“Now his older son had been working out in the field, but as he approached the house he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and inquired what was going on. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come home. Your father is so happy he has killed the calf he has been fattening.’
But this made him furious and he refused to enter the house. Therefore, his father came outside and began to reason with him. He said to his father, ‘Look at all the years I have been slaving for you! Even though I have never disobeyed a single command of yours, you never rewarded me with so much as a young goat so I could feast with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours arrives, after wasting your money on whores, you kill the fatted calf for him!’
And his father said, ‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is already yours. It is very appropriate to celebrate this great day, for your brother who was presumed dead has come back to life. I thought he was lost, but he is found.’” (Luke 15:25-32, paraphrased)
To understand Jesus’ comments concerning the prodigal’s brother, one must bear in mind the occasion that called forth this parable. As the triad of “lost things” commences, it becomes clear a lost son is more valuable than a lost sheep or coin (15: 4-10). Because the scribes and Pharisees disapprove of Jesus’ association with sinners, He gives this teaching to correct self-righteous attitudes. It is evident from the opening verses of this chapter that Jesus is targeting religious bigots, for the pharisaic spirit cannot bear the thought of sharing heaven with those “less worthy.” It is incomprehensible to them that the Lord could keep company “with Publicans and sinners” (v. 2).
Although Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son and His comments which immediately follow are closely connected, they can be treated separately. Jesus began His narrative by stating that a certain man had two sons (Lk.15:11), thereby assuring His listeners the story includes both of them. While the younger son was lost in sin, his brother was lost in narcissism. The first part of the story regards saving sinners, but the latter part deals with God’s attitude toward them. One might suppose an unpleasant ending to such a beautiful story could be omitted, but bitterness and envy affect people in every generation.
The elder brother was “in the field,” presumably working hard for his father. His heart was not beating in tune with him, for working for the father is not the same as thinking like the father. The Pharisees and scribes were working “in the field” with their temple rituals and religious observances. They ignored the fact that they have been enjoying the fruits of the paternal table for generations.
“Music” is symphonias from which we derive the English word “symphony,” the harmony of musical instruments. “Dancing” is orcheo, the basis for our word “orchestra.” Symphonias and orcheo can involve joyous hand-clapping and animated choreography. David dances before the ark while his wife despises him for it (II Sam. 6:14-16). Similarly, the elder brother hears the music, but is clueless regarding the reason behind it. Although he should have immediately connected the festivities with his brother’s return, he probably never expected him to come home. His consternation prompts him to inquire.
The servant is quick to explain the safe return of his brother inspired their father to immediately host a celebration. His use of the terms “thy brother” and “thy father” infers all that is needed to complete the circle is the presence of the older sibling. In Greek, “safe and sound” is one word (hugiainonta), and indicates good mental and physical health. The prodigal’s return to his father was a return to sanity. He was now in his right mind, free from the bondage of past vices.
The older boy was not simply surprised or confused, for the use of the term “angry” (orgisthe) means he was enraged. Rather than being thrilled with the news, his adamant refusal to enter the house was a visual statement of his displeasure. He is petty, scornful, sarcastic, resentful, egocentric, hardhearted, hypocritical, proud, and spiritually blind. Such terms describe the attitudes of the scribes and Pharisees as they are presented in the Gospels. The “elder brothers” of today are all those with no empathy for lost souls. Those unwilling to celebrate the salvation of others are out of harmony with the Father’s will. Like the older sibling in this story, they resent God extending His hand to backsliders.
“He would not go in.” Only jealousy forbad his entry. The Greek terminology indicates obstinate determination. He chooses not to celebrate, for he has no desire to be in the same house with his brother. If the elder son could not rejoice at his brother’s return, did he really understand his father’s love? Rather than sending a servant, his father comes outside and meets his rebellion face to face. But instead of a well-deserved scolding, he kindly reasons with him.
The honors heaped upon the prodigal cause hidden vexations to surface. His outburst may have been the culmination of years of seething resentment. Apparently his remarks come as no surprise to his father. His vindictive words are designed to turn his father’s attention away from his younger brother. He first parades his own fidelity and virtues. Given his mindset, it is easy to see why he feels a feast in honor of anyone but himself does not merit his presence. He accuses his father of two things. He is not treated him good enough and he is treating the other son too good. He proceeds to remind his father of the numerous years of slavish servitude (douleuo) on his behalf.
His spiritual condition was worse than the prodigal, for he did not appreciate his current privileges. Unlike the prodigal, the elder brother never uses the word “father.” Faithfulness in routine duties is no measure of true spirituality. All self-righteousness is as “filthy rags” in the sight of God (Isa. 64:6). The elder brother feels he is more deserving because he has remained in his father’s house. However, those devoted to duty often weigh their worthiness on the self-made imbalanced scales of bigotry.
The allegation “you never gave me” summarizes the true feelings of the scribes and Pharisees. To such men, God is a hard taskmaster from which they can demand wages. Who dares to claim God owes them anything? Their laborious efforts lacked love for the One who established the covenant they pretend to have kept (Lk. 18:11). On judgment day such persons will hear the Father say, “I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23).
Rather than apathy or pessimism, the older son exhibits bitter jealousy. He disrespectfully berates his father for overlooking his true value to him. He reminds him of his own faithfulness while forgetting his father’s faithfulness. His harsh words strongly imply he has never been rewarded for his services. But though he feels underpaid, underprivileged, and unappreciated, he has no reason to complain. While he declares his respectful obedience to his father, at that moment he is disrespectful of his feelings. Though outwardly loyal, he is inwardly disloyal. He transgresses God’s greatest command, for love for God and for others epitomizes all the commandments (Mt. 22:37-40).
Although he has never failed to obey his father, his priorities are different than his. He suggests even a baby goat would have sufficed as a token of appreciation for services rendered. He contrasts this small gift to the fatted calf which is the centerpiece of the festivities. The elder brother would have been thrilled if this father had thrown a party in his honor. He speaks of “my friends,” for apparently his friends are not his father’s friends. He will not celebrate his brother’s return. He feels no responsibility to him.
When the prodigal returns, the father spots him when he is still far away. However, immediate gratification seems to blind the elder brother. He has a predetermined notion of how the father should view a prodigal. The Father does not deny access to heaven to repentant prodigals, but all the alleged virtues of elder brothers will not gain them entrance.
While the prodigal eventually realized he has no claim to his father’s mercy, his brother never grasps this fact. He alleges his father is ungrateful for such a noble son as he and accuses him of favoritism. He will not call him “brother,” although he is obliged to recognize him as his father’s son. He speaks of him with contempt and sarcasm as if he was still lost. By charging his father with nepotism he reveals his ingratitude. Like Judas who begrudges Mary’s spikenard sacrifice, the son insinuates such a feast is excessive (Jn.12:4-5). He exaggerates his brother’s faults in an attempt to accentuate his own alleged merits. Neither the servant nor the father mentions the sins of the prodigal, but he attempts to sum up his brother’s sins by using the term “harlots.” By doing so, he smugly contrasts his own friends with the whorish friends he imagined his brother had. By speaking this word was he unconsciously revealing what he would have done away from home? What kind of friends would he have gravitated toward? Is the elder brother among those who, while avoiding deeper sins, secretly fantasize and thirst after them?
At this point, no one would blame the father for a reprimand. Even though such disrespect is grounds for revoking his inheritance, the severe allegations of the son are met with fatherly logic. The word “son” (teknon) is a tender term of endearment which bespeaks fraternal love. As he had waited patiently for the prodigal’s return, so he now listens patiently to his brother.
The phrase “all that’s mine is yours” is intended to remind him of his perpetual provision. In fact, the inheritance had already been fairly divided between them (v. 12). The term “thy brother” gently prompts him to recall his familial responsibilities. To receive back the prodigal does not diminish his love for his elder son. Jesus has already stated there is more joy in heaven over the one sinner that repents than 99 who do not need to repent (15:7).
Although the father is not obligated to give him anything, he denies him nothing. The older son overlooks the fact that the robe, the ring, and the roast are the father’s possessions to do with as he pleases. He takes his love and provision for granted. The elder brother was living with the father but not loving like the father. Though he sat daily at his father’s well-stocked table, for him it was as dry as corn husks. He might have had a continual “feast” in his heart, but a bitter attitude soured his stomach.
Rather than rebuke his son, he reasons with him. He reminds him of his family ties by referring to the prodigal as “your brother,” rather than “my son.” The father allows neither son to bask in their own delusions. His final remarks prove a sinner’s salvation necessitates unbridled joy. The return of the prodigal shows human nature can change for the better, but the Father never changes. Though coins and sheep will diminish in value, a son never will. The Father values most those who adopt His values.
“It was right” expresses the deep-seated joy that justifies the jubilee. The father declares a celebration is entirely appropriate for one who has escaped the horrors of sin. The party does not celebrate the prodigal’s former lifestyle but rather his deliverance from it. Heaven is joyful when someone on earth is resurrected from spiritual death to everlasting life (15:10). Only the Father can host this type of celebration, for He opens His door to all who truly repent.
While the remarks of the elder son focus on the past, the father’s remarks focus on the present and the future. He gently urges him to consider his brother’s spiritual resurrection from the dead. Because his father had regained a son, he had regained a brother. Had the prodigal remained lost, the loss would lay heaviest upon the heart of his father. The strayed lamb does not suffer as much as his shepherd. Nothing would have brought their father greater joy than for both sons to share his happiness.
As with most of Jesus’ parables, we are left at the crossroads. If the elder brother did repent and come inside to celebrate we are not told. If so, he returned to his father’s fields with a new attitude toward the lost. The father’s grace is sufficient for everyone in his family. We leave both sons speechless as they experience the mercy and grace of their father. Neither can comprehend the depth of his love. The decision whether or not to accept returning prodigals is never left in the hands of elder brothers.
Lesson from this parable might include:
• We should celebrate with those who have escaped the miseries of sin.
• This parable serves as a strong rebuke to the pharisaic spirit, for it proves one need not be in a pig pen to be a prodigal at heart.
• Religionists bar themselves from the feast of grace.
• The hardest sinners to reach are those who feel they were never lost.
• The elder brother represents cold denominationalism that embraces the false doctrine of salvation by works while despising the doctrine of salvation by grace.
• Prejudice cannot coexist alongside the Father’s grace.
• We must receive all those whom the Father receives, for no one is worthy to enter the Father’s house on the basis of their own merits.
“It is right that we should celebrate” invites the elder brother to be included in the continuing extravaganza. If he recanted and joined the party, what change must have taken place in his heart to enter in wholeheartedly? The abrupt conclusion of the parable is purposeful. The final question each of us must ask is, “How do I respond to my Father’s mercy and love?”
1.How does the case of the elder brother parallel that of the man without a wedding garment in
From each of these two stories, list attitudes or characteristics that helped “self-exclude” each of them from the festivities.
2. In what specific ways can discontentment, envy, and self-righteousness prevent people today from entering into the joy of the Lord?
3. Paraphrase and then comment on Isaiah 64:6. How does this verse apply to the elder brother?
4. What sin does the older brother accuse his sibling of…..which neither the servant nor his father had mentioned? (v. 30)
5. Read the father’s comments to his older son and list the blessings he mentions (v. 31-32).
6. Compare the self-acclaimed attributes and good deeds of the elder brother (v. 29-30) with those of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11-12.
What is similar about the things each claimed for himself?
7. From the following list, check each word that helps describe the elder brother’s attitude: