The prodigal’s brother well represents those who resented the compassion and attention that Jesus accorded sinners. These self-righteous ones were not touched by Jesus’ mercy; neither did they reflect the joy in heaven that arises when a sinner is forgiven. Instead, Jesus’ mercy provoked their wrath, and they began "thinking wicked things" in their hearts. (Matthew 9:2-4) On one occasion the anger of some Pharisees was so intense that they summoned a man whom Jesus had healed and then "threw him out" of the synagogue—apparently expelling him! (John 9:22, 34) Like the prodigal’s brother, who was "unwilling to go in," the Jewish religious leaders balked when they had opportunity to "rejoice with people who rejoice." (Romans 12:15) Jesus further exposed their wicked reasoning as he continued his parable.
With these words, the prodigal’s brother made it clear that he had missed the true meaning of sonship. He served his father much the way an employee serves his employer. As he told his father: "I have slaved for you." True, this eldest son had never left home or transgressed his father’s commandment. But was his obedience motivated by love? Did he find real joy in serving his father, or had he instead drifted into smug complacency, believing himself to be a good son simply because he performed his duties "in the field"? If he was truly a devoted son, why did he fail to reflect his father’s mind? When given opportunity to show mercy to his brother, why was there no room for compassion in his heart? —Compare Psalm 50:20-22.
The Jewish religious leaders resembled this older son. They believed that they were loyal to God because they strictly adhered to a code of laws. Granted, obedience is vital. (1 Samuel 15:22) But their overemphasis on works turned worship of God into a bookish routine, a mere shell of devotion with no true spirituality. Their minds were obsessed with traditions. Their hearts were loveless. Why, they regarded common folk like the dirt beneath their feet, even contemptuously referring to them as "accursed people." (John 7:49) Really, how could God be impressed with the works of such leaders when their hearts were far removed from him?—Matthew 15:7, 8.
Jesus told the Pharisees to "go . . . and learn what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice.’" (Matthew 9:13; Hosea 6:6) Their priorities were confused, for without mercy all their sacrifices would be worthless. This is indeed a serious matter, for the Bible states that the "merciless" are counted among those viewed by God as "deserving of death." (Romans 1:31, 32) Not surprisingly, therefore, Jesus said that as a class the religious leaders were destined for everlasting destruction. Evidently, their mercilessness contributed largely to their meriting this judgment. (Matthew 23:33) But perhaps individuals from this class could be reached. In the conclusion of his parable, Jesus strove to readjust the thinking of such Jews through the words of the father to his older son. Let us see how.
—Luke 15:31, 32.
Notice that the father used the expression "your brother." Why? Well, recall that earlier, in speaking to his father, the older boy had called the prodigal "your son"—not "my brother." He did not seem to acknowledge the familial bond between himself and his sibling. So now the father is, in effect, saying to his older boy: ‘This is not just my son. He is yourbrother, your own flesh and blood. You have every reason to rejoice in his return!’ Jesus’ message should have been clear to the Jewish leaders. The sinners whom they despised were in reality their "brothers." Indeed, "there is no man righteous in the earth that keeps doing good and does not sin." (Ecclesiastes 7:20) The prominent Jews had every reason, then, to rejoice when sinners repented.
After the father’s plea, the parable abruptly ends. It is as if Jesus is inviting his listeners to write their own ending to the story. Whatever the older son’s response was, each listener was faced with the question, ‘Will you
share in the joy that is experienced in heaven when a sinner repents?’ Christians today also have opportunity to demonstrate their answer to that question. How?
Paul admonished the Ephesians: "Become imitators of God, as beloved children." (Ephesians 5:1) Hence, as Christians we should come to appreciate God’s mercy, implant it deeply into our hearts, and then display this quality in our dealings with others. However, a caution is in order. God’s mercy should not be misinterpreted as a soft-pedaling of sin. For example, there are some who might nonchalantly reason, ‘If I commit a sin, I can always pray to God for forgiveness, and he will be merciful.’ Such an attitude would amount to what the Bible writer Jude called "turning the undeserved kindness of our God into an excuse for loose conduct." (Jude 4) Although Jehovah is merciful, "by no means will he give exemption from punishment" when dealing with unrepentant wrongdoers.—Exodus 34:7; compare Joshua 24:19; 1 John 5:16.
On the other hand, we need to be just as careful in guarding against the other extreme—a tendency of becoming rigid and judgmental toward those who manifest genuine repentance and godly sadness over their sins. (2 Corinthians 7:11) Since elders are entrusted with the care of Jehovah’s sheep, it is essential that they maintain a balanced view in this regard, especially when handling judicial matters. The Christian congregation must be kept clean, and it is Scripturally proper to "remove the wicked man" by means of disfellowshipping. (1 Corinthians 5:11-13) At the same time, it is fine to extend mercy when there is a clear basis for it. So while elders do not tolerate willful wrongdoing, they strive to seek a loving and merciful course, within the bounds of justice. They are ever aware of the Bible principle: "The one that does not practice mercy will have his judgment without mercy. Mercy exults triumphantly over judgment."—James 2:13; Proverbs 19:17; Matthew 5:7.
The parable of the prodigal makes it clear that Jehovah desires erring ones to return to him. Indeed, he holds the invitation out to them until they prove themselves beyond hope. (Ezekiel 33:11; Malachi 3:7; Romans 2:4, 5; 2 Peter 3:9) Like the prodigal’s father, Jehovah treats with dignity those who do return, accepting them back as full-fledged members of the family. Are you imitating Jehovah in this regard? When a fellow believer, who for a time was disfellowshipped, is reinstated, how do you respond? We already know that there is "joy in heaven." (Luke 15:7) But is there joy on earth, in your congregation, even in your heart? Or, as with the older son in the parable, is there some resentment, as if no welcome is merited for one who should not have left God’s flock in the first place?
To help us examine ourselves in this regard, consider what happened about the year 55 C.E. in Corinth. There, a man who had been expelled from the congregation finally cleaned up his life. What were the brothers to do? Should they view his repentance with skepticism and continue shunning him? On the contrary, Paul urged the Corinthians: "You should kindly forgive and comfort him, that somehow such a man may not be swallowed up by his being overly sad. Therefore I exhort you to confirm your love for him." (2 Corinthians 2:7, 8) Often, repentant wrongdoers are particularly susceptible to feelings of disgrace and despair. Hence, these ones need to be reassured that they are loved by their fellow believers and by Jehovah. (Jeremiah 31:3; Romans 1:12) This is vital. Why?
In exhorting the Corinthians to practice forgiveness, Paul gave as one of the reasons that "we may not be overreached by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his designs." (2 Corinthians 2:11) What did he mean? Well, earlier Paul had to reprove the Corinthian congregation for being too lenient. They had permitted this same man to carry on his sin with impunity. In doing so, the congregation—in particular its elders—played into Satan’s hands, for he would have loved to bring the congregation into a condition of disrepute.—1 Corinthians 5:1-5.
If they now swung to the other extreme and refused to forgive the repentant one, Satan would be overreaching them in another direction. How? In that he could take advantage of their being harsh and merciless. If the repentant sinner became "swallowed up by his being overly sad"—or as Today’sEnglishVersion
renders it, "so sad as to give up completely"—
what a heavy responsibility the elders would bear before Jehovah! (Compare Ezekiel 34:6; James 3:1) With good reason, after cautioning his followers against stumbling "one of these little ones," Jesus said: "Pay attention to yourselves. If your brother commits a sin give him a rebuke, and ifherepentsforgivehim."
The thousands who return to pure worship each year are grateful for the mercy that Jehovah has extended to them. "I do not recall a time in my life that I have ever been so happy about anything," says one Christian sister of her reinstatement. Of course, her joy is echoed among the angels. May we too join in the "joy in heaven" that takes place when a sinner repents. (Luke 15:7) In doing so, we will be imitating Jehovah’s mercy.
Although it seems that the wrongdoer in Corinth was reinstated within a relatively short period of time, this is not to be used as a standard for all disfellowshippings. Each case is different. Some wrongdoers begin to manifest genuine repentance almost immediately after being expelled. With others, it is quite some time before such an attitude is evident. In all cases, however, those who are reinstated must first show evidence of godly sadness and, where possible, must manifest works befitting repentance.—Acts 26:20; 2 Corinthians 7:11.
Regarding the expelled wrongdoer who had manifested repentance, Paul told the Corinthian congregation: "I exhort you to confirm your love for him." (2 Corinthians 2:8) The Greek word translated "confirm" is a legal term meaning to "validate." Yes, repentant ones who are reinstated need to sense that they are loved and that they are once again welcome as members of the congregation.
We must remember, however, that most in the congregation are not aware of the particular circumstances that led to a person’s expulsion or to his reinstatement. In addition, there may be some who have been personally affected or hurt—perhaps even on a long-term basis—by the wrongdoing of the repentant one. Being sensitive to such matters, therefore, when an announcement of reinstatement is made, we would understandably withhold expressions of welcome until such can be made on a personal basis.
How faith-strengthening it is for those who have been reinstated to know that they are welcomed back as members of the Christian congregation! We can encourage such repentant ones by conversing with them and enjoying their fellowship at the Kingdom Hall, in the ministry, and on other appropriate occasions. By thus confirming, or validating, our love for these dear ones, we do not in any way minimize the seriousness of the sins that they committed. Rather, along with the heavenly hosts, we rejoice in the fact that they have rejected the sinful course and have returned to Jehovah.—Luke 15:7.