Key Verse: 28
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.”
Today, we are studying the last in a series of six lectures based on the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32, following Tim Keller’s series, “Finding Your Place at the Table.” This parable best expresses the gospel and gives us insights into how the grace of God affects our relationships with God and each other. So far in this series, we have thought about true beauty, repentance, adoption, forgiveness, and homecoming. Most of these topics have described the younger brother in the parable. Today, we will focus on the older brother, recognizing the dangerous signs of self-righteousness, and identifying God’s love for lost “good” people.
I. Redefining the lost condition
Briefly reviewing the parable, a man had two sons. One son demanded his share of the inheritance and squandered it in wild living at the casino and other shady places. When he ended up in the pig-pen, he came home to his father and repented, asking to pay his debts by becoming a servant. But the father fully forgave him, adopted him back into the family, and celebrated his return. Now, at the end of the story, the older brother comes in from working in the field and asks why there are sounds of music and dancing coming from the house. When the father explained that the younger son who had been lost was now found, the older brother was not happy about it. Let’s read verses 28-30 together, 28"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'” We may wonder why Jesus leaves the end of the parable in suspense. Is the older brother going to resolve his relationship with the father as the younger brother did?
As we have studied this parable, we have seen how obviously the younger son was lost. The dictionary defines “lost” as “helpless”, “wandering”, or “destroyed”. Throughout Luke chapter 15, Jesus told three parables of lost things: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. The word “lost” may be the best description of all human beings, for we lost our greatest treasure of eternal life because of our sins, and are on the way to hell without even realizing it. Thus, the greatest tragedy of every single human being in the entire world is his lost condition. How different is the elder brother? He is no different at all. He refused to celebrate with the father on the greatest day of his father’s life. He didn’t care one bit about the father’s heart. Instead, he only cared for the father’s things: the cost, the father’s estate, and the fattened calf. He was especially upset about the fattened calf because it was the most expensive & lavish meal. He didn’t think it was fair that his “bad” younger brother received such a blessing rather than him. To our surprise, Jesus focuses on the fact that many “good” moral religious people are blind to their own lost condition, more so than “bad” immoral irreligious people. The younger son looked very bad; the older son looked very good. But both sons were alienated from the father for exactly the same reason: both wanted to control the father’s things, one by breaking all the rules, and one by keeping all the rules. But both sons wanted the father’s things more than the father himself. The younger son demanded his share of the inheritance and left home. The older son followed the rules at home so that he could get what he wanted from the father, such as a goat. Both sons sought happiness through something other than the Father’s love. The younger son sought happiness through self-discovery by doing whatever he wanted. The older son sought happiness through moral conformity by following the system. Like these two sons, we want what God can give us more than we want God himself. We want human blessings: wealth, health, a good life, a gentle spouse, cute children, recognition, and human greatness more than enjoying God himself, just like the older son in the parable who longed and craved for his father’s goat.
The older brother thinks he is good, but he is also lost. Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” Jesus redefines our understanding of what sin is. The older son did not think that he was a sinner compared to his bad younger brother. But he was also a terrible sinner, only in a different way. First, the older son heartlessly refused the Father’s request to attend the feast. Next, he jealously complained that he never got even a young goat to celebrate with his friends. Finally, he directly insulted his father, saying in verse 29, “Look [!], all these years I’ve been slaving for you…”
Jesus’ redefinition of the lost condition is most stunning by the end of the story, because the bad son was found, but the “good” son apparently remained lost. Jesus leaves us in suspense about the end of the story to get our attention. The missing ending alludes to the older son in this parable being the Pharisees whom Jesus was speaking to and all “good” sinners who are like them. Those who are like the older brother are in a spiritually more dangerous situation. The older brother doesn’t know he’s lost because he is “good”. Signs of the younger brother’s lost condition are obvious – his wild living, his lost money, and his pig-pen. But the older brother was working hard at home. He was lost without even leaving home. Older brothers can even be here in church, praying, serving, and obeying Jesus. Yet they are lost and don’t know it. This is a spiritually more dangerous situation. This passage gives us three signs to recognize the older brother’s lost condition: constant anger, joyless duty, and a false sense of superiority. Let’s think a little bit about each one.
Firstly, older brothers are always angry
Let’s read verse 28 together, "The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.” The older brother worked hard and did his best to keep all of the father’s commands. He built up a moral life of good reputation in the community. But for doing so, he expected that the father owed him a favor. Many religions are based on doing things to earn God’s blessings. In fact, all religions are like this. Only the gospel teaches that we are saved by the grace of God. Religious people expect that God owes them what they want because they believe they paid for their salvation by their hard work of doing good deeds. But life never goes the way we want it. We are repeatedly denied things we think we deserve, and undeserving people are repeatedly getting them instead. Thus, those who are like the older brother become constantly angry.
Secondly, older brothers practice duty without beauty. Let’s read verse 29 together, “But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” By the word “slaving,” we see that his root problem was that he believed he was good by his own estimation that he never disobeyed the father. But his obedience was joyless and legalistic. Ultimately the older son had no love or mercy in his heart, because he had no God in his heart, but only the outward appearance of goodness and godliness. For some Christians, coming to church, studying the Bible, and serving God are drudgery. This is a clue that we are lost like the older brother. The younger son did not feel worthy, but the Father adopted him as a son. The older son was a son physically and culturally, but in his heart he was really a slave. Gospel-believing Christians find God beautiful and want to obey him out of thankfulness. But those like the older brother only obey God to get some desired result, rendering service to God that has no adoration, beauty, or delight.
Thirdly, older brothers feel a false sense of superiority. Let’s read verse 30 together, “But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” Those who are grounded in their self-image and performance tend to look down on other people who have failed or who are sub-standard. Luke 18:11-12 says, “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” Those who are like the older brother feel creeped-out by people of a different class, religion, or culture. This is an indication of self-righteous superiority. Jonah in the Old Testament was like this. When God sent Jonah to preach the message of repentance to the sinful people of Nineveh, Jonah ran the other way. Instead of going to the east, he went to the west. He knew that if they repented, God would forgive them, and Jonah was angry about that. Jonah felt that he was a good prophet who kept God’s Ten Commandments, but the Ninevites were crude, unlawful, and just plain sinful. Jonah did not want the Ninevites to receive God’s equal love and blessings. God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah so that he could repent of his self-righteousness. Jonah obeyed outwardly but not inwardly. Jonah was mad at God because Jonah felt superior to the Ninevites. C.S. Lewis said, “A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” The Pharisees, to whom Jesus was telling the parable of the Prodigal Son, also had this problem. Verses 1-2 say, “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.’” The Pharisees, who were the “good” religious leaders in Israel, grumbled that Jesus welcomed sinners. They did not understand that finding lost sinners and restoring them was Jesus’ main purpose in coming into the world. They also did not understand that all people, including themselves, are lost sinners who need Jesus’ grace for salvation. If anyone could be considered superior, it was Jesus himself, but Jesus gave up his higher position in order to die on the cross for our sins. If Jesus, the truly righteous one, is humble, there is no reason for us to feel superior over others.
2. God’s love for older brothers
Let’s read verses 31-32 together," 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' " In spite of the fact that both sons were equally lost, both were also equally loved by the father. Whereas the younger sons’ sins were obvious, and he could see his need for repentance, the older son was blind to his sins because of self-righteousness. But the Father loved him just as much. The Father went out to each of the two sons to show his love and understanding. The Father was so sweet and tender, even toward the older son. He earnestly wanted to invite the older son into the feast of salvation. He gave the older son his promise, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” The older son was not lacking any blessings, and the Father’s love was still available for him. The only thing he needed to do was to recognize his self-righteousness so that he could repent of it, because it was blocking him from receiving the father’s love. It seems strange that we not only need to repent the bad things we’ve done, but we also need to repent of the good things we’ve done. Isaiah 64:6 says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”
Even our righteous acts such as working hard at our jobs, serving the community, and even attending church activities can be bad if they cause us to feel superior to others. The apostle Paul had been a self-righteous Pharisee. His credentials were better than anyone. But Paul said in Philippians 3:8, “…I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” The Bible says that our righteous acts are like rubbish. The older son in the parable was no better than the younger son, and we church-going people are no better than the lost sinners. But the good news is that God loves all of us. God provided a way for all of us to be forgiven. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus gave this promise to everyone, whether they are like the younger brother in the parable, or like the older brother. Jesus died on the cross to pay the debt of all of our sins, including the obvious ones and the ones that are not so obvious. Jesus deserved to be treated fairly, but he was mocked, ridiculed, and unjustly punished. Jesus delighted in God even when he was killed. Jesus gave up his superior position in order to dwell among sinners. When we receive Jesus’ grace of forgiveness, we can do good things with a sense of joy, adoration, and humbleness.
Today we learned that “good” people are just as sinful as bad people. The older son in the parable stayed at home and worked hard, but he only did it to get his father’s things. He did not really love the father any more than the younger son who ran away from home. The older son was blind to his lost condition, but there are three ways it can be detected. The older brother’s condition is characterized by constant anger, slavishness, and superiority. Jesus ended the parable in suspense in order to address this problem, but Jesus also loves those who are like the older brother. Jesus’ grace is for everyone, whether we are bad immoral sinners or “good” moral sinners. When we receive Jesus’ grace of forgiveness, we can do good things with a sense of joy, adoration, and humbleness.