that while walking with God brings beauty, change and transformation in our own personal lives, it's all the bigger picture: the benefit of the individual and the community.
For the brothers, the value of having both sons back home was more important than pandering to one son's ego. In response to the older, angry son the father simply says:
"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 15:32
The older brother already had it all, so why did it matter how much someone else had?
If we had made the same mistakes that the baby brother did, wouldn't we think we had already suffered enough, wouldn't we be desperate to be welcomed back without judgment?
So what is it about us that holds other people to a harsher standard?
Isn't everyone getting paid the same amount better than everyone getting paid nothing?
"We live in a world dominated by an orphan spirit. It teaches people to be defensive, self-reliant, self-sufficient. It militates against the vulnerability and dependence called for by Father God as we take on His kingdom values.
We have been trained by an orphan world that says we must prove ourselves capable. This is a religious lie [...] The moment we decide to kill our independence, admit our own incapability, give up and look to the Father, is the moment of our greatest victory." - from the "God Hunger - Meditations for a life of Longing" devotional.
There are many more examples of this dynamic throughout the Bible: people getting healed so that their friends' and families' faith would grow. Joseph became Prime Minister partly to help his own brothers who had sold him into slavery decades before. Moses survives a genocide so that he would grow up to help all of his people leave slavery - and the list goes on.
If you read the stories closely, you will start to see that the benefit for us as individuals is important but residual, and the benefit of the many is the real reason why we are here.
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