The Prodigal Part 1. The Elder Brother

Question: Why can’t the elder broher accept the return of the prodigal?

Answer: Because if he did, all of his works would mean nothing at all.

The oft told story of the prodigal in Luke 15 is taught again and again, but not always exemplified in the reality of our daily lives. To illustrate this, I want to reference two parables which immediately precede this story. They are variations on the very same message, joy at the return of something that was lost.

First, there is a diligent, caring shepherd that leaves the 99 sheep for the one who has wandered away, and is missing. Then there is the parable of the lost coin. When a woman who has 10 coins loses one, she searches diligently and finds it, proclaiming her joy to everyone she knows. Both of these stories end in triumph and celebration, but the true moral of the parables are found in heaven’s response to the repentant soul that comes home. Let me quote from each parable:

The Lost Sheep-“I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 just persons who need no repentance.” Luke 15:7

The Lost Coin-“Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”Luke 15:10

The Lost Son-“Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. And they began to be merry.”Luke 15:22-24

Now for the elder brother.
I ask you, what justification does he have to be angry with, and resent his repentant brother? He has remained steadfast and true to his responsibilities, fulfilling his obligation to his father, and is a partaker of all the goodness that goes along with it. He is set, and he is his own man, his legacy and good name are intact. The real question seems to be, why would the elder brother be so insecure in his place of honor and respect?

The answer to that lies not in the elder brothers actions all those years, which were above reproach; but are revealed in his response to his brother’s return. What was hidden deep in the recesses of his heart came flooding out in anger. I believe that he saw grace extended to another as a threat to his way of life, that it somehow marginalized all of his efforts.

There is no justification for resenting the prodigal son, unless the elder brother’s motives for doing right were to try and earn something he was already freely given.

In looking at this verse we see its confirmation in his father’s words:
And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.” Luke 15:31

His inheritance was utterly, and completely solidified by his son-ship, not by his good behavior or perfection. It was this truth which put him on equal ground with his brother the prodigal; that’s what he ultimately could not accept.

The elder brother was caught up in his works, bent on the vengeful meting out of judgment; he cared not for mercy but wanted to see exacting punishment.


This is all in stark and direct conflict with the loving, merciful and seeking heart of the father. The father longs for the prodigal’s return, ever watchful, running to meet him, and embracing him in love. Whether it is a sheep, a coin, or a lost son, you excitedly tell everyone you know the wonderful news. There is rejoicing, and a big party in celebration.

“It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.” Luke 15:32

Why don’t we take our cue from heaven and the heart of God instead of the elder brother’s angry response? Is it that we are motivated by a Pharisaical creed, a works mentality, and an exhaustive drive to earn our way to heaven, and God’s approval? Is that our image of Him and what we think God expects?

This must sadden the heart of God to see us scrambling about to outdo each other in works and have hearts full of contempt for the lost and wandering soul; for the prodigals who have come back, and those yet to return. How many have been driven away by fierce and cruel judgment from imperfect men with a flawed view of a loving God? Have we forgotten the grace so immeasurably given us? Are we so full of pride in our outward actions that we forget the motivation for everything must be a heart of love?

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered,  does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7(NASB)

The prodigal Part 2-The Return, can be found here.


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