The Older Brother and Misreading the Parable of the Prodigal Son

A good friend of mine recently said about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, “I’ve heard a lot of sermons on that parable. It’s probably America’s best known parable.”

And he’s right. Almost everyone knows it well. Preachers like to preach on it or at least to reference it occasionally.

But I’ve noticed that many preachers misinterpret an aspect of the parable whenever they preach it.

Return of the Prodigal Son

When it is preached, some ministers –– especially Reformed preachers –– like to read too much into the distinction between the older brother and the younger brother. Contrasting the older brother’s response with the father’s response is part of what Jesus is wanting to do in the story. No doubt he also wants to contrast the reconciled and humbled younger brother with the proud and arrogant older brother.

But some people talk about the younger brother as if he is humble and therefore the model for a child of God. And they’ll say that the older brother, because he was out of the celebration, is shown not to be loved or accepted by the Father. In other words, people who resemble the older brother are not Christians. The true Christians are the younger brother types.

Tim Keller makes this point in The Prodigal God. He says:

“In Act 2, however, the focus is on the elder brother. He is fastidiously obedient to his father and, therefore, by analogy, to the commands of God. He is completely under control and quite self -disciplined. So we have two sons, one “bad” by conventional standards and one “good,” yet both are alienated from the father. The father has to go out and invite each of them to come into the feast of his love. So there is not just one lost son in this parable— there are two.

But Act 2 comes to an unthinkable conclusion. Jesus the storyteller deliberately leaves the elder brother in his alienated state. The bad son enters the father’s feast but the good son will not. The lover of prostitutes is saved, but the man of moral rectitude is still lost. We can almost hear the Pharisees gasp as the story ends . It was the complete reversal of everything they had ever been taught.

Jesus does not simply leave it at that. It gets even more shocking. Why doesn’t the elder brother go in? He himself gives the reason: “Because I’ve never disobeyed you.” The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it.”

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (Kindle Locations 336-345)

But the older brother isn’t an example of an unconverted person who doesn’t understand the grace of God. That’s not the point the parable makes.

Why? Because at the very end of the parable, when the older son is complaining to the father about the celebration for the younger brother, the father says: “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 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 15:31-32 NIV)

Yes, the older brother is left out of the celebration for the younger brother. And, yes, Jesus wants to show the Pharisees that the way they relate to the sinners and outcasts is out of line with the very nature of God. But Jesus has the father affirm that the older brother is still with the father and still has “everything” the father has.

This is important for two reasons: first, it is always an important matter to come to a clearer understanding of the Word of God; second, the parable shows that God’s grace –– imaged in the actions of the father –– embraces both the returning sinner and the proud religious person.

Some preachers talk as if legalism is the unforgivable sin. Paul definitely has some harsh language for the opponents he’s writing against in Galatians. (We have to be careful, though, not to mischaracterize Paul’s opponents in Galatia as legalists in the traditional sense. The situation there was more complicated.)

But the Parable of the Prodigal Son shows God’s grace for the broken sinner and the proud religious person. Let’s not lose sight of that in our desire to preach against legalism.

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  1. Interesting !
    It seems that the older brother does not really want to enter the party of grace and forgiveness! And the father does not want to force him ! So the older brother seems to be a type of person that lives be the old covenant (= covenant of the law and commandments) and younger brother hopes for the new covenant of grace and mutual forgiveness…

    1. So it is better to wilfully disobey and ask for forgiveness after having your fun. I wish i thought of that earlier. So no prize for obidience no wonder chirstendom is in suffering people are fine to disobey and comeback without consiquences

      1. The parable’s ending does show that the obedient son will get ALL, (100%), of the father’s fortune when he dies, as the “redeemed son” spent his all up.

  2. I’d like us to remember that the older brother didn’t get no reward at all for his faithfulness. The younger brother had disrespectfully – unthinkably – requested his one-third of the estate early, before his father had passed away! The older brother still had the remaining two-thirds scheduled to come his way at the right time and in right place and in the right manner. The younger son had wasted his share of the estate on sinful rebellion. The rest of the father’s physical estate now belonged to the older brother upon his passing. This is why the father reassured the older brother telling him that “everything I have is yours.”

    But the younger brother had been restored to fellowship. He was loved and treated as a member of the household again – not as a hired hand or a slave. This restoration to fellowship was cause for celebration – not because the younger son was “good” but because of the Father’s great love for the younger son.

    The older brother seems to have felt unappreciated because the father had never celebrated his faithfulness with even a less expensive animal, yet here he was extravagantly celebrating the return of his lost prodigal son.

    But celebrating the return of the lost brother to fellowship is not the same thing as devaluing the older brother who has remained in fellowship. God still loved the son who had remained in fellowship very much. God still had great rewards awaiting this son.

    The woman who found her lost coin did not devalue the other 9 coins by celebrating the finding of the lost coin. Neither did the happiness of the shepherd who found the lost sheep devalue the other 99 who had not been lost.

    It is only good and right to celebrate whenever a person is rescued from death unto life.

    That is why the father said “…we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

    1. I never saw the elder son as being pissed off because of being “devalued” I saw him as being pissed off for basically having been there for years and working faithfully being flat out ignored throughout that time and rightfully so. To put this in modern day standards a position in your place of employment higher up the ladder, you have been there working hard for 10 years, first one in, last one out. A second employee leaves the company after your 5th year, he comes back, all social media posts show he does nothing but slack off, in fact the last job he had (after he left where you work) fired him for slacking off during work hours. When your department is called in to a meeting where it is announced he got the promotion you aren’t ticked off?

      I doubt it.

  3. Mark Wendt – Thank you for pointing out the other two parables told along with this one. I have always heard it preached like the older son was practically without redemption, “trusting in his own works”, but I don’t believe that is how the father addresses him. I think the point is simply that the return of a lost one is worth celebrating. They are not “better” than the ones that stayed faithful, but they are still accepted upon repentance. THAT is the part the Pharisees could not grasp. One day, this passage encouraged me to ASK my Father for blessing. He WANTS to give them to me, whether I’m repenting from sin, or whether I’m doing fairly well today (and let’s face it, who’s really doing well?) .

    here’s another question: Why is it so often assumed that the older son did not go in to the celebration after his talk with his father? We are NOT TOLD his response. The point is, EVERYONE has to make choices to be in agreement with the Father’s heart.

    Ashan – it’s NOT better to disobey. But is IS better to repent AFTER disobeying that to NEVER admit you have a problem. Who would accept God’s gift of forgiveness for his sin if he never acknowledges he is guilty of sin in the first place? Sin requires judgment and we must address that. Physically, the older son in this story will still inherit all that is the Father’s; the younger son is just allowed to live there. So his lot in life is “better”, as long as he is in agreement with the father.

  4. Has anyone ever considered that the father set up whole thing? He set up the service, the acts of obedience to which the older son out of obedience and respect adheres, makes it his lifestyle mission. Then his screwup younger brother gets a party

  5. I have given this some thought and have arrived at a new understanding of this “parable” and story of instruction. Here it is. The younger brother demonstrates to the listener the concept of mercy, something all need when they “come to themselves.” The elder brother represents the opposite, justice, which requires that one be obedient all the time, never faltering – or a full inheritance cannot be given – something that no person can do. The elder brother condemns the younger because that is what justice does, having every legal right to do so, including the legal right to expect “all” that the Father has. But, good luck trying to be the older brother, getting what you deserve instead of mercy and getting what you don’t deserve. Rather, we all, “everyone,” are prodigals, seeking the Father’s mercy. In the story of the lost sheep, the 99 rejoice when the lost sheep returns to the fold because every one of those sheep (in the sheepfold of Christ) was also lost at one time or another. Justice is emotionless, never rejoicing, a swelling of hope that mercy inspires. I am also reminded of the inspector in Les Miserables, a personification of unrelenting justice, pursuing its claim over a piece of stolen bread. His demise (throwing himself in the river) demonstrates how cold justice is overcome by the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, represented through changed life of Jean Valjean.

  6. I think too that while the older brother should have rejoiced with the return of his brother, and not be bitter, it must be pointed out that the younger brother, though forgiven and welcomed back to the family, may have lost forever the trust to run the estate. It’s one thing to love and forgive unconditionally, but trust is something that has to be earned,. and the younger brother will have to work hard at that to prove he is now responsible and trustworthy. One can forgive someone who cheated you, hurt you, or gambled away the families money, but that does not mean you have to remain in their company if they still cannot control themselves and cause you and others pain. Repentance carries more than just being sorry. It means real change of heart and behavior.

  7. Prodigal has actually passed into language as ‘wasteful’, which shows how easily things can be misunderstood or twisted.

    The parable of the Prodigal Son is a lesson to forgive and welcome back those who have sinned.

    But more importantly to remember and respect those who have not sinned and took the harder path.

    The actual protagonist of the parable is the eldest son. He is the Prodigal Son.

    This is a good reason why seminaries are so important.

  8. The elder brother is indeed the protagonist, and in my experience Protestants mostly take issue with him being “maligned” as resentful or proud.
    He EARNED the right to protest by his fidelity and hard work.
    The father does not chastice him precisely, but insteads first affirms that his fidelity has not been overlooked and will be rewarded, then he pleads (nor orders nor lecture) for him to realize why the younger son is being allowed back into the household.
    Jesus precisely, if you read the gospel accounts, first approached the Pharisee and teachers of the law, trying to persuade and reach them, recognizing they sat on the seat of Moses and their authority.
    His quarrels with them come late in his 3 year ministry, after several years of trying and failing (some like Nicodemus and Gamaliel are open to his message, but the rest cannot bring themselves to it).

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