I talked about the Prodigal Son yesterday. I reminded people that the most famous part of the story, where the father receives the son who is coming back from a wasteful life, is not the point of the story. It’s important and very similar to the point of the preceding parables. But the parable of the prodigal son is really the parable of the elder brother. If we don’t take a long, hard look at him, we won’t hear what Jesus is trying to tell us.
Look how Luke 15 begins:
“Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable:” (Luke 15:1–3)
And Jesus proceeds to tell three famous parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son. They were told to address the criticism which the Jewish leaders were aiming at Jesus: he fellowships sinners. He welcomes them. He eats with them.
So the heart of the parable about the two sons is here:
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:25–32)
I understand the older son. I do. His brother had disrespected their father. Many of us can handle an insult but become indignant when a family member is attacked. His brother had taken a third of the family property and wasted it (which is what “prodigal” means; you knew that, right?). Now the brother returns and receives a party the likes of which the faithful brother had never had.
I think the irony is intensified by the sentence: “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field.” He was working, faithfully, while his irresponsible brother was receiving a magnificent party! I understand his outrage.
But Jesus is making the point that he mentioned before: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)
It’s not easy to have that heavenly attitude. I reminded our group yesterday that, as we look for new members, we want “elder brothers” in our church. They are dependable. They are hard working. And they still have their money!
Younger brothers have baggage. They don’t have a good track record. And their money is gone.
Yet Jesus says that’s exactly who God hopes to see come and join our community. The lost sheep. The lost coin. The wasteful, recovering younger brother.
Illustration courtesy of Sweet Publishing