The parable of the prodigal son is not a message of hope for the foolish younger sons out there.
Maybe I just confused you. Maybe you thought you squeezed every last bit of usefulness out of this often-repeated and easily memorized story.
While most of the details within the story are about redemption for the lost, the message it was intended to give was actually more of an invitation for those older brothers who haven’t abandoned God to accept the invitation of His complete grace.
As we study and follow Jesus’ ministry, it’s just as important to pay attention to the indirect details–where Jesus is when He does something amazing, what He doesn’t say or do, and in this case, who He is talking to.
Luke 15 starts off this way: “Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
“Then Jesus told them this parable…”
The them right there is referring to the Pharisees and teachers. Jesus had younger brothers all around Him listening intently to how they could become His disciples (end of Luke 14). But there were older brothers standing off in the distance sulking that they weren’t the only ones being invited to the party. Jesus recognized the need to take a little detour and reason with the older brothers with a few “lost and found” stories to show them why the sinners were important. The last one, the prodigal son, is where Jesus gets to the point and shows his religious audience where they fit into the same story of redemption.
The end of the prodigal son story where the father goes out to the eldest son in the field is a perfect picture of what Jesus was physically doing by telling the story to these men to begin with.
His parable ends with an open invitation to quit sulking about others not being good enough for grace and to come join the party. To just just relax and accept that, while their emphasis on good behavior is commended and appreciated, God’s love cannot be earned or deserved.
Some of us are lost fools just as the younger brother in the story (the tax collectors and sinners who were intently and excitedly listening to Jesus). But we make the grave mistake to think those are the only sons that God is pursuing. There are prideful sons out there as well who have just as many rights (if not more as the older brother), and are loved just as much.
To pursue one but not the other is grossly unbiblical. The father in the story very intentionally pursued both of his sons. In fact, it seems that the older, prideful son was in a more dangerous scenario because, while the younger son had humbly but joyfully returned to where he needed to be, the older son was still out in the field with pride and a lack of understanding of how God’s grace was separating him from his Father. It ended there because that’s where the real life standoff was in that moment–it was up to the Pharisees and teachers to decide whether they would accept the invitation.
Which position is Jesus showing us as the more dangerous place to be–Repentant from terrible sins or pridefully unmerciful and arrogant? The one who sees his sin and wants to change, or the one who thinks he’s doing everything right? The very next parable (Luke 16) about the shrewd manager being removed from his trusted position gives us a clear answer. But I don’t think anyone can argue that we tend to pursue the younger brothers with more urgency than the older brothers.
My generation is increasingly resistant and closed off to people who are more religious than relational in their approach to Jesus. But we are unknowingly finding ourselves becoming hypocrites the more we roll our eyes and walk away from the self-righteous hellfire and brimstone-types.
“No one is more religious than the Christian who gives grace to everyone except the religious older brother types” (Jefferson Bethke in Jesus>Religion).
To be bent on (even subliminally) earning our Father’s grace and love is just as dangerous and distant as “eating with the pigs” because if that’s the solution to a right relationship with God, there are worthy and unworthy applicants. And that’s just not the case. It’s just as important to represent and witness the truthful message of grace to the older, prideful brother as it is to represent the graceful message of truth to the younger, foolish brother. Both are missing out and need the Gospel.
For the younger, the Gospel is often a really desirable message. Our ways always seem to turn into a pigsty in a hurry. Who wouldn’t welcome a party in his name after making such a mess of his life? But for the older brother, I think it is a much harder message to accept because they’re convinced they’re already in the club. When we’ve been playing our part the whole time, it’s easy to see ourselves as the expert who is more deserving of favor and celebration than the black sheep of the family.
Each are sons of God struggling with (only slightly) different issues. Both are pursued by God and invited to the same party to share the feast of the same fattened calf. If only Jesus continued the story and had the older brother follow his Father back to the party. Considering how distant his heart was out in that field from where it should have been, it would have likely turned into a party in honor of both sons being “found.”
When we write off the older brothers who withhold grace from the younger brothers, dismissing them as arrogant, hypocritical jerks who don’t understand people, we are essentially becoming older brothers ourselves. Just like we speak truth to younger brothers who are currently in the pigsty wasting their lives away, we should also be speaking grace to the older brothers who are working in the fields with a heart of arrogant entitlement. Both environments have the potential to set us adrift from God if we aren’t careful because entitlement and hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure) are just two different manifestations of the same selfishness.
There’s a worship song called “Don’t Belong” that says “You meet me where I don’t belong, You ask no questions and embrace me as your own.” It’s important to remember that, while we definitely don’t belong in a pigsty, we also don’t belong in the harvest field sulking and judging others. And if God uses us to “meet us where we don’t belong,” we have to be just as willing to be used to meet the older brothers inside the church as we are to meet the little brothers in prisons and bars.