In Luke 15, Jesus gives the parable of the prodigal son. I find this parable quite interesting--I don't think you could stop drawing new insights from it no matter how many times you read it. In my New Testament class, we discussed how today we've given names to all the parables Jesus presents in the scriptures. Sometimes doing this causes us to limit the moral lessons we extract from each parable, since we've titled it according to the most popular main point. I think this is definitely the case for this particular parable. It's title brings our focus to the one son--the extravagant, wasteful, prodigal son.
I think we learn a whole lot from the prodigal son. He takes his inheritance, wastes it away in "riotous living," and ends up starving due to a famine, and stooping to work feeding swine. Because of his mistakes, he is brought very, very low. He learns from it, he humbles himself, and he returns to his father in supplication to be merely his servant. This is a story we hear very often. Someone sins, this leads them to failure, they are humbled, and they repent. We know how this goes. I'm sure most people know what it's like to take the hard way and learn the hard way.
However, I believe we can learn a lot, if not more, from the elder son. When the younger son returns and the father welcomes him home with open arms, a feast, music, and dancing, the elder son faces a mountain of trials as well. Can you imagine the feelings of resentment, jealousy, and anger he must have felt? He had served his father for many years, and never had he broken any commandment. He had not chosen to take the hard way and learn the hard way. Why should his brother deserve a feast and not he?
These are different kinds of trials Jesus presents to us. There is the situation of the younger brother, who openly breaks a commandment and must repent. There is the situation of the elder brother, who must overcome intense negative emotions and attempt to receive his brother as Christ would receive him. One might think that starving and feeding swine would be the harder trial. However, I think my life more parallels the path of the elder son, and to be honest, overcoming the urge to judge your fellow man, write them off with contempt and self-righteousness, and condemn them to a punishment you believe they deserve, is quite spiritually draining. Jesus knows that. That is why he tells this parable. He realizes that there will be those who follow the prodigal son in breaking God's commandments and having to come back from it. However, he also knows that there will be those who will face the struggle of not succumbing to the natural man, and instead taking the higher road to follow Christ.
These trials are like apples and oranges. They're very different. However, each of them are difficult, and each of them are given for the same purpose--to teach us and help us come unto Christ.