THE OLDER BROTHER
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Him. And the Pharisees and the Scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He told them this parable… -Luke 15
The Parable of the Prodigal Son, recorded in Luke 15, is remembered by most as the story of a rebellious son who ran away from his father; after wild living and finally becoming destitute, he ended up repenting of his sin in a far country. He returned home to an overwhelming reception of love by his welcoming father.
The other figure in the story, an older brother, is seldom even given a second thought by those who know of the Prodigal Son Parable. Yet, according to the text of Jesus’ own words, the lesson of the older brother was the primary purpose of Jesus telling this story. The occasion of Jesus’ parable was an answer to His fierce critics; Luke 15 is His response to those who hated Him.
These critics were complaining that Jesus welcomed and even sat down to eat with sinners, whom His critics wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. In answer, Jesus told them three parables. The first two parables are stories ending in exuberant joy: one of finding a lost sheep, the other of finding lost coins. Exceptional joy accompanies each discovery. Jesus relates there is the same overwhelming joy in heaven over every single sinner who repents.
The third and longer parable is about finding a lost son, one who repents, and the celebration which follows that genuine repentance. What is different about the third story is a lack of joy, rather an irritated resentment, by the older brother who will not join in his father’s happiness. He will not even welcome his younger brother back home.
This is exactly why Jesus tells this story. He essentially says to His critics, “You want me by the nature of your criticisms to act just like this older brother in the story. But, I am not like that, and, in fact, I am actually acting very differently. You who claim to be already men and women of faith must follow My example, not his! But the nature of the older brother whom Jesus describes is typical of the Pharisees and Scribes in relation to sinners. In fact, they will neither pursue them nor work to win them into the fold of God’s family. Instead, they shun them and go so far as to lambast Jesus for doing so.
These critics, those who allege to be within the fold already, who are religious followers in their life, are enjoying the inheritance which, like the older brother of Jesus’ story, belongs to them by virtue of not squandering what remains in wild living exhibited by the younger son. They have no interest in sharing their part of the inheritance.
You see, the story Jesus told began with the father’s inheritance being divided equally between his two sons. The younger brother asked ahead for his share, received it, left home, and squandered it. The other half of the inheritance belonged now to this older son. So, when the prodigal returns home and receives a signet ring, sandals, and a fatted-calf feast, these are all in essence part of this older son’s inheritance. He does not want to share any of it with his sinning, rebellious younger brother who had already squandered his part. This older son in no uncertain terms lets his father know that with all the ire he can muster.
So Jesus tells these critics through this parable that they are behaving just like that. You see, God the Father has already said to His Son, “All that I have has been given to You. All which is Mine is now Yours. Does Jesus then hoard this all to Himself? No, He shares it all with those who by faith unite themselves to Him. In fact, He doesn’t even remain at home in heaven for the wandering lost son to return as the father in this story is waiting and watching for him to come home. Jesus goes and looks for him, unlike the older brother of this story. He leaves the courts of heaven, empties Himself, comes to the pigsty of this earth, finds the lost soul, and brings him home, by giving His life blood to redeem him.
The story of the prodigal son is not the story of the Gospel! Jesus’ actions are. Those of us who are already enjoying an inheritance from Him by virtue of our salvation need to share it with those still lost. Do not do as the older brother did in this parable; do what Jesus actually did. Sacrifice yourself and what you already enjoy to win one more sinner into His arms!
“E’er since by faith I saw the stream your flowing wounds supply, redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die.
(Third verse of William Cowper’s hymn, “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood, 1771)