The parable of the prodigal son shows a forgiving father receiving his lost son back into the family. The older son was not so forgiving. What would we have done?
One of the longest parables recounted in the Gospels is the parable of the prodigal son found in Luke 15. The word prodigal (found in verse 13 of the New King James Version) is translated from a Greek word meaning wildly extravagant and indulgent. But more recent translations, such as the New King James Version, use the word lost in the subtitle to the parable to describe the son’s moral condition.
Our article “The Prodigal Son: A Parable With Overlooked Meaning” focuses on Jesus Christ’s call to repentance and God the Father’s incredible ability to forgive our sins. This article, on the other hand, considers the lessons for all of us when we contrast the older brother’s bitterness with his father’s mercy.
The setting of the parable
Prior to looking at the parable itself, we need to understand the context.
Some of those who were following Jesus were already dedicated disciples, but others were undecided. So Jesus challenged them. He explained that to become disciples, they had to be willing to love, commit to and follow Him above anything else.
He began with two analogies to illustrate the level of commitment we must have to finish our spiritual training. The first analogy describes how a builder must make sure he has the finances to build a tower, and the other shows how a king must evaluate whether his army is strong enough to go to war (Luke 14:28-32).
Verse 33 gives the level of commitment needed—total dedication to the cause.
Parables on repentance and forgiveness
The next chapter begins by mentioning deep cultural divisions within Jesus’ audience (Luke 15:1-2). Sinners and tax collectors were despised by the elite of society, yet they were the primary ones to gather around Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes—leaders in the community and teachers of the law—seemed to keep their distance as they criticized Jesus for mixing with these sinners.
Jesus Christ calls these leaders hypocrites (Greek for “play actors”). They look good on the outside, but “inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence” and self-righteousness (Matthew 23:25). His message to them was “first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also” (verse 26). This would mean truly turning to God the Father in repentance.
Luke 15 first gives the parable of the lost sheep (verses 4-7) and then provides the parable of the lost coin (verses 8-10). Both show the importance of Christ’s call to “repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Angels in heaven are overjoyed to see the change in a person who is coming to repentance (Luke 15:7, 10). God the Father, too, is happy and willing to accept those who repent. He is a forgiving Father!
He wants us to be forgiving. In the model prayer Jesus encourages us to call upon our Father, saying, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).And He wants us to be forgiving. In the model prayer Jesus encourages us to call upon our Father, saying, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
So, understanding this context can help us to see the failings of the older brother in the next parable, the parable of the lost son. After all, the lessons Jesus was conveying not only applied to the Pharisees and scribes, but also to us today.
Dividing the inheritance
Luke 15:11-32 focuses on a father and his two sons, and the relationships between them. The parallel between the two sons and the two groups of listeners becomes clear as the story draws to a conclusion.
The younger son wanted to leave home and go to another land. He needed cash to move out, and so asked for the goods that fell to him. These normally would have been bestowed upon him at the time of his father’s death. But his father obliged and gave him his inheritance early. We read in verse 13 that the younger son soon “wasted his possessions with prodigal living”—a wild lifestyle.
The younger son’s attitude toward both his inheritance and his father showed a lack of maturity and wisdom, but he learned a huge lesson through the experiences that followed and finally returned home humble and repentant (verses 14-19). The father was so overjoyed when he saw his son return that he kissed him and made a sumptuous feast for him (verses 20-24).
The older son
The older son, however, was not pleased. Though all the remaining wealth of his father would be his (verse 31), he was angry that his father showed mercy to his brother, but had never given him what his brother received. In verse 29 he says, “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.”
The older son did not understand his compassionate father, just as the scribes and Pharisees—who maintained a righteous facade—did not understand Jesus and the Father, who had compassion for “sinners and tax collectors.”
And the elder brother showed no compassion for his younger sibling. Even before meeting him, the older son accused his younger brother of having “devoured your [his father’s] livelihood with harlots” (verse 30).
The father reminded the oldest son that he still had his inheritance. And the father made it clear that though the younger brother had squandered his portion of the family’s resources, he was to be accepted back as a member of the family (verse 32).
Like the older brother, the Pharisees and scribes acted as if they had never disobeyed the law and were God’s agents to rule over Judah. Yet Christ pointed out many times how their interpretation of the law and additions to it actually caused people to break God’s law (see Mark 7:9-13, for example). They also wanted to act as spiritual policemen by building a body of dos and don’ts to keep others from sinning.
At the end of the parable, we are not told the result of the father’s discussion with the older brother. But those sitting around Jesus, and hopefully some of the scribes and Pharisees, may have perceived how His remarks applied to them.
God can show mercy and forgiveness to people from any background if they are repentant, as the lost son certainly was.
Lessons for us
Here are three points to learn from this parable—and specifically from the failings of the older brother—to help us become more like Jesus Christ:
- Prevention is better than cure.
James 5:19-20 encourages us to watch out for each other when one of us begins to go astray. “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
The parable does not indicate that the older brother tried to dissuade his brother from wasting much of his life and his inheritance. But we should try—without being domineering or self-righteous—to help others avoid pitfalls that could lead them to lose their inheritance. Gentle correction can be effective when a trusting and considerate relationship is already present.
- Christians who threw in the towel may yet return to the fold.
Galatians 6:1-2 shows how we, as Christians, should be concerned about our spiritual brothers and sisters: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
The older brother focused on how his brother had brought disrepute on the family name. Perhaps we have seen people leave our church family to live life in this world. What do we think of them? If they came back, how would we receive them? Would we be harsh and unforgiving toward them as the older brother was? Or will we welcome them back?
- Our relationship with our Father is enriched through gratitude.
At one point both brothers failed to see themselves as beneficiaries of their father’s generosity, warmth and compassion. We’re told in 2 Corinthians 9:10-11 that God is the One who gives to us and helps us grow in righteousness, so that we can be “enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God.”
It appears that the older son felt he had experienced a hard life, with little benefit or reward. He didn’t see much, if anything, to be thankful for.
We need to maintain a loving relationship with our Father, appreciating especially how He has given us the life and example of His Son. This affects how we react to some of the difficult pressures and trials we have to face. If we accept God’s calling and become converted, our reward is waiting for us, and it is far greater than any expectations we may have for our human lives.
John 10:10-11 shows that Christ, “the good shepherd,” wants to give us an abundant life, and He has sacrificed Himself for us: “The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” We can be eternally grateful for such incredible gifts!
Christians and nonbelievers
The older son in the parable had a self-righteous outlook, and he couldn’t understand how his father could accept his reprobate, wasteful brother back, and even celebrate his return.
What about our outlook on those God will call to the marriage supper at the very end of this age, people from the highways and byways (Matthew 22:9-10)?
These may be individuals who have little knowledge of the Bible, or who come from an unsavory background. Longtime Christians who have “borne the burden and the heat of the day” (Matthew 20:12) may find it difficult to understand how God could be calling these people. But He will.
The older son also prejudged his brother—assuming he was unrepentant—without talking to him about his experiences in the foreign land and his reason for returning home. As Christians, we cannot afford to prejudge people we meet. Many we work with observe pagan practices and may have a very different worldview than we have. What is our daily attitude and conversation with them like? Are we like Christ, who was willing to sit and eat with “sinners and tax collectors”? God wants all sinners to repent and is delighted when they do. We should have the same mind-set as God and not assume that people will be unrepentant when they come to understand that they have not followed God’s instructions.
The attitude God wants
The difference in attitudes between the two sons, brought out by how the older son related to the lost son, is well illustrated by another of Christ’s parables.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’
“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14).
We need to have the humility of the repentant tax collector and the lost brother returning to his father. God works with us if we have this approach (1 Peter 5:5-7). We also must avoid the unforgiving, self-righteous attitude of the older brother. Instead, we should take our cue from our forgiving and caring Father.