The Older Brother
Here we have two symbols of what Jesus talks about in Luke 15: an empty beer can and a big Bible. Might be a little shocking to some to have an empty beer can up here with a Bible, but it was even more shocking for religious people in Jesus’ day to tell the story that we’ve been hitting on in this series called “Reckless Love.”
What do these symbols stand for? Well, religious people in Jesus’ day had a concept of “lostness” that was very recognizable: someone who doesn’t do all the right things, who does all the wrong things, who doesn’t know the right doctrines--that person is “lost” [beer can]. Lost people were easy to pick out in Jesus’ day, just like we suppose they are in our day. They don’t go to church. They rebel. They drink too much. They’re not spiritual.
Now, when Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son, we have to remember the context from Luke 15:1-2 which we really hit on a couple of weeks ago. Jesus is hanging out with the very ones the religious people are viewing as “lost.” The religious leaders grumbled, “Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them,” but those religious leaders [Bible] never considered their own “lostness.” And it’s into this context that Jesus tells three stories about things that are lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. But it’s in this third story that those listening to Jesus would have been shocked.
Most people who read and study The Parable of the Prodigal Son concentrate completely on the character of the younger son, his repentance, and the father’s forgiveness. And yet when you look at the text, it doesn’t end with the return of the prodigal. Almost half of the story is about the older son. The story is about two sons, who are both alienated from the father, who are both assaulting the unity of the family. Jesus wants us to compare and contrast them. The younger son is “lost”—that is easy to see. We see him shaming his father, ruining his family, sleeping with prostitutes, and we say, “Yes, there’s someone who is spiritually lost.” Jesus doesn’t even question this. The younger brother is separated from the father. But here’s where the story gets shocking! Jesus’s point is that the older brother is lost, too. How so? Well, let’s read this part of the story together, and then what I’d like us to do is take a look at 1) Jesus’ startling new understanding of lostness, 2) what the signs of it are (so we can recognize it in ourselves), and 3) what we can do about this condition. But first of all, let’s take a look at Luke 15:25-32. Let’s stand together out of respect for God’s Word.
You may be seated. So, let’s break the story down. How does Jesus understand lostness, what are the signs of it (so we can recognize it in ourselves), and what can we do about it?
1. Jesus’ startling new understanding of lostness—verse 28
The elder brother would have known that the day of the prodigal’s return was the greatest day in his father’s life. The father “killed the fattened calf,” an enormously expensive extravagance in a culture where even having meat at meals was considered lavish.
The older son realized his father was ecstatic with joy. Yet he refused to go into the biggest feast his father has ever put on. This was a remarkable, deliberate act of disrespect. It was his way of saying, “I won’t be part of this family nor respect your headship of it.”
And the father had to “go out” to plead with him. Just as he went out to bring his alienated younger son into the family, now he had to do the same for the older brother. Do you realize what Jesus is saying to his listeners, and to us? The older son is lost.
The father represents God himself, and the meal is the feast of salvation. In the end, then, the younger son, the immoral man, comes in and is saved, but the older son, the good son, refuses to go in and is lost.
The Pharisees who were listening to this parable knew what that meant. It was a complete reversal of everything they believed. You can almost hear them gasp as the story ends. Which, by the way, notice there’s no resolution given concerning the older brother. The story ends by saying the younger son “was lost and is found.” But Jesus doesn’t mention anything about what happens with the older brother.
And what is it that is keeping the older brother out? It’s because: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed...” (v.29). The good son is not lost in spite of his good behavior, but because of his good behavior. The older brother thinks it’s because of his good behavior that he deserves the things of the Father!
The gospel is neither religion nor is it irreligion; it is not morality nor is it immorality. This was completely astonishing and confusing to Jesus’ hearers at the time—and it may even be astonishing and confusing to you.
So, why is the older son lost? The younger brother wanted the father’s wealth, but not the father. So how did he get what he wanted? He left home. He broke the moral rules. But it becomes evident by the end that the older brother also wanted selfish control of the father’s wealth. He was very unhappy with the father’s use of the possessions—the robe, the ring, the calf. But while the younger brother got control by taking his stuff and running away, we see that the elder brother got control by staying home and being very good. He felt that now he has the right to tell the father what to do with his possessions because he had obeyed him perfectly.
So Jesus shows us Two ways people try to be their own savior and lord:
(1) By breaking all the laws and being bad. 2) By keeping all the laws and being good
If I can be so good that God has to answer my prayer, give me a good life, and take me to heaven, then in all I do I may be looking to Jesus to be my helper and my rewarder—but he isn’t my Savior. I am then my own Savior.
The difference between a religious person and a follower of Jesus is that the religious person serves in order to BECOME a son or daughter, but the follower of Jesus serves BECAUSE he is a son or daughter. Do you see the difference? So, we have Jesus’ startling new understanding of lostness, but how can we recognize this in ourselves?
2. The signs of this lostness—verses 29-30
Some people are complete older brothers. They go to church and obey the Bible—but out of expectation that then God owes them. They have never understood the biblical gospel at all. But many Christians, who know the gospel, are nonetheless older-brotherish. Despite the fact that they know the gospel of salvation by grace with their heads, their hearts go back to an older-brotherish “default mode” of self-salvation. Here’s what the older-brotherish attitude looks like. It is:
A deep anger (v.28—“became angry”). Older brothers believe that God owes them a comfortable and good life if they try hard and live up to standards—and they have! So they say: “My life ought to be going really well!” and when it doesn’t, they get angry. But they are forgetting Jesus. He lived a better life than any of us—but suffered terribly.
A joyless and mechanical obedience (v.29—“I’ve been slaving for you”). Duty without beauty. Older brothers obey God as a means to an end—as a way to get the things they really love. Of course, obedience to God is sometimes extremely hard. But older brothers find obedience virtually always a joyless, mechanical, slavish thing as a result.
ILL. Going through school to get the grade, not to get the education. Praying to get something, not to enjoy the presence of the Father. Doing things to get things--results oriented.
A coldness to younger brother-types (v. 30—“this son of yours”). The older son will not even “own” his brother. Older brothers are too disdainful of others unlike themselves to be effective in evangelism. Older brothers, who pride themselves on their doctrinal and moral purity, unavoidably feel superior to those who do not have these things.
A lack of assurance of the father’s love (v. 29—you never threw me a party). As long as you are trying to earn your salvation by controlling God through your goodness, you will never be sure you have been good enough. What are the signs of this? Every time something goes wrong in your life you wonder if it’s a punishment. Another sign is irresolvable guilt. You can’t be sure you’ve repented deeply enough, so you beat yourself up over what you did. Lastly, there is a lack of any sense of intimacy with God in your prayer life. You may pray a lot of prayers asking for things, but not sense His love.
An unforgiving, judgmental spirit. The elder brother does not want the father to forgive the younger brother. It is impossible to forgive someone if you feel “I would never do anything that bad!” You have to be something of an older brother to refuse to forgive. So, what can we do about this? Back in Luke 15 we discover Jesus’ startling new understanding of lostness and the signs of this lostness. And if we see that in ourselves, what do we do??
3. What to do about this spiritual condition
First, (1) We have to see the uniqueness of the gospel.
Jesus ends the parable with the lostness of the older brother in order to get across the point that it is a more dangerous spiritual condition. The younger brother knew he was alienated from the father, but the older brother didn’t. If you tell moral, religious people who are trying to be good, trying to obey the Bible so God will bless them—that they are alienated from God, they will just be offended. If you know you are sick you may go to a doctor; if you don’t know you’re sick you won’t—you’ll just die.
Moralistic religion works on the principle, “I obey, therefore God accepts me.” The gospel works on the principle, “I am accepted by God through Jesus Christ, therefore I obey.”
These are two radically different, even opposite, dynamics. Yet both sets of people sit in church together, both pray, both obey the Ten Commandments, but for radically different reasons. And because they do these things for radically different reasons, they produce radically different results—different kinds of character. One produces anger, joyless compliance, superiority, insecurity, and a condemning spirit. The other slowly but inevitably produces contentment, joy, humility, poise, and a forgiving spirit.
Unless a person and a congregation knows the difference between general religiosity and the true gospel, people will constantly fall into moralism and older-brotherishness. And if you call younger brothers to receive Christ and live for Him without making this distinction clear, they will automatically think you are inviting them to become older brothers.
Second, (2) We have to see the vulnerability of Jesus
Remember, again, to whom Jesus is speaking (vv.1-2). Jesus is speaking to His mortal enemies, the men He knows will kill Him. On the one hand, this is an astonishingly bold challenge to them. He’s talking to those who want to kill Him and telling them that they are lost, that they fundamentally misunderstand God’s salvation and purpose in the world, and that they are trampling on the heart of God.
But at the same time, He is also being so loving and tender. When the father comes out to the older brother, that is Jesus pleading with his enemies. He is urging them to see their fatal error. Jesus does not scream at His enemies, or smite them, but lovingly urges them to repent and come into His love.
And so we have a foreshadowing of that great moment on the cross when Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This love toward His enemies made Him vulnerable and cost Him His life. On the cross, instead of blasting His enemies, He lovingly took the penalty of their sins on Himself. While we were His enemies, Christ died for us (Ro. 5:10).
Knowing what He did for us must drain us of our self-righteousness and our insecurity. We were so sinful He had to die for us. But we were so loved that He was glad to die for us. That takes away both the pride and the fear that makes us older brothers. Jesus invites us--whether we’re the younger brother type or the older brother type--to receive His love and grace and mercy and be transformed--which then leads us to a life of following Him. Let’s pray.