Q. In the parable of the Prodigal Son I understand the father forgiving his younger son and showing him grace. But what about the older brother? The parable left us hanging without knowing what happened in the end. What’s your view?
A. First, let’s look at the context:
• Lk 15:1-2 Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus responded by telling them three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. So from the context we know that the Prodigal Son has to do with correcting the Pharisees and scribes for not receiving sinners.
Secondly, let’s examine the text to see what it says about the older brother. He was mentioned in passing in Lk 15:11, but became the focus of attention in v 25-32. Taking everything at face value, my observations are as follows:
His Positive Traits:
• Hardworking v 25 his older son was in the field, presumably working
• Obedient v 29 For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours
• Loyal v 31 you have always been with me
These are commendable qualities.
His Negative Characteristics:
• Angry v 28 he became angry, first with his brother
• Bears grudge v 28 was not willing to go in
• Self-righteous v 29 For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours
• Jealous in comparing himself to others v 29 yet you have never given me a young goat
• Unforgiving; no love for his brother v 30 this son of yours vs. his father’s v 32 this brother of yours. His brother means less to him than celebrating with his friends.
• Angry with father v 30 you killed the fattened calf for him.
The negatives tell where his heart was, and far outweigh the positives which looked so good on the surface.
Now my interpretation:
• It is quite obvious that in the parable the father represents God, the older brother the Pharisees and scribes, and the younger brother the tax collectors and sinners.
• The attitude of the two sons are mirrored in the parable of the Pharisee and Publican in Lk 18:9-14.
• The older brother is self-righteous and looked down on his younger brother – Lk 18:9, 11-12 And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt … The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ Compare his “I serve”, “I never neglect”. He was angry even with his father, who did everything graciously (see below) and represented the perfect Heavenly Father.
• The younger brother is truly repentant – Lk 18:13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ Compare Lk 15:18-19 Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men. (Also v 21) He was justified rather than his brother. (Compare Lk 18:14)
• The parable of the Prodigal Son is open-ended because Jesus wanted the Pharisees and scribes to learn to be like the Father, compassionate (v 20), forgiving (v 22), joyful when his child repents (v 23-24, 32), reaching out even to self-righteous sinners (v 28 pleading), generous (v 31 all that is mine is yours), but He left the choice to them. He will not impose His will on them, even though it’s for their own good.
• Who do you identify with in the parable? Do you see yourself as the prodigal son, a sinner not worthy to be called the Father’s child, but grateful for the grace bestowed on you?
• Or do you see yourself as the older brother, trusting in your good deeds and even faulting the Father for being too kind to sinners, not realizing that the very thing you are proud of is what disqualifies you from being justified.
• A few may identify with the father in the parable, in which case “Congratulations!” You have learned to see the world through your Father’s eyes and feel through His heart. He loves His children and welcomes them anytime they repent. Hope we all learn that.