Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son is one of His best known. It’s a story of hope for anyone who’s faced up to who they are and how they fall short in front of God. It’s a story of forgiveness and reconciliation. If you’ve read it, it’s hard to forget about the prodigal son’s journey from rock bottom to begging his father’s forgiveness, and it’s hard to forget the beautiful image of the father running to embrace his long lost son.
But there’s a third character in that story. He doesn’t get a whole lot of press. He doesn’t play a big role, and in what we see of him, he doesn’t come across that well.
When the father put on a big family banquet to celebrate his son’s return, his other son, the good son, saw the party from out in the field where he was working. When he heard what was going on, he wasn’t happy.
“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in [to the party]. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘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 15:28-30, New Living Translation).
The good son was dealing with a lot of resentment and probably a lot of pent-up and unsaid emotions about his brother’s choice to leave the family. Knowing his brother was off wasting his inheritance and ruining the family name hurt him a lot. And when his brother finally came home, he wasn’t going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Have you ever felt like you were betrayed? Or that you were “done” with someone who kept hurting you, or your family, or themselves? How did you respond? The fact is, what someone else does is out of your control. What you can control is your attitude and your response.
Since the good son never gets any conclusion to his story, it’s left up to our imagination. Here’s how I see it: The good son had a choice and could have gone one of two ways. He could have gone the way of Cain, or he could have gone the way of Esau. One choice, two very different outcomes. And when it comes to how we deal with similar situations in our lives, we have those same two choices.
Cain was angry at his brother Abel because of jealousy and resentment. God told him that his feelings were going to take him down a dark path if he didn’t improve his attitude and choose wisely: “You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master” (Genesis 4:7, NLT). Cain had the same choice to make as the good son. We all know what he chose, and the world hasn’t been the same since.
There’s another set of brothers in the book of Genesis, and like Cain and Abel and the good and prodigal sons, they had some issues. Esau was so furious at Jacob for tricking him out of their father’s blessing that he threatened to kill him. Jacob obviously realized he wasn’t kidding and got as far away from Esau as he could as quickly as he could.
Esau was left with no birthright and no blessing. All he had left was his hatred and resentment of his brother. Again we’ve got someone who had a choice. With the same choice, Cain let his pain and resentment take control, and he let it transform him into a murderer. Years after Jacob ran away, the fateful day finally arrived. Esau and his family were on their way to meet up with Jacob and his family.
Jacob was afraid, and rightfully so. He knew Esau was so angry he wanted to kill him. So when the moment finally came, and the two brothers finally met again, Jacob must have been overwhelmed to find a very different Esau greeting him. “Jacob went on ahead. As he approached his brother, he bowed to the ground seven times before him. Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. And they both wept” (Genesis 33:3-4, NLT).
In the years between their falling out and reunion, Esau became a different person. Pain, hate and resentment were there, but instead of giving into them, he allowed himself to forgive. Cain’s resentment turned him into a murderer. Esau’s example of forgiveness left us with the hope that our own broken relationships can be fixed if we don’t give into hatred and resentment.
The good son’s story didn’t really have an ending. When I imagine it, though, I like to think that he chose to be like Esau rather than Cain. I also hope that, when our time comes to deal with our own broken relationships and our own resentments, that you and I choose to be like Esau as well.