The parable of the prodigal son is sometimes related as if the prodigal himself is the centre of the story. In fact, it is the older brother who is the focus of the parable.
You will remember how the chapter started: The religious leaders grumbled because Jesus was publicly receiving tax collectors and sinners. Jesus therefore told three parables to highlight the appropriateresponse to repentant sinners. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd called his friends and neighbours to rejoice with him at the return of his lost sheep. In the parable of the lost coin, the woman called her friends and neighbours to rejoice with her at the discovery of her coin. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father called his servants together to celebrate the return of his son. Friends, neighbours, and servants all rejoiced when the lost was found. There was one exception: the older brother.
The older brother was “angry” when he saw the rejoicing that took place at his brother’s return. The word translated “angry” in v. 28 speaks of an open outburst of rage. The root of his anger was his own self-righteousness. He had carefully obeyed everything his father had ordered. He was an upstanding citizen. There was no one as worthy of celebration as he. He was, in other words, a good Pharisee. In portraying the older brother, Jesus was holding a mirror up to the religious leaders, who were offended that he would eat with sinners. They deserved the credit. They deserved the celebration. How dare Jesus redirect the attention they deserved onto those who had openly violated God’s law?
Simply put, because they had never embraced God’s grace for them as sinners, they resented seeing that grace extended to others. Their trust in the merits of their own obedience blinded them to the gospel. There was no place in their theology for sinners being drawn to Christ.
Perhaps I am naïve, but I would like to think that this is an attitude with which Christians don’t struggle on a regular basis. Most of us rejoice at seeing sinners drawn to Christ. And even if we are reluctantly joyful at the news of the infamous serial killer or the hypocritical politician confessing Christ, we would never dare to publicly burst out in anger like the older brother and the Jewish religious leaders.
And yet there is often an insidious older brother-like attitude that lurks beneath the surface of our heart. We are sometimes reluctant to extend grace in practical ways to those who are in desperate need for grace.
In the devotional on the parable of the Good Samaritan, I referenced an unlikely friendship that was forged between Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales and What’s in the Bible, and atheist Peter Boghossian. Some people expressed their disapproval at this budding friendship. I recall similar backlash when Bethany Hamilton, a young Christian woman who lost an arm in a shark attack while surfing but later returned to the pro surfing circuit, appeared as a guest on Ellen.
And yet we must remember that it is precisely those most opposed to grace who most need God’s offer of grace. And that offer is extended through his people.
Like the Pharisees, we are sometimes tempted to look down on people outside the faith. We are hesitant—might we say afraid?—to befriend the very people who so desperately need the gospel of which we are custodians. We are sometimes a lot more like the older brother than we would care to admit.
As you reflect once more on this parable this morning, search your own heart for an older brother-like attitude. Ask not only if you are seen to rejoice when sinners come to Christ but if, like Christ, you are actively reaching out to sinners with the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation.