The parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps one of the best known of all in the Bible, yet it is only in recent years that I have heard it taught from the position of the prodigal’s elder brother. Jesus starts in parable in Luke 15:10 saying “Likewise I say to you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Here Jesus gives a clue to the real theme of this parable, the repenting sinner and the joy which is caused in heaven when one who was lost, returns to the Father.
Jesus then continued (Luke 15:11-24) saying:
“… A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that is coming to me. And he divided his living to them.
And not many days afterward, the younger son gathered all together and went away into a far country. And there he wasted his property, living dissolutely. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land. And he began to be in want.
And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country. And he sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to fill his belly with the husks that the pigs ate, and no one gave to him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father abound in loaves, and I perish with hunger!
I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you and am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants. And he arose and came to his father.
But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you, and am no more worthy to be called your son.
But the father said to his servants, Bring the best robe and put it on him. And put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened 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.
Then in Luke 15:25-32 the story turns to the elder brother:
“And his elder son was in the field. And as he came and drew near the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him safe and sound.
And he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and entreated him. And answering he said to his father, Lo, these many years I have served you, neither did I transgress your commandment at any time. And yet you never gave me a kid so that I might make merry with my friends.
But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you have killed for him the fattened calf.
And he said to him, 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 this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
It is interesting how in this story, the relationship of the prodigal (reckless) son with his father is resolved, but not that of the elder brother. It is left open. The brings up the question: toward who was the parable aimed?
For those with a ‘red-letter’ Bible (a Bible in which the words of Jesus are written in red) one immediately sees that all the above quoted verses are in red and thus, spoken by Jesus. Further, that the red lettering extends effectively uninterrupted from Luke 14:3 until Luke 16:13. Luke 14:3-16:13 is actually one single teaching from Jesus which begins in Luke 14:1-3 as follows:
“And as He went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath day, it happened that they watched Him. And behold, a certain man was suffering from dropsy before Him. And answering, Jesus spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day?'”
It ends in Luke 16:14-15 with:
“And being money-lovers, all the Pharisees also heard all these things. And they derided Him. And He said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.'”
Who was Jesus speaking about in this parable? It was not really about the sinner who returns to the Father, rather, it was all about Pharisees and the lawyers, the religious people of the time; those who justify themselves before men, and who are highly esteemed by men but are an abomination in the sight of God. They are all represented here by the elder brother. So too are we. Jesus was talking about the “good” and pious Christian who attend church religiously and who never puts a foot wrong and never speaks a word out of place.
The elder son was angry: as were the Pharisees were with Christ for receiving sinners. So too are the “good”, the respectable and the self-righteous Christians in the churches, especially those in authority and power, when the publicans and sinners our day, the despised, the smelly, and the social outcasts, are converted and come to Christ. My goodness, we certainly don’t want to share ‘our’ nice clean church, with ‘them’! How natural to us is this kind of resentment which we hold against the prodigals in our midst?
The elder son cried “I’ve never done anything wrong!”: as did the Pharisees demonstrating their self-righteous Spirit of Pharisaism for all to see. Though appearing to be close to the father, the elder brother is spiritually far from him. We do the same to our Pastors, saying yes in public, but doing nothing in private.
As the father cried out “Son!” to the envious brother, a hurting father reached out, trying to change the mind of a similarly hurting, but totally self-righteous young man. Jesus did the same for Israel, but was rejected. Our Pastors do the same for us, but are generally rejected too.
The father tried to explain to the hurting son “… all that I have is yours.” Jesus tried to explain the same to Israel, but was rebuffed. The Bible explains to Christians in Galatians 4:7“… you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, also an heir of God through Christ.” Our Pastors explain regularly too, reminding us that we all “are the body of Christ, and members in part” (1 Corinthians 12:27), yet for some church attendees, there is just no talking to them……
Finally, the father declares “this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; and was lost, and is found!” When a prodigal returns from sinning, he returns to being a younger brother. However, if the elder brother cannot welcome and accept him, then the elder brother becomes the lost, he himself, becomes the Prodigal Son.
Brothers and sisters, we ought not to envy others God’s grace to them. No matter how much grace the Lord pours out into the lives of others, he still have a full share for us!! If we truly are believers, we know that all that which God is and has, is ours. Galatians 4:7 says so! When others join the Church of Christ and accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, all that He is, is theirs too. As Henry Matthews says “Christ in His church is like what is said of the soul in the body: it is tota in toto – the whole in the whole, and yet tota in qualibet parte – the whole in each part.”