Today, we will touch on the last character in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. This guy usually goes untouched in most analyses of this passage, although if you have grown up in independent or Southern Baptist circles, you may have heard one before. This is by far the most skipped over of the three characters. He is the responsible older brother.
In a way, I think this really fits life well. I know in the case of our family, my parents had kids in two batches, with ten years between the two sets. The older of both pairs of kids were the more responsible. I don't know if this is true in every case, but I do think it's not uncommon for the older siblings to be the more responsible.
The same is true in this parable. While the younger son demands money and leaves for the far country, we see the older son dutifully stay and apparently continue his responsibilities (v. 29). Apparently, this was the annoying older sibling that many youngest siblings complain of; you know, the one who is amazingly responsible and well-behaved.
My brother used to be one of those people. He's gotten a little bit more relaxed in the last few years, but I still remember that he was the biggest proponent of me getting my own bedroom and not sharing his with him anymore. Why? Because I left my jammies out every day. Yes, I know, my sin was great!
The point I'm trying to make though is that this was the good guy. He was responsible and apparently hard-working. As the younger brother leaves, we see the older brother stays, takes care of the family business, and apparently stays in submission to his father, even going so far as to say that he has not neglected a single commandment of his father later in the chapter (Lk. 15:29). Any way you look at it, this was that annoying brother who always did everything right!
So, why am I talking about him today? In the parable, the older brother seems almost like a footnote pinned onto the end, an after-thought almost. The reason? Because Jesus was specifically targeting a different group of people with this part of the parable. So far, Jesus has been speaking to the crowds. In v. 1-2, we see that we have a conglomeration of people around him, publicans and sinners sitting next to Pharisees and scribes.
So, not discounting that the entire parable was meant for everyone, because I think it was, it's not hard to figure out that Jesus was targeting the sinners with the first part of the parable. The younger son's wild, immoral living, his disrespect for the father, the father's continual love, and the son's eventual restoration were probably specifically aimed at the publicans and sinners there, although they also hit the Pharisees and scribes. The second part of the parable, the part I'm discussing today, specifically hits the Pharisees.
This part of the story begins in v. 25, and we see the first mention of the older brother here. V. 11 mentions that there are two sons, but Jesus has up until now made no other mention of the oldest. And here we see the counterpart of the Pharisees, the outwardly law-abiding, civil, responsible hypocrite.
Here was a man who was outwardly the model Jew. Obedient to his father, honoring the family traditions, not demanding of his own rights, etc. This was the guy who the Pharisees would sympathize with more than anyone else mentioned. They weren't the horrid sinner that the younger brother was, and they didn't see the need for a merciful, loving Father since they themselves were doing fine on their own.
But the older brother's response to his brother's return is amazing, yet so true to our human nature. It's the same response we see from the workers in the vineyard in Matt. 20. Lk. 15:28 says, "And he answered and said to his father, 'Look! For so many years I have been serving you so that I might celebrate with my friends, but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him.'"
I think the stab at the Pharisees is very clear. Their anger over Jesus' apparent acceptance of former sinners into his following (Lk. 5:27) would probably have been well known among the masses of people gathered to hear Jesus. And his attack on them in the parable would have been just as hard to miss. Just as the older brother was angry that his sinner brother was receiving all the benefits, nay, more than he, the dutiful brother was, the Pharisees said the same thing. Why would Jesus promise a light burden and never ending life to the masses while ignoring the letter-of-the-law abiding Pharisees?
I think it's very clear that the Pharisees had the heart of the older brother. Outwardly dutiful, inwardly feeling entitled to good things and happiness on his own merit. Yet, before we are too quick to point the finger at the Pharisees, let's examine ourselves. How often do we get upset that others receive blessings from God when they are "worse" people than we are? Is that judgmental attitude any worse than the Pharisees?
I think we American Christians replicate the Pharisees in more ways than we care to admit. And I think the tendency to feel entitled to God's grace because of our "moral" lives, more entitled than the beggar under a bridge or the prostitute downtown, runs rampant in our comfortable, American Christianity. But what we don't realize is that by its very definition, grace must be unmerited. It must be completely external of any actions of our own.
We want to act like the vineyard workers of Matt. 20. We want to get more grace, more mercy, more blessings because we've acted better, or were more spiritual, or prayed more, or read our Bibles more than the poor Haitian woman born in the slums. But the beauty of grace is that God is not handing out grace based on our good deeds. He gives grace to drown our sin, to not only remove our sin, but to replace it with his own righteousness.
For some reason we just don't get it. Reading your Bible doesn't get you an inch closer to heaven. Giving to the poor, opening the door for ladies, being a good moral person leaves you just as far short of heaven as when you started, maybe further because of our pride and self-reliance in our actions. It is only when we come on our knees, as a sinner, equal to that adulteress, that murderer, this person, or that person, that we get grace. It is only by our repentance, not only for our sin, but for our reliance on our own morality for atonement, that we receive God's grace.
So often, we feel as if we deserve more because of our own actions, and we don't. That was the error of the Pharisees and the older brother in this parable. It is only when we come to the Father saying "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son" that we actually realize who we truly are, not a good person who slips up every once in a while, but a rebel, a murderer of God's own son. And that is where God's grace comes.