Sunday, April 10, 2016

On Being the Older Brother

A few years ago, our small group participated in a church-wide study of Timothy Keller's book The Prodigal God. It was an eye-opening look for me at the cultural context of Jesus' parable that we commonly refer to as "The Prodigal Son" as found in Luke 15:11-32. In the study, Keller notes that this story is traditionally retold to emphasize the grace of the Father to His wayward children--the prodigals, the ones running from His grace, though He is always ready to love them, to forgive them, to accept them into His family.


Keller flips this notion on its head, by pointing out from the very beginning of the story, it isn't all about the runaway son. Keller notes that the story begins, "There was a man who had two sons..."

We might tend to focus on the younger brother, the wayward sinner who had cast the Father's love aside to have his own way in the world, but Keller reminds us that in the crowd around Jesus who heard this parable for the first time, there were a wide variety of people. Certainly there were plenty who would have perhaps identified themselves as the younger brother, the prodigal, who is welcomed home into the Father's waiting embrace. These were the sort who would have gravitated to Jesus, seeing his love and forgiveness. However, there were also many in the crowd who would have more closely identified with the older brother--the one who had always stayed at home, always pitched in, always did what was expected, and served the Father. There were plenty of Pharisees, Levites, religious leaders, and the like who were also listening in on Jesus telling this story that day.

And Jesus' point in telling the story: there are two sons...and they are both lost.

Even the older son, the one who had stayed by the Father's side through it all, is really lost--just as lost as the runaway younger brother. At the end of the story, the younger brother has come home in repentance, and the Father has welcomed him in, throwing a party to celebrate. And his response? Joy at the younger brother's return? Celebration that the lost was found? Joining in the revelries?


Jesus tells the story this way:
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 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!'"

Can you imagine how the religious leaders in the crowd would have heard this? Here they are, in the midst of this crowd of forgiven sinners--younger brother types all around--and Jesus puts these words into the mouths of the older brother, into their mouths.

How would they respond? Indignance that Jesus would suggest that they would behave this way? Guilt over their behavior? Perhaps a little reflection and wondering if Jesus had hit the nail on the head?

I have to confess, I definitely identify more with the older brother in the parable. I am the responsible, reliable, ...and sometimes reluctant one. I am the one who sometimes feels slighted that my faithfulness isn't being celebrated. I struggle sometimes with wanting that recognition that I feel like I deserve for the way I have served. And...I pout about it, unwilling to join in the celebration of the Father's love.

I am the older brother.

I too am lost.

Am I willing to humble myself, as the younger brother did, to return to the Father, and receive His love, and join in the celebration?


  1. Thanks, Dave. It certainly does make me think and humble myself. I like to judge and decide who "gets" to be saved. I'm the one who needs saving, and grace, and forgiveness.

    1. Thanks for reading, and commenting, my friend. I am really wrestling with this right now! Always good to know others share my struggle.