"In Defense of the Older Son"
22 “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 “And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’ ”
Commentator Norval Geldenhuys declares the parable of the Prodigal Son to be the “Gospel within the Gospel”, saying, ‘…in it so many Gospel truths are proclaimed in such a beautiful and graphic manner”. Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, - Geldenhuys, Eerdmans, 1977
It would go without saying, although I now say it, that this observation of Geldenhuys provides the very reason that the story of the Prodigal has been told so often and by so many.
Jesus, during His earthly ministry, was the quintessential storyteller and the most profound of public speakers.
Any doubt that this statement is true must be washed away completely in just the astonished declaration of the temple guard who, when sent to arrest Him came back empty-handed and citing as their defense for their neglect of duty a conviction that “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks”. (Luke 7:46)
Statements like that and the observance of Matthew that the multitudes were astounded at the authoritative teaching of Jesus cause me to wonder how much clarity and emphasis is lost in the translation to modern day language.
Can you imagine? The Lord of the universe, sitting down and opening His mouth to teach!
And here we find ourselves today, back at this much-used story, preparing to plunge its depths once more to see what nuggets we can glean.
I want to come at it just a little differently today however, because I feel like there is someone in the story who doesn’t usually get his equal share of the attention; indeed, not nearly the attention he deserves.
Because, as I hope you will see as we go, where the prodigal suggests the backslidden saint repenting and returning to the fold, and I know that this is commonly taught as a reference to the unregenerate sinner coming to God for the first time but I do not see that as the primary message being taught (see the wording of verse 21), although it is a valid application, and where the father is of course representative of our Father in Heaven, ever anxious to receive the repentant back with gladness and rejoicing, the older son, so grievously neglected, is more like the rest of us.
So you see, it really behooves us to take a backward glance at this story, as the Father walks off with the newly returned son who is wearing the ring and the robe and the new sandals, stomach growling for some of that calf he smells cooking in the back yard, and take a longer look at this angry, insulted man, fists clenched tightly at his sides, face red, neck purple, muttering under his breath, stomach churning, not with hunger but with rage, and see what he has to teach us in the 21st century.
THE STORY THUS FAR
Now I don’t want to be guilty of assuming that everyone hearing or reading this is familiar with this parable that Jesus is telling. He is telling it in response to the Pharisees and Scribes who are standing about, grumbling because Jesus is eating with sinners.
By ‘sinners’ they meant, as we can see in verse one of the chapter, tax collectors and irreligious Jews. Keep this in mind as we will be referring to it later.
Jesus tells the story of a young man who decided he didn’t want to wait for his father to die in order to receive his inheritance, so he went to his father and asked for it.
This was a slap in the face to his father. I don’t know what could have been more insulting and unloving than this, for in short the boy was basically telling his father, ‘you’re taking too long to die and I have a life of my own to live so give me my portion now’.
The father graciously divides his wealth with the little ingrate, and a few days later the boy packs his poke and heads off down the road. He goes, we’re told, to a far country. A distant country, where he quickly squanders all the money on loose living and ends up feeding pigs; something that any good Jew would have been loathe to do. In fact a really good Jew would rather starve than earn his living that way.
I can imagine a collective gasp coming from the crowd at this point in the story. The Pharisees and Scribes must have been hoping that the story would end with the wayward son being trampled and torn apart by the swine. That would have been a fitting end for such a lowlife sinner as he.
There is a great deal that could be said about each point of this story and as I said, most of us if not all of us have heard them. But I’m here to defend the older brother today so we have to move on.
Sometime when you sit down to read your Bible just open to Luke 15 and read this story carefully and think about what it might have to say concerning your own relationship with a gracious, loving heavenly Father and how long He might have waited, watching down the road for your familiar form to come trudging back to Him.
Anyway, in time the kid does come to his senses, and that’s just the way Jesus put it; ‘he came to his senses’. He realizes what a ridiculous mess he’s made of things that he has gone from the pampered son of a wealthy man to a disgraced backslider, feeding husks to a herd of pigs and himself starving because no one in his present circumstances cares if he lives or dies.
He determines that he is going to get up, take that first step toward home, and to his credit as he does he acknowledges that he has sinned first and foremost against God and also his father, and he is going to go home and make that confession and ask only for a servant’s place and be happy to have it.
So the next visual Jesus gives us is that of an eager father, looking up from his work as he most assuredly has done frequently throughout each day the son has been gone, gazing down the road and each day, each time, being disappointed, but not today.
There in the distance, almost too far to focus, comes the familiar form of his beloved boy. Thinner, unkempt, ragged, barefooted, shoulders slumped and no longer holding the arrogant swagger they had the day he left.
A spontaneous shout of joy escapes his father’s lips. Not a name, not a word, just a sound; something between or perhaps a mixture of ‘oh!’ and ‘ah!’ He runs down the road to meet his son, throws his arms around his dirty neck where he plants kisses and tears and rejoices that his boy who was dead to him, lives again.
Ok, that’s the story, and as I said, very much could and has been said. It’s one of the greatest stories ever told and one that we never get tired of hearing.
But we’re here today to talk about the older brother, aren’t we? And this is where he comes in to it.
Well, actually, not quite. And this, I think, if he had any source to file a grievance with, would be his first grievance.
Do you see verses 23-24?
“But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.”
Now look at verse 25 & 26.
“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 “And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be.”
HE WASN’T EVEN INVITED!
The father is having one of the best days of his life. The younger son is certainly having the best day of his life so far. The servants are probably even having a good time. “Oh, yay. We get a break from our typical daily duties and we get to kill a calf and have a pot luck. So glad Jr. came back…”
Does anyone remember to go tell big brother to come in from the field and wash his hands? No.
He came in from the field where he had apparently been sweating and working as the dutiful and faithful son that he was, and we don’t know why he came in, Jesus just said he came from the field, and as he approached the house, what did he hear?
Music and dancing! Hey. What’s this? It’s the middle of the work day, the middle of the week, and I hear music and dancing; as though there is some kind of celebration going on.
People, we aren’t supposed to celebrate in the church! We’re supposed to be working, and you’re supposed to be noticing how hard I work and how valuable my contribution is! Because I’m the steadfast one who serves on all the committees and those poor buggers who get all drawn away by their lusts and conceive and give birth to sin need to be put in their place and kept there; not partied with!
But if you do celebrate, if you do have music and dancing, whether I’ll frown on it and point my finger and say ‘tsk, tsk’ or not, you darn well better invite me at least! What’s THAT all about? At least give me the courtesy of an opportunity to decline.
Second grievance coming up. First though I want you to notice that the father, when he heard his older son was sulking outside, came out to him and was ‘pleading with him’, and the words aren’t there but it’s pretty obvious he was pleading with him to join the party. After all, his brother, who had been dead to them, was alive and safe at home again. Time for rejoicing.
“But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’
Are you beginning to understand why I come to this man’s defense today? This is just wrong, wrong, wrong! All of us Pharisees think so.
We became a Christian in ________, you fill in the blank with the date if you remember it. And we’ve never sinned like this one has sinned or like so many others have sinned. Our attendance has been virtually uninterrupted with the only exceptions being illness or when on vacation or a missions trip or something. Our involvement has been commendable, our contribution of both our money and our talents has been such that an article ought to be written about us somewhere; maybe in the Rocky Mountain Baptist or something like that. Maybe even in Christianity Today or Leadership Magazine.
Yet when we prayed really hard that you’d miraculously send the money for our kids’ college education, nothing. And when we prayed and even got on the prayer chain that you’d get us that job promotion, nothing. Still stuck in the same old grind. And when they were voting on a new pastor you let them choose that bright young spark with his wife and two snotty-nosed kids and his grandiose ideas about grace and freedom in the Spirit and joyfulness in the Lord, instead of that older, more stable gentleman we wanted with the “Dr” in front of his name who would have drawn in some of the more notable people in the community.
Sure, Father, it might have been your wealth you gave to him, and it was yours to give, but he squandered it in sin and now he comes groveling back and what happens? You treat him with kindness and forgiveness and you reinstate him back into full family membership with all its privileges and responsibilities, and you won’t even provide me with what I need to cater to my selfish desires!
It’s just not fair. All this time I’ve slaved for you in the field and it’s turning out you are very much different than I’ve always assumed you were.
You see, and this is why I felt it necessary to come to this man’s defense today, whenever we hear this parable recounted it seems the older brother is painted as the selfish, short-sighted, jealous one.
But the problem is really that he is not connected to the rest of the family. Oh, he’s always there. He even said so in his own defense. He’s the faithful one when it comes to working the farm and helping to bring in the revenue and help make decisions regarding the purchase of farm implements and livestock and when to bring in the crops and so forth. He can be counted on to be there.
But did you notice that he is surprised that his father still loves the younger son? Where has he been, where has his attention been directed, that he didn’t see the sadness in Dad’s eyes? That he never noticed him gazing longingly down the road in the direction his boy had taken so many days ago?
He must have really been working hard and taking care of business.
And what about a relationship with his brother? Well, did you notice in verse 30 that he said, “…but when this son of yours…”, even though the father said, “…this son of mine…” (verse 24) and “…this brother of yours…” (verse 32). Can’t you almost see the curl of his lip as he sneers… “this son of yours…”?
Well, I don’t know what might have been their relationship before his brother’s folly but the kid had certainly dropped out of favor with him as a result of all his shenanigans in the far country, right?
So once again, this gracious and patient and loving father responds with wisdom and love, but at the end of the story, for all we know, the older brother is still sitting on the front stoop, sulking and missing the party.
Unconnected. You’d think it’d be the younger son who remains unconnected, wouldn’t you? Just a little bit? Back but never again quite fully acceptable? I mean, he had presumed hurtfully on his father’s love and generosity. He had squandered that which the father gave to him in shameful and filthy ways. Ok, he’s back, but wasn’t that idea he had of just being one of the servants a pretty good one?
Yet it is the faithful older brother who feels unconnected.
Christians, listen. This is the deception of the religious spirit. You can be right in the thick of things, involved up to your elbows and your chin, and still be far away and unconnected from God and from a right relationship with brothers and sisters of the faith.
Can you imagine Jesus meeting the gaze of the Pharisees and Scribes who continued to sulk and didn’t even realize they were missing the party?
Can you imagine the silent tears running down the faces of some of the sinners gathered around who were beginning to understand that a loving heavenly Father waited longingly for them to come to their senses and take the first step toward home?
I said we were going to talk about them some more and here it is.
I wonder what made them ‘irreligious’? This was a nation of people who only existed because God called them a people. He called into being that which was not. He chose a pure-hearted and faithful man from Ur, gave him a promise, reckoned him righteous, gave him a son, gave him circumcision, and began the family from which the Messiah would come.
And all these sitting around were of that family. Abraham’s seed. They had a history. They were all a part of that history; descendants of those who had come out of Egypt.
So what turned them off to their religion? Do you think it could have been the testimony of the religious hypocrites who now stood around despising them?
Do you think that many of those who have turned their back on the church today have done so for much the same reason?
But a loving heavenly Father waits for them to come to their senses and set out for home, and as soon as they do they will find that He will rush to meet them where they are, clothe them with His righteousness, reinstate them to their place in His family, wash their feet and give them a sense of connectedness that the self-righteous religious elite can never know.
You see, here is the truth about this story Jesus told this mixed multitude that day and the Holy Spirit preserved and recorded for us. There were really two people in this parable who were starving in a distant place, far from the father, but only one came back.
Only one came to his senses. Only one humbled himself and took that first step toward home with a determination to surrender himself entirely to his father’s will and good pleasure.
Only one. The other, as far as we know, never recognized his need, never felt hungry, never swallowed his pride, never understood either the father or his brother, and missed the party altogether.
So let’s all share a moment of silence for the older brother. Joyless, thinking he needed to earn the father’s love by his faithfulness to work, despising his brother and faulting the father for his mercy and grace, himself rejecting the kindness of his father who gently and lovingly pleaded with him to enter into his joy.
And in the end let us also observe that once received and ushered into the confines of his father’s home, the younger brother was only aware of the celebration.
He had cause now only for rejoicing, because you see it’s one thing to be born into a family; it’s quite another to be taken back in unconditionally and completely after a time of folly and foolishness and experience the compassionate grace of a father who will never send you away.
“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” Jn 6:37
Well, you may have caught on by now that my intent was never to truly defend the older brother. There is really no good defense for his attitude or his actions. But still if we are painfully honest with ourselves we have to admit that when the Pharisee in each of us tries to raise his ugly little head that is when we are most like the older brother so on some level we all identify with him.
When someone has done wrong in our sight – that is, done what in our sight is wrong, even when in some cases they may not have done wrong in God’s sight – we don’t want to see them get off gracefully.
When someone else receives blessing that when we compare it with our own circumstances seems to be more than they deserve, c’mon, admit it, we might spend some front porch pouting time ourselves.
The thing we need to have our eyes opened to, fellow potential prodigals, is that if we do not keep our senses trained to discern good and evil (Heb 5:14), we can be in very close proximity to the home front and still be far from the Father.
If the older son was concerned with a significant love relationship with his father so that his father’s cares and concerns were also his own, and by way of priority the mundane daily tasks of keeping up the crops and the livestock and the property were in their proper place, he would have been as happy to see his brother coming back up the road as ‘Dad’ was. In fact, his joy would have been doubled for he would have rejoiced for his brother’s return from the dead and for the renewal of his father’s own joy.
Where are your priorities, believer? What are you hungry and thirsty for? What do you seek and expect in your relationship with your Father who is in Heaven?
Are you wanting Him to reward you for your faithful service with the recognition of those around you and perhaps with a few of the creature comforts that would take some of the hardship out of your days?
Those don’t sound like such bad things on the surface, but they certainly can draw our attention away from the dilemma of our brothers and sisters in spiritual need.
Or do you hunger and thirst for righteousness, desiring that your heart be conformed to the Father’s heart so that you will want what He wants just because it would bring joy to him?
If that is your way as a believer in Christ, because it was His way here and His way now, then you won’t be on the front porch sulking, you’ll be on the inside celebrating with the rest who, undeserving as we are, have all been brought into the family by the same sacrifice, the same joyful declaration from the Father, dressed in the same robes of righteousness, destined for the same unfathomable inheritance.
“Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” Jude 24-25