READ : Luke 15:25-32
It’s the parable of the prodigal son, remember? Even more, it’s the story of the waiting father and the amazing warmth of his welcome. But even that is not the whole of it. It’s also the tale of the elder brother. Listen as I read about him from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 15, at verse 25:
“Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, `Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
People describe the first part of this parable in glowing terms. Dickens called it “the most touching story in literature.” Someone else, “It’s the most divinely tender and humanly poignant story ever told on earth.” Even the Pharisees must have been charmed by it. It gets to all of us.
This part about the older son, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as heartwarming. In fact, it’s a chilling downer after the joy of the father’s welcome. Why this anticlimax, this ugly sequel that seems to spoil the mood?
When we think that way, we’re missing the point. We’re forgetting why Jesus told this story in the first place. Remember how the Pharisees were angry with Jesus because He ate with tax collectors and sinners, because He acted like their friend? That was the occasion, the setting. And it’s not until now, in the final vignette, that the Pharisees come into the picture. If the tax collectors and sinners are seen in the prodigal son and if the father represents God, who is the elder brother? That isn’t hard to figure out, is it? This is where the Pharisees and many of the rest of us need to see ourselves. It could turn out that you and I need to listen to this part more than any other. Let’s see how it unfolds.
POUTING ON THE OUTSIDE
I see four scenes here, each worth pondering. Let’s call the first one pouting on the outside. This older son has been out in the fields. He doesn’t even know that his brother has come home. He must have been a great distance away from the house. Maybe he hadn’t been getting along well with his father, or maybe he had just been working long hours. Anyway, he was apparently the only one on the farm who hadn’t heard the big news.
When he gets close enough to the house to hear the music, the sounds of merriment, he stops. What’s going on here? He doesn’t go in to find out for himself. Instead, he calls his servant and asks him what all this means.
I wonder why he didn’t hurry in to check it out for himself. Had he been afraid that this might happen some day? Had he already rehearsed it all in his mind? Had he decided in advance how he would act when it happened? Had he muttered to himself, “I’ll never be a part of any homecoming celebration!”?
If that was his hunch, the servant confirmed his suspicions. That was it. His brother had come slinking back! And his father was treating him like a hero! The brother’s face fell. He had nothing to say, but was clearly in a rage. He turned his back on the house and began to walk away. The hired hand could know in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t coming to the party. Whatever was going on in there, he wanted no part of it.
Now for the second scene. He’s invited in.
The servant at first scarcely knows what to do. But later on, when the father asks the elder brother’s whereabouts, he feels he has to speak up. He goes to the master and whispers in his ear. The father walks out quickly, looking for his son. When he finds him, he urges him, encourages him, entreats him to come in.
Don’t you like this father? He’s some man, isn’t he? I’m impressed by what he doesn’t do here. He’s not shocked at what has happened. He doesn’t scold his son for staying outside. No lectures, no accusations, no guilt trips. Just a warm invitation to join the party. The father is wise. He understands what this older boy is feeling. He cares about him too. He wants him to share the joy. “Please, son, come and greet your brother. Let’s make it a family celebration.” When the son proves reluctant, the father doesn’t shrug his shoulders and go back in. He stays with him. He keeps on inviting.
THE ANGRY CHARGE
Next comes scene 3, the angry charge. “Lo, these many years I’ve served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf.” What do you hear in those words, along with the evident anger and stubbornness? I hear a man who feels deprived, short changed. He has stayed with his father. He’s worked hard. He’s never disobeyed, but what has it gotten him? Never even a kid from the herd so that he could have a party with his buddies. He feels cheated, wronged, sorry for himself.
I hear something else too. I hear a deep hostility toward his brother. He can’t even mention his name. He can’t call him “my brother.” No, it’s “this son of yours.” More than that, he puts the worst possible construction on what his brother had been doing. How does he know that all the inheritance has been spent? How can he be sure about all these lurid escapades? But he seems convinced that his brother is a scoundrel of the worst sort and he wants nothing to do with him.
The last thing I hear here – and perhaps the most revealing – is his sour attitude toward his father. There are no expressions of respect, much less affection. He makes his father out to be stingy and unappreciative, stupid and heartless. To hear this son tell it, the father has never done anything for him. And now he’s doing everything for a ne’er-do-well brother. He’s worse than unjust, this father. He’s doing something without reason or taste. You can feel the venom in the son’s words.
How hopelessly out of tune this elder brother is with his father’s heart! He shows no capacity to enter in to what Dad is feeling. In spirit, he’s at least as distant from his father as the younger boy had been in the far country.
Sobering, isn’t it? If the prodigal son is an example of the sins of passion, this one portrays the more subtle sins of disposition. He’s never done anything flagrantly wrong. He’s been respectable, diligent. But what an attitude is revealed here! Envy. Prejudice. A critical spirit. Self-centeredness. Callousness toward others. This man’s problem is his loveless heart. Physically, he has stayed at home, spiritually he has drifted far. He’s not in rags or in disrepute. But in reality, he’s one more lost son.
THE GRACIOUS ANSWER
Now listen to the gracious answer he gets. “Son, you are always with me.” That is, he’s had what his younger brother has been missing. He’s been a son in the father’s house, loved and belonging. His father has been there for him any time. Think of what that means for us that we should always be with our heavenly Father, that we should be welcome always at His throne of grace, that we should know His fellowship all our days. The psalmist put it beautifully, “My chief good is to be near you” (Ps. 73:28, REB).
More, the father says, “All that is mine is yours.” The older brother needn’t fear about his share of the inheritance. The father’s not going to change his will. He won’t deprive his older son by giving the younger boy an additional portion of the estate. Everything the father has is available to this older son. All he needs to do at any time is ask. He has an open way to the father’s heart. He hasn’t lost anything by his brother’s return, surely not the love of his father. When this son is at his petulant worst, here’s the father telling him again that he’s always loved, that his Dad wants the best for him.
The father has one more word, “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.” Here’s a gentle reminder that the prodigal is still a brother and that whatever he’s done or wherever he’s been, his return has to be a source of joy. He had been dead to God and to his family ties, far off in miles and in heart. How wonderful that he had been received home again, safe and sound, and that there were signs of new life stirring in him. Isn’t that cause for rejoicing? Isn’t it wonderful when someone dead in trespasses and sins repents and is raised in Christ to a new life? Aren’t you glad about that? Isn’t it better this way than that he should have perished alone in a far country?
Again, “this your brother was lost and now he’s found.” He had gone out of our lives completely, as far away as he could get. We had no letters from him, no communication of any kind. As far as we knew, we had lost him forever. And now here he is at home again. Isn’t it right that we should celebrate? The preacher in Ecclesiastes talks about how there’s a time for everything, a time to weep and a time to laugh. This is surely jubilation time. He’s come home.
I read just this week about a couple whose son had contracted AIDS. The boy had chosen to distance himself from his family but their love and prayers had followed him. When he became so sick he couldn’t care for himself, they sought him out. They brought him back home. Though their hearts were breaking to see his life ebb away, nothing made them as happy as having him with them again. They could minister to him and tell him how much they cared for him. What he had done with his life, the painful road along which he had walked, all that had concerned them before, but it didn’t seem to matter now. They had found him again. They had him back at home. In the midst of their sorrow, they were deeply glad. That’s the way this father felt, and he longed to see the same heart attitude in his son.
We aren’t told what the elder brother did. This is one of those suspense endings, like the famous story of “The Lady or the Tiger.” Did this boy have a change of heart and celebrate his brother’s return or did he go on sulking? What happened next? We don’t know.
What about those Pharisees? Did they all remain hard hearted or did this parable win back some of them? Did they see themselves in it, feel ashamed of their attitude perhaps, and decide to come to the Lord’s banquet? We aren’t told about that, either.
The important thing today is, what about you and me? How do we feel about it when the least and the lowest of the lost ones comes home? When someone we’ve loathed, perhaps, is converted? Do we find ourselves uncomfortable because we don’t like such company? Fearful lest we’ll lose something? Or can we really rejoice? One of the surest marks that God is at work in your heart is that you have a capacity to rejoice in the repentance, the salvation of others. That means that you bear the family likeness, that your heart beats in tune with the Father’s heart, that you are one of His loyal, grateful, believing children through Jesus Christ.
Prayer: Convict us, Lord, where we may be outwardly respectable, but loveless in heart. Show us our need of a Savior, and help us to rejoice in all who come to Him. In Jesus’ name. Amen.