An Encounter with the Older Son

Posted on July 28, 2014 | 5 comments

In Luke 15 we find one of the most memorable stories of our faith, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Chances are, even if you are not an avid church goer, you have heard of or read this story.

The younger son wants identity outside of the father’s household – he lives to satisfy the false self. So, this son pursues a life that seeks wholeness apart from the father and his standards. Yet, this path ends with the son becoming aware of his own brokenness and his lack of satisfaction.

Within it are many of the qualities that make following Jesus unique – grace, God’s faithfulness, mercy, and covering to name just a few. What makes this story of God so beautiful is that it is the father – the father who was wronged, disgraced, and sinned against – who waits for the son.

The father runs to the exhausted, repentant son.

The father forgives.

The father provides the sacrifice.

The father declares righteous.

The father clothes.

The father celebrates.

There is an oft overlooked character in this parable. He is treated as an insignificant addendum. The older son. The one who will inherit all that is left.

What if the father had left him in charge and given him the ability to speak on his behalf. How would the parable be different if these two brothers had interacted directly?

Adapting their words from the text of the parable:

Prodigal: “I have sinned against heaven and before our father. I am no longer worth to be called his son.”

Older: “Look these many years I have served him, and never disobeyed his command, yet he has never given me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But you devoured his property with prostitutes.”

Reading that, the next logical words out of the older brother’s mouth would be “Go away.”

The older judges the younger brother unworthy of grace. For the dutiful older brother, religious identity is about production and performance. Grace and forgiveness is earned. To that end, the younger brother has consumed and squandered.

The younger brother is not worthy of being part of the household any longer.

The older brother has a total lack of compassion. Though he would bristle at the suggestion, both he and his younger brother suffered from the same affliction.

Both attempted to create a sense of wholeness apart from the father. The younger brother did this very overtly, by taking the money and running. The older brother did this by doing everything ‘right’, creating his own sense of righteousness even while his heart stewed against his father’s decisions.

Both brothers were being led by their false selves.

Instead of compassion, the false self compares. The younger brother did not measure up to the older’s standards, heightening his own sense of righteousness and providing validation to his religious false self. (see Religious Self-Justification and Two Ways to Justify Our Self)

What does this mean for us?

Our tendency is toward exclusion and we must guard against becoming an older brother in the faith, making people first live by our standards before we extend a merciful hand to them.

Christ walked humbly, counting our eternal lives more significant that his life.

Paul reminds us not to forget from where we came.

Then we will not make people earn our grace, but we will be able to dole it out joyfully.

Redemption and restoration are, after all, the best parts of the gospel story. (see What Is the Gospel?)

Are you in the way of grace in someone’s life?

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  1. Interesting, thoughtful post. I’ve always been interested in the older brother – he seems to be the hinge on which the story turns. Hidden, but vital.

    I’m not sure that one can make the tacit assumption that he would have sent his brother away – while it’s a logical follow-on, it doesn’t really fit the tenor of his plaint, which is directed against his father.

    In essence, the younger brother is used as a foil to illustrate the older brother’s feelings of having been treated unjustly, and he is in turn the mechanism by which a sense of perspective is gained – the older brother comes off as petty, whining that he didn’t even get a young goat to kill and eats with his friends, while the very survival of the younger brother is at stake.

    Would he have told his squandering brother to go away? We can’t know, and perhaps that is a good thing, because it would imply a potential authority that we don’t need to see. (I’m not sure that the younger brother COULD have been sent away, under the social codes of the time; it’s likely that he would have had to be at least given food and shelter.)

  2. I have 5 sons – and there are lots of 3+ on our family tree. I’ve noticed that in birth order – the first born is often easily shepherded, coachable and follows rules well. In the story, it is said about the first born that “he is always with the father.” Second borns tend to be rule breakers, rebels. They are both examples of the differences in how people come to Christ or to the Father. The second born has to learn to submit to God’s authority – and under God’s authority is the only place to find true peace and freedom. I would say the second born is probably a very compassionate person – that he works out of the seat of emotion. The first born is his opposite – going by the rules are part of his nature, thus he is always with God. However, he must learn to build compassion for those who fail – so that while He might always be with God, he grows a God-like heart. It is challenging in a brotherhood – for these two temperments to learn to reach out to each other without judgementalism. So much time is spent on the prodigal that we fail to see that some of us need to stop “making people first live by our standards before we extend a merciful hand to them.” This is one of my very favorite topics – maybe because I am living it out. I so enjoyed your message!

    • Good point on the birth order. While I would add that even though the older son was always with the father, he did not know the father (see the blog post later this week). Both sons need to learn to submit to the authority of the father, but in differing ways. Thanks for the great insight.

  3. It’s always interesting to focus on the people in the stories & think “am I judgmental like this character or so I easily fall to temptation like that one?” I think it’s hard to understand Bible folks sometimes because it’s difficult to understand our own hearts! But I’m so glad our Heavenly Father understands us & always knows best what will reach us. Stopping in from the blog link-up. Blessings!

  4. Great post, and glad I clicked over from Thrive@Home! Reminds me of an excellent book by Tim Keller, “The Prodigal God,” in which he points out that Christ was preaching this story to the Pharisees – who were themselves the picture of older brothers. If you’re interested, here’s my review of the book:

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