There is a deep tension between righteousness and love. Righteousness demands that all be perfect; love demands that all be forgiven. The tension is only reconciled at the Cross.
It is interesting to see the older brother and his reaction to the return of the other son. One can understand the resentment. The appearance is that the younger son is being rewarded for his evil behavior, and the older son’s behavior—which the father acknowledges as being righteous—never got such a celebration. But in this, the older brother misses the point.
The celebration is for the father, not the son. The celebration is not being given to acknowledge the worthiness of the younger son, nor of the righteousness of his repentance, nor anything else relating to the son. It is being given to celebrate the joy of the father. The younger son is not worthy of such a celebration—but the father’s joy certainly requires it.
So it is with us. We sometimes mistake our repentance for true righteousness, and begin to imagine that God “owes us.” In fact, we can do nothing which would put God in our debt. It is his love for us that brings us home.
Interestingly, we can see this love in the way the father treats the older brother. As he had compassion on the younger son, he had compassion on the older son. He does not rebuke him for his lack of understanding. When the older son refuses to come in, he goes out to him, just as he ran to the younger one. His words are gentle and kind.
Even though the older son replies in terms of anger and scorn, the father does not turn on him. He does not resent the insult, but gently instructs the older son in the matters of a father’s heart.
We see love in a small and relative sense; only God is love, absolutely. For that reason his actions sometimes appear strange to us, as if he did not reason through the matter. Wisdom is justified by her children, however. Think what the love of God has done for us on the Cross!
Many of us see things the older brother’s way. We want to go to church with the right people, and want no contact with the filth of our society. We substitute respectability for righteousness. The cure for this is not another set of rules and regulations, but the love God pours out. As he was merciful to the younger son, the profligate, he was also merciful to the older son, the refrigerator. Perhaps there is hope for all of us.