I've been fascinated with the story of the prodigal son for many years. You know it: one son asks for his share of his inheritance up front, goes out and fritters it away, and finally comes home to beg for work from his father rather than living with pigs. Upon his arrival, he's greeted by a jubilant father who throws a big party in honor of his return. The other brother who stayed home resents his father's fawning over the returned brother.
I guess it was in high school I started thinking about this story in earnest, considering the joy that came to father when the prodigal returned, and the relief that the prodigal must have felt when he was welcomed home. I assumed it was a pretty straight up story of repentance and redemption, and a cautionary tale to would-be judgemental brothers.
It was during college that I realized there might be an issue with the justice in the story: if the prodigal had already spent his inheritance, what was there for him, beside his father's joy? Was he then left only to work as a laborer? Did he have no more reward because he had squandered what was there? Was this a zero sum game: only so much inheritance to go around, and he had already spent his? If so, a cautionary tale to would-be prodigals: don't waste it now because you might not get it back.
Recently a friend got me thinking differently about the story, and helped me to see that it's not only about one brother or the other. It is also about both brothers. In the story I am the prodigal, for I do waste my gifts from time to time. And when I repent the Lord does welcome me home. I don't know how the economy of inheritance plays out, but I know that the atonement applies to me when I stray and then make an honest effort to return.
But in the story I am also the brother who stayed behind. He could not enter the feast because of the resentment he carried. If I want to enter that feast, I must be fully ready to forgive all who have wronged me (or who I've thought have wronged me, anyway). Indeed, I must be more like the father (what else is new?) and welcome the returning prodigals in my life with open arms and celebration. And I've got to overcome the feeling of injustice in the brother who stayed home.