The Parable of the Prodigal Son seems like the perfect conclusion to the stories of Luke 15. In those short stories, the sheep is found, the coin is returned to its rightful place, and the ungrateful son returns home. That young man’s story is a beautiful picture of how God’s grace leads mankind to repentance (see Romans 2:4). If the story ended in 15:23,24, it would have a perfect fairytale ending. In those verses, the father commands his servants to:
“Bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this, my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” And they began to be merry.
Those verses describe the welcome home party for a wayward boy who finally came to his senses. It’s a beautiful analogy of something eternally true of our Creator. God loves sinners who repent and return. But before the credits can roll on this story, the music changes and the camera pans outside. 15:25-27 tells us why:
Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.”
His father welcomed a sinner into their home and had the gall to sit down and eat with him! Ironically, that is the exact complaint the Pharisees lodged against Jesus at the beginning of the chapter (see Luke 15:1-2). So how did the older brother respond to his Father’s love and mercy? 15:28 highlights his actions:
He was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.
For the second time that day, the father excused himself and went out to meet his son – first the younger, now the older. This unusual behavior would have shocked his guests but the father’s love for both his sons required he treat them the same. The older son had chosen to disrespect and embarrass his father. That response could not go without an explanation. Can you see how quickly the dynamic changed? As the parable began, the younger son was cast in the scoundrel’s role. In this closing section, however, the elder brother is unmasked as the real villain.¹
15:29-30 shows us their interaction:
So he answered and said to his father, “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.”
Notice how the older brother gave us a glimpse into his anger by how he described his brother. He called him “this son of yours” in 15:30. In all honesty, he said, “He’s your son, but not my brother!” He went on to insinuate his father was dishonest and one who played favorites. In his anger, he said, “You gave him everything and gave me nothing!” He then reminded his father of how long he’s served and he used the word for a household slave (douleuo) to describe his role. It’s obvious to us that he never truly understood his place in the family. He was consumed with envy, pride, bitterness, sarcasm, anger, resentment, self-centeredness, hate, stinginess, self-satisfaction, and self-deception – and yet, his father loved him anyways. Look no farther than the response he gave his misguided son in 15:31-32:
Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.
When we look back at the other stories in Luke 15 we’ve noticed the shepherd didn’t have to explain his joy over finding the lost sheep. No one asked the woman why she celebrated when she found the coin, so why must the father explain his joy and defend his celebration? It’s simple really. He forgave when the older son wouldn’t. In these stories, the woman, shepherd, and father, each in their separate ways, made the necessary effort to recover that which was lost. They labored, indeed suffered, in order to find. But the older son made no such effort and accepted no such responsibility.² He didn’t care to find his brother and was indignant when his father celebrated the return of his prodigal, useless brother.
In the end, the older brother believed the young son was reinstated through costly grace that was in violation of traditional honor. He believed the father had dishonored the family in the eyes of their community. Reconciliation and restoration without a penalty paid by his brother were too much for him to accept.³ His brother had to pay the price for his impetuous choices. He had to pay just as the older brother had all these years.
An odd thing about this parable is how it ends before the story does. As Jesus stops talking, we don’t yet know if the older brother humbled himself and went in to join the celebration. We don’t know if he ever accepted his brother back. We don’t know if his father’s words meant anything to him. We just don’t know.
As we consider this parable, the older brother shows us how it’s possible to be far from our Father without ever leaving home. It’s easy to see the rebellion of the younger son. In fact, it’s obvious to anyone who is looking. But it’s much harder to see the sin of the older brother who stayed home and worked for dad twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.
While some of our questions go unanswered, one thing is certain. In his behavior, we discover his heart was just as far from his father as his brother. He actually considered himself a slave in his own home. How twisted was his thinking? It should be clear to anyone who reads the story that his relationship with his earthly father and Heavenly Father were both broken. All he was willing to do was the bare minimum. For his father, his family, and his God. His life was just a performance to meet expectations. We might be tempted to blame the father for being a poor example, but we know he represents God in the story. In the end, it’s easy to see the problem can’t be found in the actions of the father; they are found in the actions of the older brother. He withdrew from his father. He sinned. He caused the division.
Is it possible to be at the church building every time the doors are open, to grow up in the church, go to a Christian school, stay involved, become a deacon, preacher or elder, and still have a heart that far away from God? Absolutely. Just look at the older brother.
Today, we are accustomed to thinking of the Pharisees as the bad guys but in their day they were the good guys. They were the ones who cried out against a culture that was creeping in among God’s people and making them more worldly. They were the ones who defended the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures. They were at the synagogue every time the doors opened. They were religious heroes. However, it was the Pharisees Jesus called whitewashed tombs (see Matthew 23:27) because they looked holy but were rotten on the inside. It was the Pharisees who needed to hear this parable, and they should remind each us that you can possess a heart far from God without ever leaving His presence. The older brother was a Pharisee through and through. If not in title, in word and deed.
The older brother also misunderstood what it meant to be family. He worked very hard to earn something that was already his. You can almost hear the bitterness in his voice: “Dad, I’ve worked like slave for you all these years. I never disobeyed you – I was an obedient and dutiful servant and you never gave me anything.” With those words, it’s obvious to tell he didn’t do any of that work out of love for his dad. He did it because he thought there was a reward in it. Make no doubt about it, in an ancient family there was plenty of work to do and the older son should have been working his tail off as the rightful heir; however, from any point-of-view, those expectations do not excuse his poor attitude.
His relationship with his dad was based on the work he did around the house and farm. Like his brother, he viewed his father more as a banker than a parent. He was the master who controlled the finances, and they are laborers who desire more money. They both spoke about their relationship with their father strictly from their financial ties and work obligations. They viewed themselves as hired servants in their master’s house.4 There is a beautiful picture of God’s love within their misaligned views. Paul said in Ephesians 2:8 that we are saved “by grace through faith.” In verse 9 he adds that we are not saved by our works. Then in verse 10, he says we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” There is plenty of work to do and we should be working as Christians, but God doesn’t love us because of our work. Unfortunately, we live as if (and deep down really believe) that our relationship with God is determined by how many good things we’ve done. We understand that we are saved by grace but think we stay saved by our good works.
Far too many of us take a “do it yourself” attitude to our Christian life, and quickly discover that they can’t do it on our own. We can’t work hard enough to make up for all of our weaknesses. We know all too well what Paul meant when he said: “all have sinned and fallen short” (see Romans 3:23), and that fear motivates us to act. Where we miss the point (like the older brother) is when we work to be righteous, not because we’re righteous. God saves us to work, we don’t work to be saved. Try as we might, our own righteousness (and not the righteousness that comes from being God’s child) will always be doomed to fall short.
This picture of this son is like a double-edged sword. It shows that even the most religious and moral people need the initiating grace of God, that they are just as lost; and it shows there is hope.5 If we could have earned our righteousness, then Jesus never would have come to die. We can’t be righteous in-and-of-ourselves, but the older brother was going to try. Because he was so focused on himself and his efforts, the older brother resented the grace his father gave to that boy. He never realized he needed the same grace. His sins were different but no less wrong. He didn’t see it that way, though. He couldn’t see past the beam in his eye.
The celebration he wouldn’t join was one of forgiveness and grace and a testimony to the great love of their father, but he wanted no part of it. He might as well be off in a far country squandering the love and grace his father had shown him, for he left his father without ever leaving home.
While many people want to give him a pass and merely believe he represents someone who acts impulsively and emotional at the sight of his long-lost brother, that just isn’t the case. They see him as someone who should be given a pass for a sudden misstep. The problem with that interpretation is that it misses the whole point of the parable. The elder son had never been truly devoted to his father. He had no genuine respect for his father, no interest in what pleased his father, no love for his father’s values, and no concern for his younger brother.6 By now, we must all realize the older brother is in the story to convict self-righteous people. They need salvation as well. We must all learn to celebrate God’s love and grace, especially as it’s shown to those we deem unworthy. God loves sinners and it is vital that we, as members of His family, love them as well. We can’t be self-righteous bigots who openly mock the grace of God to those unworthy of our time. We don’t have that right.
The most promising thing about the older brother’s story is that it’s open-ended. Several questions we propose just aren’t answered. Does he humble himself and go in to join the celebration? Does he accept his father’s invitation and perhaps, for the first time, see what it means to truly be a part of the family? Or does he continue to be blinded by his own pride and reject everything his father is giving him?
We’re left asking this question as the younger son comes back to his family, “will the older one as well?” Hopefully, this story reminds each of us that our own story has not yet ended either. The eternal message of this parable is overwhelming. After describing God’s amazing love for the lost in such a poetic way, Jesus now challenges us to love the lost like our Heavenly Father does.
In the end, the most pressing questions the older brother brings up are obvious. What will we do with the love God longs to show us and the rest of the world? Will we throw down our prejudices and our self-worth to see how much He loves all His children? Will we join the celebration God has every time a sinner repents? Will we let go of our stubbornness and self-righteous and forgive those who wronged us? Will we be gracious or will we remain outside the house, sulking? Will we be the prodigal who repents or the prodigal who doesn’t? Will we be the young, foolish brother celebrating our father’s love or will we be the older, foolish brother still ignoring it all these years later?
Which brother will we be? Both were prodigals, only one realized it.
¹ John MacArthur, The Prodigal Son, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 41.
² Kenneth E. Bailey, The Cross & The Prodigal, (Downer Grove: IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 84.
³ Bailey, The Cross & The Prodigal, 82.
4 Brad H. Young, The Parables, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 156.
5 Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 83.
6 MacArthur, The Prodigal Son, 150.
All Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.
Originally published on December 20, 2017. Written by David Salisbury.