The Prodigal Son and the Older Brother

And he said, “A certain man had two sons: and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of thy substance that falleth to me.'”
And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together and took his journey into a far country; and there he wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that country; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight: I am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of thy hired servants.'”
And he arose, and came to his father. But while he was yet afar off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
And the son said unto him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight: I am no more worthy to be called thy son.’
But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring forth quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring the fatted calf, and kill it, and let us eat, and make merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’
And they began to be merry. Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called to him one of the servants, and inquired what these things might be.
And he said unto him, ‘Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry, and would not go in: and his father came out, and entreated him.
But he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years do I serve thee, and I never transgressed a commandment of thine; and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but when this thy son came, who hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou killedst for him the fatted calf.’
And he said unto him, ‘Son, thou art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine. But it was meet to make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found'” (Luke 15:11-32).

The story of the prodigal son is one of the most well-known narratives that Jesus provides for us in the Scriptures (Luke 15:11-32). Let us consider this story and its many spiritual truths.

Cornelis Massijs - Return of the Prodigal Son

Most consider the focus of the story to be the “prodigal son;” hence its common name. A “prodigal” is one who spends lavishly, according to Webster’s, and this son gains that distinction by his “riotous living” in a foreign country. This younger son obtains the inheritance that would be due him and decides to live as he thinks would be good: loose living far away from the watchful eye of his parents (Luke 15:11-13). Unfortunately for him, the money runs out, a famine sets in, and he hits rock bottom: feeding pigs and desiring to eat the food he was feeding them (Luke 15:14-16). For a Jew, nothing could be worse!

Jesus then indicates that he “comes to himself,” recognizing that his father’s slaves at least eat bread, while he has nothing (Luke 15:17-19). He then resolves to return to his father. The father has been waiting for him, and the penitence and humility demonstrated by returning is enough for him: as opposed to making his son a servant, he provides him with the honor due to a rightful son (Luke 15:20-24).

The spiritual reference in this story is quite evident: many are like the prodigal son! They are born and are nurtured in God the Father’s creation, and He has blessed that creation (Genesis 1:1-2:3). They are not satisfied until they try to strike it out on their own: they cash in their relationship with God and go to lead lives of “riotous living,” doing as they please. Far too many remain in that condition and will perish (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Thankfully, some will either reach rock bottom in their lives or have some other experience that redirects them to their Father: they recognize that they cannot do it alone, and in penitence and humility come back to their heavenly Father, willing to just be a servant in His house (cf. Jeremiah 10:23, Romans 6:16-18). The Father, in His joy, receives back His child not as a servant but as a son (cf. Romans 8:14-17), and all rejoice (cf. Luke 15:10).

While the younger brother, the prodigal son, provides many spiritual lessons, we must not neglect the presence of the older brother (Luke 15:25-32). It is likely that Jesus’ main point in the parable involves the older brother. After the Pharisees make the charge that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them (Luke 15:2), He first presents the two parables about the lost (the lost sheep and the lost coin, Luke 15:3-10), indicating God’s joy at the return of the sinner. While the parable here would seem to continue down that same line of thought, the character of the older brother comes in, and he is without parallel in the earlier stories.

The older brother, after all, has always been a faithful son, especially in his own eyes. He has not gone out and sinned grievously like his younger brother, and yet we see that he has no mercy or compassion for his brother’s plight (Luke 15:25-28). The father is none too pleased that the heart of his elder son is so hardened against the younger, and goes out to entreat him. All things that belong to the father are the older brother’s, he assures him, but the return of the younger brother is to be a pleasant one (Luke 15:29-32).

It is hard not to see the Pharisees as being represented in this “older brother.” Jesus is actively working to bring sinners to repentance, and is in many respects successful; that does not stop the Pharisees from condemning Him for His association with them. There should not be condemnation: there should be rejoicing, for those who were dead are now alive spiritually!

Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees through this parable should not be lost on those of us who are striving to be obedient servants of Christ in His Kingdom. When we strive to be righteous and holy as God is holy, we easily fall into the temptation of judging and condemning others. We may think that it is not “fair” for others to be able to live in sin and then come to repentance, getting to have all the “fun” and then the eternal benefit of Christ Jesus, while we have always been busy in our Father’s house.

The father and the older brother should demonstrate to us that we must have a change of thinking: we must rejoice when others repent, happy that one who was dead is now alive, and not be so worried about ourselves and our status. If we are faithful,. all that is His will be ours; it is right for us to be happy when others come to repentance and a knowledge of God.

Let us all strive to be obedient servants of God, merciful like Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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