A good friend of mine who used to be a devout high church Anglican stopped going to church many years ago.

He considers himself an agnostic. One of the main stumbling blocks in a potential return to church for him is the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11:32).

For many years, my friend was the older brother in the parable. He has a younger sibling with issues, not unlike the lost son in the parable. My friend was the chap who did the ‘heavy lifting’ in the family, so to speak, and got nothing but criticism from his surviving parent, now deceased. To make matters worse, that parent often levied the Parable of the Prodigal Son against him. That hurt him deeply, especially as he is highly responsible and ethically minded.

I said I would see if I could find anything positive to say about the older brother in the parable.

Sadly, I spent the better part of an afternoon looking. There is nothing. The older brother is a bad guy.

This was the most empathetic post I could find (emphases mine, except for the second paragraph):

As a hyper-responsible oldest child, I identify with the elder son. Remember him? Most commentaries and sermons pay scant attention to his role in the narrative. Even though the Bible itself does not give the story a title, tradition calls it the parable of the Prodigal Son, not the parable of the Dutiful Son or even the parable of the Two Brothers. Yet the younger son’s antics constitute only the first half of the tale. The rest of the story is about the older son, the one who stays on the farm with his father, tending the cows and threshing wheat while his no-good brother is off whoring god-knows-where. The elder brother has always done what he was supposed to do. He has played by the rules, obeyed his father, and worked himself to the bone.

No wonder he raises hell when the reprobate shows up one day seeking to get back into the father’s good graces. We dutiful older sons know it’s just not fair. What’s the point of always doing what you’re supposed to do if it doesn’t earn you a few advantages? When the prodigal’s father decides to throw a homecoming bash for his lost son, my heart goes out to the elder brother. I am furious with his father. The older son gets no party, no fatted calves, no ruby rings. Instead, dad comes outside with a few words for his sulking son: “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15: 31-32).

And that’s where the story ends. Jesus doesn’t tell us what happens next. It might be nice to imagine that the father’s words console the elder brother and convince him to join the party, but I don’t think so. The little speech is pretty lame. It reflects a father’s point of view, not that of a dutiful son. Do our parents really expect us to love our siblings as much as they do? It is easy for me to imagine the elder’s anguish stretching into weeks, months, and maybe years, renewed every time he sees his worthless brother strutting around in his new robe and flashing his fancy ring.

However, that, too, ends with a call for the hyper-responsible to be more forgiving of the prodigal — wasteful — sibling. It is the correct conclusion, but still does not assuage the resentment of hyper-responsible people shoved aside for their feckless brothers and sisters.

My friend and I understand the spiritual meaning behind the parable, but that does not make the usual application of it — by insensitive parents — any easier to handle.

A Presbyterian minister also understands:

The father’s love in this parable is indeed “prodigal”–extravagant, lavish, profuse. Most of us Presbyterians and other Reformed types have a hard time with extravagance and prodigality–even if we’re talking about love and forgiveness. We trust moderation, decency and order, being good and following the rules. How could someone who has broken the rules to the degree that this younger son did be showered with such love and extravagant gifts? This parable is as much a challenge to us as it was to those who heard it for the first time …

This parable is such a challenge to us, because most us identify with the older brother. We try to live good, faithful lives

Ultimately, however, the point of the story for the faithful is that our reward lies in heaven and always has done. That is our inheritance. Furthermore:

fairness has very little to do with the gospel. The gospel is about prodigal, extravagant love and forgiveness and welcoming people home. The gospel is about grace, not about getting our just desserts. Even though the elder brother has been with the father all these years, he has never understood what he had. In his own way, he’s been just as cut off from the father as the younger son was. The father says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Remember-the father had divided the estate already, all that is left is the elder son’s share. He has had all along what his brother left behind. But the elder brother has never understood what he had. He hasn’t enjoyed life as a son, but refers to himself as slaving away the years of his life, diligently following the rules. He’s been a good person, but he missed out on the relationship, the abundance, and the joy of being part of the family. “We had to celebrate and rejoice,” the father says, “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Note the father’s choice of words, “this brother of yours.” The elder brother has distanced himself from his family, he doesn’t greet his father as “father,” he just begins with a harsh, “Listen!” And he refers to his brother as “this son of yours.” Kind of like parents when a child has transgressed, “listen to what your daughter did!” But the father pointedly says back to him, “This brother of yours has been found.” Though different as night and day, they are part of the same family, brothers, with a father who loves them both. That’s important to remember. The father doesn’t just love the younger brother who returns. Whether the older brother accepts it or not, the father loves him just as much. He leaves the party to plead with him to come in and join the celebration, join the family.

I’m going to address a few historical elements of this parable this week.

For now, in closing, it is apposite to put this lesson in context with Luke 15.

The chapter begins as follows:

15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus responds to the Pharisees and scribes with three parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Prodigal (sometimes ‘Lost’) Son.

Each of these concerns something lost which is later found, to much rejoicing.

With regard to the Lost Sheep, Jesus said (verse 7):

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Regarding the Lost Coin (verse 10):

Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

And the Prodigal Son (verse 32):

It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

These parables were meant to rebuke the religious leaders. Jesus came to associate with and save the lost — the sinners, the tax collectors — people whom the Jewish hierarchy would never think of approaching because they were less than zero in their self-righteous estimation. How many churchgoers feel the same way?

Unfortunately, none of this will persuade my friend — for now, at any rate. We’ve already had this discussion.

I will continue to pray for him that he comes to focus on the deeper meaning of this parable: God’s infinite mercy, Jesus’s humiliating sacrifice on the cross for us and His exhortations to us to forgive others as we entreat Him to forgive our sins.

Tomorrow: The Prodigal Son and public policy

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