Christ's parable of the prodigal son can be counted among the most frequently read and repeated passages in scripture.
It's clear why the biblical story, found in Luke 15:11-32, is so beloved. The Savior's telling of the impulsive young man who wasted his substance with "riotous living" before he "came to himself" and returned, humbled, to his forgiving father is universally familiar.
Everyone can claim ownership of the title "prodigal son" or "prodigal daughter." We all, at times, make foolish choices. And all have squandered some portion of their spiritual inheritance, requiring Christ's atonement to begin anew.
Most can also relate to the wounded, yet happy-to-forgive, father. Parenthood can be a difficult, daily exercise in love. In every branch and ward, there are moms and dads beginning and ending each day with the prayer for a wayward child to come to himself or herself. Others have experienced the father's joy and call to "make merry" when a child, friend, spouse, sibling or neighbor returns to righteous living.
But don't forget the parable's third character — the elder son. His role might not seem as significant as that of the prodigal son or their father, but he's no mere postscript. Christ's decision to include the elder son in His account was deliberate and adds telling layers to an already rich story.
Some readers of the parable of the prodigal son might be quick to dismiss the elder brother with convenient labels: resentful, sanctimonious, unforgiving, proud, even whiny. True, he didn't share his father's joy when his derelict younger brother reappeared. In fact, he was angry. He probably deserved his father's gentle scold. But don't be too quick to judge the elder son. He revealed traits — both strengths and weaknesses — that we can likely find in ourselves. And there is much we can learn from the elder son's choice to remain dutiful and his relationship with his father.
Our introduction to the elder son suggests a faithful servant who expects his efforts to be noted and rewarded. It's natural to want to be appreciated. Sacrificing our time in the service of others in, say, a Church calling, as a parent or as a community volunteer is a bit easier if we hear a few words of thanks. Often, such acknowledgements go unspoken, and we might be left to wonder if our labors were a waste of time.
We may even envy others who engage in today's "riotous living" of sin, apathy and selfishness. They appear to be having a great time. In our own moments of self-pity, we might forget that wicked or slothful living never was happy living.
"This son is not so much angry that the other has come home as he is angry that his parents are so happy about it," said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in the 2002 April general conference. "Feeling unappreciated and perhaps more than a little self-pity, this dutiful son — and he is wonderfully dutiful — forgets for a moment that he has never had to know filth or despair, fear or self-loathing. He forgets for a moment that every calf on the ranch is already his and so are all the robes in the closet and every ring in the drawer. He forgets for a moment that his faithfulness has been and always will be rewarded.
"No, he who has virtually everything, and who has in his hardworking, wonderful way earned it, lacks the one thing that might make him the complete man of the Lord he nearly is. He has yet to come to the compassion and mercy, the charitable breadth of vision to see that this is not a rival returning. It is his brother. As his father pleaded with him to see, it is one who was dead and now is alive. It is one who was lost and now is found.
"Certainly this younger brother had been a prisoner — a prisoner of sin, stupidity and a pigsty. But the older brother lives in some confinement, too. He has, as yet, been unable to break out of the prison of himself. He is haunted by the green-eyed monster of jealousy. He feels taken for granted by his father and disenfranchised by his brother, when neither is the case. He has fallen victim to a fictional affront. As such he is like Tantalus of Greek mythology — he is up to his chin in water, but he remains thirsty nevertheless. One who has heretofore presumably been very happy with his life and content with his good fortune suddenly feels very unhappy simply because another has had some good fortune as well."
Elder Holland reminds us that the adversary is quick to whisper in the faithful person's ear that his blessings are somehow diminished by the divine gifts another receives.
Repeatedly, Church leaders counsel us that a life of quiet, faithful devotion forever trumps "riotous living" corrected only through the painful steps of repentance. Yes, the elder son suffered a bout of jealousy when he felt his dutiful offering was unacceptable. But his noble inheritance — protected and secured through his faithfulness to his father — was his priceless reward.