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68. Parable of the Elder Brother (Luke 15:25-32)
Rembrandt, 'The Return of the Prodigal Son' (c. 1669), oil on canvas, 262 x 206 cm, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. (larger image)
"25 Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' 28 The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' 31 My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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, NIV)
Often we assume that the Parable of the Prodigal Son ends with the wayward son returning home. But there is a second part of the parable that we must ponder if we want to understand Jesus' whole teaching in this passage. It's a kind of parable within a parable. I call it the Parable of the Elder Brother.
Many, if not most, of you are either an older brother or an older sister. You know what it is to be responsible for your younger brothers and sisters. And you know the kind of resentment a renegade sibling can cause in a family -- especially in the heart of the "good" older sibling. The errant brother or sister has dishonored the family, cheated the parents, has shown himself or herself to be a worthless loser who deserves nothing -- nothing at all.
That's the situation we find in this family: a father whose heart has been broken and is now overjoyed, a no-good son who has come home and is having a fuss made over him that he doesn't deserve. And the older brother, who does deserve a little recognition and thanks, feels taken for granted and bypassed in favor of his worthless, renegade younger brother. It's easy to imagine, isn't it?
"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.'" (Luke 15:25-27)
The older son is out in the field, far at the corner of the estate where he hadn't heard the goings-on. He is ever dutiful, ever working in the fields as he ought. When he gets to the house the party is well underway. The musicians are playing and the household is dancing. The verb in 15:24 translated "celebrate" is Greek euphrainō, "to be glad or delighted, enjoy oneself, rejoice, celebrate."640 The fatted calf has been slaughtered and is cooking, sending delicious fragrances into the air. There is laughter and noise and rejoicing. That is what the older brother hears. He asks what is going on and gets an explanation from a servant. The phrase translated "safe and sound" is Greek hygiainō, "to be in good physical health, be healthy."641
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him." (15:28)
Now the older brother starts to cause a scene. From outside the house, the brother's angry shouts can be heard over the music. People start to gather at the windows to see what is going on. The older brother is spouting off angrily and absolutely refusing to go into the celebration. "It isn't fair! It isn't just! And I won't be party to it," he shouts. "My brother deserves to be run out of town on a rail, not hailed as a conquering hero. Oh, no. It isn't right! You'll never find me celebrating his return. No, not me!"
The father hears the ruckus and goes out to reason with his older son and get him to join in the celebration, yet the son remains adamant.
"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!'" (15:29-30)
The elder son is being sarcastic now and gives his father a piece of his mind. "I've been 'slaving' for you all these years," he says, using the Greek word douleuō, "to act or conduct oneself as one in total service to another, perform the duties of a slave, serve, obey."642 He could have used a milder word diakoneō, "to serve," but he uses the stronger word that refers directly to slavery. He is angry, and exaggerates, as you and I sometimes do when we are angry (or so our spouses say). Jesus has created a very convincing character as the older brother in this story.
The older son goes on to contrast his obedience with his brother's disobedience. He reeks of sarcastic self-pity: "Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends." The young goat is contrasted with the fatted calf. The younger son has squandered the father's estate and been immoral with prostitutes.
"It isn't fair!" I can hear the older son yelling. "It isn't fair!"
How often our own children accuse us of being unfair, of favoring one child over another. What our children don't understand until they are older -- and sometimes never understand -- is that parents who love their children can't treat them equally. Love demands that we do for a child what that particular child especially needs at the time. Love in a family isn't on a quota system, but on an individual, one-to-one basis.
It has been my experience that in many of us -- and I've seen this in me, too -- there is resentment lurking towards our Heavenly Father. He has allowed something to happen to us that we can't understand and can't forgive. He has slighted us. He hasn't been fair. He hasn't given us what we needed. Yes, if we're honest, it's quite likely that we'll find anger just below the surface towards God.
The elder brother's attitude reminds me of Jonah. God called Jonah,
"Go the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." (Jonah 1:2)
Nineveh is the capital of Assyria that has ravaged Palestine, conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and come just short of taking the southern kingdom of Judea, too. The Assyrians are hated and their capital of Nineveh is hated, too.
Jonah goes the opposite direction, as far away from Nineveh as he can, only to be intercepted by a big fish. He finally goes to Nineveh against his will and preaches,
"Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." (Jonah 3:4-5)
But the Ninevites believe him and repent. They put on sackcloth and mourn. God has compassion and spares them the threatened destruction. But Jonah is angry.
"He prayed to the Lord, 'O Lord, is this not
what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to
Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger
and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord,
take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.'
But the Lord replied, 'Have you any right to be angry?'" (Jonah 4:2-4).
Jonah is focused on himself and his own satisfaction. A vine grows up and gives shade, but a worm eats it. Jonah is angry again. He is more concerned about his own comfort than his fellow human beings, and God rebukes him for it:
"But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?" (Jonah 4:11)
Yes, the older brother -- and many of us modern-day older brothers -- is much like Jonah. Self-absorbed, petulant, more concerned with fairness and justice for ourselves than mercy and compassion towards others. Calloused toward the lost -- they're not our concern. And angry, angry that we aren't in God's spotlight rather than the recently-converted unwashed.
In the parable, the father remonstrates with his son.
"'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.'" (15:31)
The father affirms that the elder son is encompassed in his love. That the elder son is heir to everything the father possesses -- especially since the younger heir has already received and squandered his inheritance.
I think the reason that we are sometimes angry is that we haven't taken the initiative to get to know our Father, to ask for his best blessings, and to enjoy his bounty. We may be in the church harness laboring diligently as teachers and leaders and workers, but we don't enjoy it. Somehow, we have forgotten how to party with the Father. Our religion, like the Pharisees', has been reduced to joyless duty.
I was blessed many years ago with a wonderful, gentle outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostals would say I had received the "baptism," and I'm sure I did.643 But what has been wonderful, remarkable, and lasting for me was a new love for God and the ability to actually enjoy him, to be able to bask in worship of him. As the pressures of life mount I know I can get away -- or right in the middle of everything -- and enjoy the wonderful presence of God. I've experienced my share of sadness and loss, but through it God has given me the gift of a joyful heart. I don't think it's because I'm somehow special, or because I had some particular experience. I believe that a joyful heart towards God is the birthright of every older and younger son of the Father.
The older brother is complaining that his father never even gave him a young goat to feast with, much less a fattened calf. I'm sure the reason isn't found in the father's stinginess, but that it didn't occur to the son to ask. James tells us,
"You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." (James 4:2-3)
How is your heart? How is your anger-level towards your Father? The Father invites you inside his house to join in a celebration of homecoming and his own joy therein.
"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." (15:32)
In 15:30 the older son separates himself from his profligate brother by referring to him as, "this son of yours." But in 15:32 the father turns the phrase toward his petulant older son, "this brother of yours...."
God won't let us get away with cutting ourselves off from evangelism and seeking the lost, of working with the hurting and hurtful so as to point them to Christ. Christ is reminding us here that these exuberant but undeserving sinners-turned-saints are indeed our brothers.
I've tried to relate this story to me and you because I think that's what Jesus intended. In its context, of course, the younger son represents the "sinners and tax collectors" that Jesus was reaching out to (15:1), the father represents God the Father, and the elder son represents the scribes and Pharisees (15:2), who couldn't understand why Jesus would surround himself with such people. This isn't hard to see. What is hard to see sometimes, is that we church-going Christians come perilously close in our attitudes to those pious and righteous Pharisees of old. Yes, we ought to be pious and righteous -- the Pharisees got that right -- but we must not be self-centered, arrogant, merciless, and joyless.
In this Parable of the Elder Son I pray that you'll be able to see enough of yourself that you can catch Jesus' vital word for your own life -- and grow up.
Father, I can see something of myself in that older son, and I don't like it. Fill my heart afresh with your joy and crowd out my protestations of how deserving I am compared to others. Give me a compassion for the younger brothers who long to come home. Help me to help them rather than defend my church turf from being disturbed by their unchurchly ways. Forgive me my complaining and whining, I pray. And make me the responsible son who is a joyful comrade in his Father's joys, sharing his Father's heart of mercy. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"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 15:32)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- Who do the younger brother, father, and older brother represent in this parable?
- What was the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees towards the kind of people who were being converted? (15:1-2)
- What is at the root of the elder brother's anger towards his father? Have you ever experienced that kind of anger toward God? How do you get rid of that kind of nasty hidden anger?
- The parable ends with the father urging the elder son to come into the celebration. As you read the characters, how do you think the story turned out? Did the elder son soften and come inside, or did he stiffen and remain outside?
- How does your own compassion level match your Heavenly Father's compassion towards the lost? What can you do to conform your heart to his?
- How should we celebrate the repentance of sinners in ways that we are not already doing?
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 Euphrainō, BDAG 414-415.
 Hygiainō, BDAG 1023.
 Douleuō, BDAG 259.
 See my understanding of this in my article "Spirit Baptism, the New Birth, and Speaking in Tongues" http://www.joyfulheart.com/scholar/spirit-baptism.htm
In-depth Bible study books
You can purchase one of Dr. Wilson's complete Bible studies in PDF, Kindle, or paperback format.
- Songs of Ascent (Ps 120-134)
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Apostle Paul
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- Conquering Lamb of Revelation
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Holy Spirit, Disciple's Guide
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ