“Son, you have always been with me and all that is mine is yours.” (Luke 15:31)
[Note: this is a rewrite of two articles I posted a while back because the Lord has given new revelation, and because it is so important in the times in which we live.}
The story of the Prodigal Son has always been a favorite topic of pastors and teachers. Most every time we hear this passage discussed, the younger son is made out to be the hero of the story, portrayed as a man of great faith for realizing his wicked ways, repenting, and returning to his father’s house. Also, as often as we hear it, the older brother is typically portrayed as the hard-hearted Pharisee, hypocrite, and whiner who just doesn’t understand grace. The truth is I, and I dare say most Christians who have been so for a while, should relate better, and strive to be more like, the older son than the younger. Let me here defend the older son in the face of far too much unfair criticism, and explain why the modern assessment of this parable, for both sons, is so predictable but so faulty.
As the story goes, both the prodigal and the older brother were equals. They were blood relatives and heirs of the father, but the younger decided to squander his inheritance through a life of rebellion. After he spent his fortune and was starving, he “came to his senses” and went back to the ranch. The older, meanwhile, decided to live a life of full obedience to his father, never leaving his side. Christian men are sons of their Heavenly Father and heirs of His kingdom. Yet, they are also sons of Adam, contain his sinful nature and are heirs of his fallen-ness. Both sons in this story displayed characteristics of their “first and last Adams,” as do all redeemed kingdom saints. But that is where the similarities end.
As sons of the first Adam men are inherently apathetic, abandoning, demanding, and rebellious. In our prodigal moments we oftentimes tell God we want to go squander our inheritance, and we strike out on our own. Being ever the loving and faithful One, He does as his counterpart in the story [the only true hero of it] and grants us free will while leaving the door open for our return. When prodigals go astray it is because they have embraced other lovers: the world, idols, their pride, other gods, etc. The younger son rebelled, selfishly and impatiently demanded his inheritance before it was due him, and went out and partook of many of these earthly desires. But did the older son?
The prodigal does finally realize the trap our sinful nature and the powers of darkness set for us. He “comes to his senses” [repentance, the door that grace always leaves open for prodigals], and he realizes how sweet his life was at home in the family with his father. To his credit, he does repent and return to his father’s house. Then the story shifts its focus to the older son, who was in the fields working [where Jesus commanded us all to be (Luke 10)] when the prodigal came home. After being informed a great feast was in the works because his selfish younger brother had returned, he became understandably upset. But then he decided to throw what amounted to a temper tantrum and refused to go back to the house to join in the festivities. Rather than understanding the celebration and joining in the father’s mercies, by welcoming his brother home, the first Adam let the trap his sinful nature and the powers of darkness set for us rule his thoughts. At this point, and only at this point, I agree with the popular assessment of the elder brother. He was temporarily unforgiving, judgmental, and wrong.
However, the father’s response to his sons in that moment reveals how he felt about both, and here is where I part company with modern teaching on this subject. The prodigal story is about more than just the less mature struggling to renew a relationship with his father. It’s also about how our Father feels about those more mature as He helps them understand their struggles with life. All things being equal, one would think the father would just let the elder son go on his way, as he did the younger when he first went astray. He was enjoying a great and joyous feast with his family and friends. Why worry about His elder son’s temper tantrum? He’d always stayed and served his father, and certainly the father knew he wasn’t going anywhere. Unlike the younger son, he had never shown a proclivity to bolt. When you think about it, wasn’t the younger son heading into far more perilous waters when he left? Shouldn’t the father have been far more concerned about his future than the elder son’s and pursued him beyond the gate?
Yet, while the father refused to pursue his prodigal when he sinned, his response to the elder son is entirely different. The story says when the younger son left, the father left him to his folly, and we see nothing about the father and him being rejoined until the son repents. However, upon hearing about his older son’s rebellion, the father immediately left the festivities with the younger son and pursued him! It is critical to note this difference! As important as the celebration was, an importance modern Christendom completely over-blows because of its dedication to conversion and ignorance of discipleship, the father’s priority was to leave the celebration of grace, no doubt seated by his younger son, to see to the Great Commission of “making disciples!” Here we see the making of a disciple takes priority even over that joy in heaven over the sinner that repents.
When the father catches up, the elder son makes a case for his years of faithful service and asks why his father had never thrown such a celebration on his behalf? His father responds, “My child, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. We had to be merry and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live. He was lost and has been found!” Even though the older son stumbled badly here, the father reassured him the two had always been together and everything the father owned was also his. What a perfect picture of Jesus and His children! Just as the younger son’s wanderings failed to change the father’s feelings concerning him, so also the older son’s wanderings failed to sway His affections. This elder brother was a trusted co-worker with his father, who just needed to be reminded of it. His position at his father’s side remained unchanged and assured.
The prodigal story reflects the fallen nature of both those Jesus calls friend, and those who hear in parables He calls slaves. As we have seen, when the prodigal left the father patiently waited for conviction to run its course. He did not pursue his wayward son, but rather waited for him to repent in both word and deed before welcoming him back. While the father was anxiously waiting his son’s return, as any parent would, he did not pursue him beyond “the gate” he had set up as the boundary between discipline and grace. Ah, but when the older son went astray the father came after him immediately! He pursued him, “pleading with him,” to explain his actions where the younger son was concerned. The older son was always welcome at the father’s table, no prodigal’s repentance required.
Jesus said to His disciples, “You are My friends, if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Because of his continual obedience and practice of earnest faith, good works, and trust, the father wanted him to know unquestionably where he stood. He explained fully what was confusing the elder son, because he was a friend to his father. This is the way Jesus always treated His disciples. As promised in John 15, He “explains Himself to them.”
Again, contrast this to the prodigal’s return, did the father explain his issues with the older son to the younger? No, for the younger son could not be called a friend at this point. The elder son, for all of his failings, had done what the father commanded of him over a lifetime of obedience. The younger had not. In keeping with the mandate of what it meant to be friends, note in the final line in this story the father portrays the elder son and himself as “we,” in addition to his earlier comment they had always been together. In that same line he refers to the returned prodigal as “this brother of yours.” The father and the elder son were as the branch that abided in the vine and vice-versa while the prodigal, who was perhaps on his way there, had not yet proven himself a true friend and they could not be referred to as “we.”
The question we must all answer is who we are in this story. If we are represented by the elder son, we need to be ever-aware of the Devil’s deceptions and temptations, even as we faithfully abide with our Lord. If, however, we must honestly admit we are represented by the younger son, perhaps it is time to stop acting like slaves, mature, and start striving to be friends of Jesus.