Parable of the Elder Son
The design of the parables in Luke 15 was simply to justify Jesus’ conduct in receiving sinners, and to show to rejoice over their return was proper. The Pharisees did not like the Messiah hanging out with sinners. Although Luke presents this chapter as one parable, most commentators divided it into three. For the sake of our study, we will look as the parable of the lost son as if it has a second part of the previous parable. This half of the story demonstrates why the Pharisees were rejecting sinners and why they were wrong in doing so. The lost son is represented by the publicans and sinners. The father is God. The elder son represents the Pharisees and scribes.
The Disposition of the Elder Son
• Legalistic Service
“Now his older son was in the field” (15:25a). The elder son is seen working in the field not sowing his wild oats like his brother had done with his portion of the inheritance. His relationship with his father was based on time spent in service to him. He pleads perfection which can be doubted. He explained his attitude to his father, “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time” (15:29b). His claim is like saying, “I slaved for you for years.” The father was a master to him. This well represents the attitude of the Pharisees. Though the elder son was morally correct, his disposition was wrong.
• Angry over Father’s Will and Mercy
The elder brother shows his contempt for the father’s relationship with his brother when he says, “but as soon as this son of yours came” (15:30a). He believes that father’s mercy to his younger brother is somehow an injustice toward him. He argues that his goodness is being overlooked by the father and he is not rewarded for being good. He said, “and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends” (15:29b). He felt that the father was now rewarding his younger brother’s immoral behavior. He described his brother as one “who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him” (15:30b). He not only had no room for mercy in his heart for his brother, he did not understand how the father could love his prodigal son.
As the Civil War came to a close vengeance seeking northerners asked Lincoln how he was going to treat the southerners now that the war was over and they were defeated. To their dismay he said, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.” He understood forgiveness better than the elder son or Jonah. When Jonah was sent to Nineveh, he turned out to be the most successful preacher of all time in that the whole city, from the king down to the animals, were in sackcloth and ashes repenting of their sins. He was so angry he had himself a little pity party upon a hill still hoping God would destroy them. The proper response toward the penitent is forgiveness and acceptance (cf. 2 Cor. 2:7).
The older son comes across as very self-righteous when he claims to the father, “I never transgressed your commandment at any time” (15:29b). That is a very bold statement to make to any father. This represents the attitude of the Pharisees. What about the commandment to love and to forgive? This is indeed a “holier than thou” attitude which expects good deeds to be their claim to salvation. Pharisees were sinners in need of saving grace just like the rest of the world. Their self-righteousness is what would keep them from being right with God.
During the elder son’s speech to his father, he never does seem to care that his little brother is now safe and sound. All he can focus on is his pride in his righteousness. The father had not given him so much as a kid (a young goat) much less a calf to party with his friends. He would not go into the house to see his long lost brother. He would not join the party. The father had to come out to plead with him. So long as his brother was in the house he did not want to go in. His self-centeredness was robbing him of the joy of reconciliation with a loved one.
The older brother’s response showed he did not love his brother and may have not known true love toward his father. He shows an utter lack of sympathy. He should have loved his brother and joined his father. Now the house that should be united in rejoicing is divided. His brother’s love of pleasure caused his estrangement for the father and now the older brother is estranged from the father because of his lack of love.
The attitude of the elder son is one that is judgmental. He contrasts himself with his brother. While he presents himself in a favorable way, he puts his younger brother’s conduct in as unfavorable light as is possible. His brother was with harlots, while he was with good friends.
The Father’s Response to the Elder Son
• Lovingly Responded
The father replied gently, “son” or in other translations it is “my child.” The elder son’s anger did not change the father’s benevolent attitude. “A soft answer turns away wrath; but a grievous word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). God and Christ love the self-righteous Pharisees. Later, Jesus would level several rebukes at them but not before He encourages them with several parables.
• The Father’s Mercy is Right
The father went on to explain his conduct, “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” (15:32). Note the contrast between the attitudes of the father and elder son. The father had a heart of generosity. The father treated his son kindly. The father was good to his servants. The father recognized the free moral agency of man. The father was watching for his boy to come home. This father had compassion and forgiveness.
• Reasons for His Son to Change His Disposition
The elder son should not be so negative because he has had the father all this time. The father pleaded, “son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours” (15:31). The older son had no reason to be angry or jealous. His place in the house was not diminished at all by the return of his brother. He has had the blessings with the father all these years and that was not about to change. Nothing was to be taken from the older brother and given to the younger.
Saints should never have the elder brother’s attitude toward God’s blessings given to the penitent. After all, all men sin and are blessed with more than they will ever deserve.
Another reason implied by the father is that they are still family. The prodigal son never stopped being the elder son’s brother Whereas he referred to his little brother as “your son” the father now refers to him as “your brother.” The Pharisees regarded the sinner as hopelessly dead. The father in the parable agrees that he was dead but is now alive.
The story ends without Jesus telling us how the elder brother acted. Did he receive his brother back again? Did he leave home? Jesus did not finish the story because it was up to the Pharisees to demonstrate how it was going to end. He was waiting for their verdict. In general, the Pharisees would not accept a Messiah who was a friend with sinners. Instead, they rejected him and had him killed. Forty years later the Jew’s inheritance was taken away with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The point is, one does not need to go on a long journey to a far country in order to leave God the Father. The parable begins with the younger son away from home, and his brother at home, and it ends with the younger son at home again and his elder brother refusing to enter the home.
– Daniel R. Vess