Text: Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most famous parables in the entire Bible. It depicts the destructive nature of sin, the love of God the Father, and the joy of reconciliation. There’s even a connection to Easter, as on two occasions the Father in the parable says, “my son was dead and is alive again.” I would like to spend three weeks on this parable, looking at each of the three main characters. There is the prodigal son, who must wander before he can turn back to repentance. He is the most famous. But there are also two more characters in the story, and perhaps they are actually more important. There’s the older brother, the legalist who resents grace. He’s bitter when he sees mercy shown to others. And then there is the father, the picture of God our Father, who loves it when lost sons are found. Both make the main point clear, “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.” To this we can add the words of our Lord, “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”
This morning I would like to start with least-thought of character in this parable but the one whom I think is actually the primary character in the original telling of this parable. I’m talking about the older brother. As we will see, Jesus intends for this character to be the one who stands out the most, and He intends for him to be the one who convicts religious people, people who have a high view of their own righteousness, of their failure to appreciate grace. The older brother is the ultimate Pharisee, and his failure to rejoice in the face of redemption shows his failure to understand the love of God.
The Older Brother
The older brother is often treated as only a minor character this parable. Sometimes he isn’t even treated at all! Too often we only ever talk about the Prodigal and the father. But if we look back to Luke 15, we can see that the older brother is immensely important. Jesus actually tells three parables in a short amount of space. The first is the lost sheep. The second is the lost coin. This third one, the lost son, repeats the big idea of the first two, but it adds another element, something new. The new thing that it adds is precisely the older brother. It contrasts the joy of finding what was lost with the resentment of the older brother who does not have this joy. He only has judgment.
Also, if you consider the arrangement of the verses in the parable of the Prodigal Son, you can see the importance of the older brother. It’s true that he appears in less than half of the verses, but, nevertheless, the final seven are devoted to him. The end of the parable is where the full punch of the teaching is delivered. And so the older brother is very important. We shouldn’t miss him.
What was the older brother’s problem? To put it simply, he was jealous, and the news of the salvation of his brother made him angry rather than joyful. Listen to these verses:
Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.” But he was angry and would not go in. (Luke 15:25-28)
Why is he angry? We are told in the following verses:
But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, “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. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.” (28-30)
There you have it. The older brother was angry precisely because he was the good son, he was the son who did what he was supposed to, and yet it’s the knucklehead brother who is getting all of the attention. While it is easy to read this in such a way to treat the older brother like an obvious jerk, I would encourage you to be a little more realistic. His complaint makes a certain kind of sense, and I suspect that many of us could say something very similar if we were in his shoes.
I’m sure that the younger brother had caused his older brother a lot of grief over the years. There was the initial insult and shock of his leaving. Any of the reports of his lifestyle while he was gone would have shamed the family. The older brother probably felt a great burden to be “the good one” and relieve some of the guilt and pressure from his father. I’m sure that he had grown to despise his kid brother. So now when the brother comes back, the older brother is in no mood to celebrate. This is a very human portrait, and it’s something that many of us could sympathize with in real life. And yet this is the wrong reaction. It comes from its own sin, and, as we will see, Jesus is directly condemning it.
The Parable in Context
To really highlight what Jesus is doing with the character of the older brother, I want you to go back to the very first verses of Luke 15. They set the context for all that follows. Luke explains:
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” (vs. 1-2)
A complaint was being laid against Jesus because of the kinds of people with whom He would associate. The Pharisees were saying that Jesus ought not eat with such people. This is what prompts the three parables. “So He spoke this parable to them…” (vs. 3).
What’s also interesting is that Luke does not say that Jesus spoke three parables. In a way he did. There’s the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and then the parable of the lost son. But Luke doesn’t actually separate them and call them three parables. He seems to call them one parable. “So He spoke this parable to them…” After the first parable, then Luke just has the conjunction “or” leading into the second (vs. 8). And then again, he connects the third by simply saying, “Then he said” (vs. 11). The three parables are really just one large parable, and they are all in response to the Pharisees complaint against Jesus.
So let’s try to match the characters of the Prodigal Son to the real-life people of Jesus’ day. It seems clear who the Prodigal is. He matches the tax collectors and sinners. Who is the Father? That would be Jesus, the one who receives the sinners and eats with them, rejoicing in their salvation. So that leaves the third character, the older brother. The Pharisees match him. Instead of rejoicing with Jesus over the fact that “what was lost is now found,” they are complaining. Why aren’t they being congratulated for their holiness? Why should the sinners be welcomed in joy? This isn’t fair. The wrong should be punished. Grace should not be free. And they shouldn’t have to stand by and put up with such an insult! Their reaction shows that they don’t understand the love of God.
Legalism Produces Bitterness
Jesus corrects the Pharisees with His parables. “ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (vs. 7). They are wrong. Jesus is right. Jesus is right because the angels in heaven and even God Himself love it when sinners repent and come to Him. Salvation by grace is better than people who are already righteous staying that way. They should rejoice with Jesus. Notice again how the text puts it, “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” (vs. 32). And so if it was “right” to make merry and be glad, then it was wrong to be angry about it.
Here we see what legalism does to a person. It takes away joy. It makes them a prude and a prig. They cannot rejoice. And eventually they cannot be happy. Everything in life is simply debt, duty, and payment. And this makes life fragile. Everything is always just about to break. Without grace there can be trust and no confidence. And that’s a miserable life to live.
Bitterness is also soul-endangering. Precisely because it causes one to be angry at grace, bitterness can make your heart hard. Listen to these other passages from the New Testament:
But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. (James 3:14-16)
Notice that bitterness is connected to envy and selfishness, and it causes a whole host of other sins to grow. And then Hebrews 12 states:
Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears. (Heb. 12:14-17)
There we are told that bitterness can make it impossible to repent, even if you think you want to do what’s right. Make no mistake about it, hard-hearted legalism can send you to Hell.
The parable leaves the older brother without a conclusion. Will he change? This is because Jesus is trying to get the Pharisees to change. He wants them to feel the conviction for themselves which the older brother naturally draws from the audience of the parable. The Pharisees are the older brother. They are him. And so what should he do? Whatever the answer is, that is what the Pharisees should do.
I’ve actually preached some variation of this sermon three times in my career, and each time in the past there have been people who were offended and thought that I was singling them out, trying to make a point about their own life and a conflict that they had perhaps resolved wrongly. So let me go ahead and get this out of the way. Let me clear up any misunderstanding. I am most certainly talking about you. I am talking about every one of you—every one of us—who have become the older brother because of our sin. If we have hard hearts, bitter hearts due to legalism and resentment, then we need to repent. If we cannot rejoice over the salvation of sinners—real sinners who have done us wrong, and if we cannot want to see them saved even before they make it up to us, then we need to repent.
Ask yourselves, are you the older brother? If so, then what should you do? You should do the same thing that he should have done, the same thing that Jesus wanted the Pharisees to do. You should first see the love of God and its totally gracious character, you should repent of your self-righteousness, and you should rejoice over salvation. It is right that we should make merry and be glad, because what was dead is alive again, what was lost is found. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And Jesus Christ rose from the dead that we too could be resurrected and that we too could be restored and made friends with God. So, let us make merry and be glad. Rejoice and give thanks.
Let us pray.