by Ted E. Bowling
Luke 15 opens with a hostile group of Pharisees and scribes confronting and criticizing Jesus Christ for receiving and eating with sinners. As He often does, Jesus does not respond directly to their criticisms but instead tells three parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. With the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus establishes the value of retrieving one lost sheep (symbolic of a sinner), even to the point of leaving ninety-nine others to search for it. He builds on this point with the next story, the Parable of the Lost Coin, by showing the effort a person naturally exerts when searching for a lost coin and the appropriate enthusiasm displayed upon finding it. Finally, He completes His lesson with the telling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, by describing a father’s joy upon the return of his wayward and reckless son.
There are three commonalities among these parables.
» Something valuable is lost.
» Then it is found.
» A joyful celebration follows.
Taken together, these three “lost and found” parables demonstrate not only the value of a saved life—even that of a sinner—but also the merciful and forgiving nature of God. However, the last parable in the sequence, the Prodigal Son, does not end with the celebration of the return of the one who is lost. Instead, at that point, another major character is introduced, the elder brother, and with his story, another pointed lesson for the scribes and Pharisees—and especially for us.
The narrative of this parable begins in Luke 15:11-13:
Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.”
Here we witness the prodigal son, driven by excessive pride, heading down a dangerous path away from the security of life at home with his father. Not only did he display a foolhardy lack of patience, but in that time, to demand an inheritance early was considered an act of disrespect toward one’s father. It was as if he were saying, “Father, I wish you were already dead.” However, despite his son’s insolence, the father showed no anger and gave the boy what he had demanded.
Sin’s Inescapable Consequences
Sometime after that, perhaps years later, the young man was forced to accept a demeaning job, feeding and caring for swine, in order to survive. He had sinned against his father and was beginning to pay the price. However, verses 17-19 indicate he had begun awakening to the reality of his sinful actions and their rightful consequences. In short, he is ready to repent.
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’”
It is important to note that the prodigal son did not escape the consequences of his actions—he had sinned against God—but God humbled him and opened his eyes. Then verse 20 indicates how willing his father—representing God—was to forgive and show compassion even before the son had the chance to utter the words that he had prepared to tell him. God, we learn, looks upon the heart.
A More Significant Lesson
Verses 22-24 detail the father’s desire to celebrate the return of his son with a grand feast, upbeat music, and considerable merriment. For many readers, the parable essentially ends here. However, the remainder of the passage, verses 25-32, holds what can be considered an even more significant lesson to His spiritual brethren from our Savior.
At this point, Jesus forces us to consider the story of the prodigal son’s elder brother:
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. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. (Luke 15:25-28)
The elder brother did not feel like joining his father’s celebration. We can imagine that he was likely full of resentment that had built up over the years of his little brother’s absence. The elder brother may have had to shoulder more of the work around the farm. What is more, his brother’s reckless behavior probably tarnished the family name and caused both his father and himself anguish and pain, as they likely wondered if they were ever to see him again.
Pride, the Source of Resentment
Perhaps the greatest source of resentment is exposed in verses 29-30, when the elder son responds to his father’s pleadings:
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.”
It is noteworthy that the elder brother refers to himself five times in verse 29. However, considering the circumstances, it is easy to understand his frustration. He felt betrayed, disrespected, unappreciated, and perhaps even unloved. He had likely just finished another hard day’s work, made harder for all these years by his little brother’s absence. He was not in a forgiving mood, nor was he ready to accept—much less celebrate—his little brother’s return to the family. He had long since declared, “I am done with him!”
Ignorant of all the facts of his younger brother’s difficulties, leading to his repentance and return, the older brother reacted with typical, carnal emotion. Instead of trusting his father, his emotional outburst, fueled by the same pride that had nearly destroyed his younger brother, led him also to sin against his father. In his anger and self-pity, he lost sight of what was truly important. In addition, he failed to recognize the futility of trying to change or control what others do. Therefore, he also failed to control what he did have power over—his attitude and response.
The lesson here is not unlike what is related in Genesis 4. Cain allowed his pride to fuel great resentment against his righteous brother, Abel. This pride transformed Cain into a miserable murderer. However, we should keep in mind that even without murdering someone, unchecked resentment can also inspire harsh words that have deathly power. Proverbs 18:21 admonishes us, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
It is helpful to compare the elder brother’s attitude to that of the Pharisees and scribes, since Christ was aiming this parable directly at them. Just like these Jewish religious leaders, the elder brother was living and judging by the letter of the law, not by its spirit. By all appearances, the elder brother was righteous, but inside, where a person’s character forms, he was teeming with hypocrisy and sin.
A Lesson from the Father
What can we learn from the father in this story? After all, if anyone was wronged in this parable, it was the two young men’s loving father. Instead of reacting with the bitter hatred, envy, and self-centeredness of his elder son, he handled the situation with love, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. His wise words to his elder son in verses 31-32 help to put everything in its proper perspective:
And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 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.”
In essence, the father tells his offended son, “Don’t be so short-sighted, lest you become as greedy and foolish as your little brother. All that we have here is yours, so keep your eyes on the bigger picture and the greater reward.”
We all long to feel appreciated—to receive our “fatted calf”—particularly if we strive to sacrifice and work hard in service to others. But we should never lose sight of the fact that the purpose of our faithful service is not for a pat on the back or the approval of others. Otherwise, we are no different from the Pharisees who did their works before men and thus, as Christ declared, “Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Matthew 6:2).
In summation, the Parable of the Prodigal Son contains two important stories and a handful of invaluable lessons for practicing Christians:
» God is our only Judge, and He looks on the heart.
» Our sins have consequences.
» We should always be ready and willing to forgive any grievance as God does—unconditionally—and to seek reconciliation.
» Our walk should be defined by the spirit, not just the letter, of the law.
While both sons’ sinful attitudes and actions brought dishonor upon the father, his willingness to forgive them both provided hope for all, just as our merciful Father in heaven provides for each of us. While the narrative ends without revealing what happened to the two brothers, it is worthwhile to imagine that they reconciled—that they healed their relationship and restored honor to the family name.
Because there is hope for reconciliation, we should pray for it—even expect it! Never give up on God. Those who are loyal and faithful and endure to the end will, one day, receive the greatest thanks and exaltation that measure far beyond our ability to envision. For Jesus Christ Himself will welcome those into His Kingdom with a resounding, “Well done, good and faithful servant . . . Enter into the joy of your lord” (Matthew 25:21).