The Prodigal’s Brother

Then Jesus said, “A man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the property.’ So the father divided his property between his two sons.

“After a few days, the younger son gathered his possessions and left for a country far away from home. There he wasted everything he had on a wild lifestyle. He had nothing left when a severe famine spread throughout that country. He had nothing to live on. So he got a job from someone in that country and was sent to feed pigs in the fields. No one in the country would give him any food, and he was so hungry that he would have eaten what the pigs were eating.

“Finally, he came to his senses. He said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more food than they can eat, while I’m starving to death here? I’ll go at once to my father, and I’ll say to him, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and you. I don’t deserve to be called your son anymore. Make me one of your hired men.”‘

“So he went at once to his father. While he was still at a distance, his father saw him and felt sorry for him. He ran to his son, put his arms around him, and kissed him. Then his son said to him, ‘Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and you. I don’t deserve to be called your son anymore.’

“The father said to his servants, ‘Hurry! Bring out the best robe, and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let’s celebrate with a feast. My son was dead and has come back to life. He was lost but has been found.’ Then they began to celebrate.

“His older son was in the field. As he was coming back to the house, he heard music and dancing. He called to one of the servants and asked what was happening.

“The servant told him, ‘Your brother has come home. So your father has killed the fattened calf to celebrate your brother’s safe return.’

“Then the older son became angry and wouldn’t go into the house. His father came out and begged him to come in. But he answered his father, ‘All these years I’ve worked like a slave for you. I’ve never disobeyed one of your commands. Yet, you’ve never given me so much as a little goat for a celebration with my friends. But this son of yours spent your money on prostitutes, and when he came home, you killed the fattened calf for him.’

“His father said to him, ‘My child, you’re always with me. Everything I have is yours. But we have something to celebrate, something to be happy about. This brother of yours was dead but has come back to life. He was lost but has been found.'” (Luke 15:11-32, GW)

Just about everybody likes to criticize the older son in the parable of the prodigal.  Everyone likes to point out how arrogant he is, what a hypocrite.

But have you ever had someone throw a party for somebody you hate, somebody you really hate, and then be asked to attend?

There is something very dark in us that begins, it seems, just about as soon as we can think.  It’s called wanting others to get in trouble (even for the stuff we’ve done).

I have been late more times than I can count.  And  yet, if I’m on time one day, and someone else comes in late, I share in that happiness of giving that person a disapproving glance.  Now how does that work?

All of us, all of us sin, except for Jesus Christ.  Yet when our sin is quieter, or when our sin isn’t out in the open, we want them to pay and us to go free.

It’s interesting that the younger son didn’t actually do anything to his brother.  Rather, the brother is offended by his father’s forgiveness of what the prodigal did to his father.

But I think there’s more than just that.  The brother wants to hate him, because, in our sinful state, sometimes it feels really good to hate people.  In fact, it can distract us from hating ourselves.  The brother thinks that, compared to the prodigal, he’s got it made in the shade.  He probably figures he has made a grade of somewhere between a A- and C- with his father, but the prodigal–well!  He has a clear F.  By hating the prodigal, the older son can feel loved–or so he thinks.

This whole theory is ruined by the father, who immediately forgives the younger son and celebrates him.  Now the brother feels really insecure, because not only was the prodigal forgiven, but he was given a gift the brother never was.  Does that mean the younger son is actually the most loved?

Now, what makes matters even worse for the brother is that the father invites him to the party.  And that brings me to a question: have I ever had someone throw a party for somebody I hate, somebody I really hate, and then be asked to attend?

Truth be told, I can relate more to the brother than the prodigal.  I wish that wasn’t true.  There is something way more special sounding about being the younger son.  After all, he gets the party.  When I read this parable, I often find this arrogant growl in me, like a dog with its fur rubbed the wrong way, and I think, How dare God–how dare He do that for the younger son and not the older!  The older stayed on the farm!

But you know what I think all this stems from, what this really stems from (and I may be wrong)?  I don’t think at its core this goes back to hypocrisy.  I think the older brother gets a bum rap because it’s usually really easy and comfortable for us to make fun of hypocrites (even though we are all hypocrites, because we all sin and we all to one degree or another judge sin).

I don’t think at the heart this is about hypocrisy, although there is definitely the side effect of severe hypocrisy.  But at its roots, I think it goes back to a deep fear we have that God shows favoritism, and I think, even deeper, it hits at the core of something very selfish and very ugly inside me that wants to make sure God loves me more than anyone else.

This is a mortally dangerous fear.  This fear might have been part of the reason the Pharisees rejected Jesus.  They didn’t want Jesus to stand in the way of them getting their love from God.

Back to the parable, this parable that Jesus told strikes the heart of jealousy and disunity and probably most hatred (I think of Cain and Able).  Every time I have talked about this parable, I have talked about the prodigal son.  But what does prodigal mean?  I thought it might mean “wayward”, or “bad”, but when I looked it up on, I found out it actually means somebody who spends a lot of money extravagantly.

Calling Jesus’ parable “The Prodigal Son” only tells part of the story.

Maybe we should call His story something more like, “The Prodigal Son and the Jealous Son”.

Both the sons have problems.  But as no one would ever have guessed, but Jesus reveals, the one who stayed at home and pretended to respect his father actually had way more issues than the one who left.

Interestingly enough, both of the sons have problems believing in their father’s love.  The prodigal son believes his father will take him back as a hired hand–that seems reasonable after what he’s done.  He way underestimates his father’s love.

But the jealous son is worse off.  I don’t think he really believes his father loves him at all.  And because of that, he wants to spite his brother by setting limits on his father’s love.  I think he stays outside of the party deliberately to try to get his father to “pick sides”.  I think he is trying to manipulate his father into setting limits on the love he shows the prodigal son.

It doesn’t work, and he goes down in history as the hypocrite, the one who’s easily hated by most listeners.  But you know what’s incredibly intriguing about the jealous son?

The father doesn’t hate him.

At the end of the story, the father doesn’t shut the door on him, or take away his inheritance, or cast him out of the family farm.  The story ends, as a matter of fact, with the father standing outside with him.

The father says, “Everything I have is yours.”

Yet, it doesn’t look very much like the jealous son is going to take it.

Here is the terrible irony: the prodigal son loses his inheritance and is taken back into his father’s love. . but the jealous son, at the end of the parable . . never even takes his inheritance . . . or his father’s love.

There’s a lot of jealousy in me towards the prodigal son, until I realize that the father in the story is offering the very same thing to both children: his love.  Just like God offers the same thing to us, all of us, whoever we are.

See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. (1 John 3:1, NLT)

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35, NIV)

God does not play favorites. (Romans 2:11, NIV)


Credits go to John MacArthur’s booklet Grace for You, which got this whole new way of thinking about the older son started in my head.