There is another character in this story—the elder son—who is often given scant attention in the telling of this tale, which is a pity because there are as many lessons to be learned from him as from his younger brother. Jesus was trying to make the Pharisees understand that he was a representation of them, but most of them didn’t seem to get the point. Let’s hope we do.
The parable retold again
Imagine, if you will, that you have a younger brother, who for some strange reason is beloved of your father. You never could understand this because you were the one who was always respectful and responsible, while he was carefree and wild. You resented him for the attention he received, but even more so because there was a part of you that wished could be like him.
One day this younger brother suddenly gets it in his head to “find himself” (or some equally asinine thing) and takes off with nearly half the family fortune in tow. Nothing is heard from him for years although from time to time you would hear some disquieting rumors that made you squirm in embarrassment at the shame he was bringing the family.
Then, many years later, as you are working in the field, you hear the sound of merriment coming from the house. Curiously, you approach the house and spotting a servant, ask him what was happening. “Oh, don’t you know?” the servant responds. “Your younger brother is back and your father is throwing a party. He has even killed the fatted calf for him.”
You freeze, then feel the cold chill of anger sweep through your body. “How can this be? What justice is this? Instead of being punished, as he deserves, he is being feted!” You tremble, then begin to shake as the rage overpowers you. You see your father coming out with a big smile of happiness on his face. “Come in, come in,” he says. “Your brother is back.”
It is perhaps that smile of happiness that tips you over the edge, and although you have never so much as raised your voice at your father before, you now raise a finger. “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” This is what the boy said quoted word for word from Scripture (Luke 15:29-30).
The elder son was outraged and to any sensible person such outrage is probably justified. How could you possibly reward somebody who has proved himself to be such a wastrel while denying proper reward to somebody who so obviously deserved it? The elder son had been obedient, loyal, dutiful, faithful, hardworking and respectable. And, yet, the younger son who had disgraced himself and the family was getting a party thrown for him! Where was the justice in this?
The elder son didn’t understand—as many of us don’t—two vital facts: One, he didn’t understand his identity; who he truly was in relation to his father. Two, he didn’t understand his father and the tremendous love and compassion he had for his children. The elder son thought of himself as a slave who was required to obey what was asked of him, and saw his father as somebody he had to serve in order to be rewarded!
This is a mind set that many of us have developed from years of conditioning that hard work is rewarded while shoddy work is punished. It is a belief system that we have extended to the spiritual as well, but heaven follows a totally different system that is based on grace, not merit. The reason for this is because we can’t earn our way into heaven!
The Pharisees thought they could. They believed that obeying the law would get them into heaven, and therefore followed it to the letter, not realizing that the purpose of the law was not to get us into heaven—it couldn’t—but to show us our sinfulness and the subsequent need for a savior. The Pharisees didn’t get it. They thought that just because they didn’t kill anyone or sleep with someone else’s wife they were perfect. Consequently, they put up a great show in public about how holy they were, and reinforced this self-righteousness by looking down upon everybody else as “sinners”.
This is why Jesus had to constantly rebuke them, trying to strip them of their self-righteousness. Jesus scolded them: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).
And then: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27).
The Pharisees got angry at what Jesus said. The elder brother in this story represented them and mirrored that anger. See how, in his anger, he reveals his total lack of understanding. “All these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command,” he says. And then he goes on, the real reasons for his outrage surfacing. “Yet, you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
One can imagine the sadness the father felt at the paucity of love in his elder son’s heart for his brother, distancing himself from his own sonship by referring to him as “this son of yours”, and his frustration at the complete lack of comprehension his elder son had of his father’s extraordinary act of grace. But for those who put confidence in their own efforts, grace is an alien concept.
One can also imagine him wanting to grab the boy by the shoulders and shake him, crying, “You foolish boy! What’s the matter with you? You have lived with me all your life and you never realized who you were! You never understood your identity. You are my son. My son! Everything that I have, everything that I own belongs to you! Why are you moaning about me giving you a goat when you could have had anything you wanted—a calf, a cow, a bull—any time you wanted! The whole farm belongs to you! But you never understood that because you never understood me. You never understood my love. You believed it had to be earned when it was there for free! Do you understand? For free!”
Instead, the father said quietly, “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).
Even while assuring his elder son that his inheritance was secure, his father tries to get him to realize that this is a matter of relationship, not of being right. This is a matter of grace, not of law. And, ultimately, this is a matter of love and forgiveness, not of punishment.
Still addressing himself to the Pharisees, Jesus was trying to show them how much like the elder son they were, living by the letter of the law, but with the spirit of the law far from their hearts, believing that if they followed the rules they would be able to earn their reward. (And they had rules for everything, which we will look at as we progress through this series).
Jesus had berated them before on the subject: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).
The Pharisees Today
So many Christians today live the same way. Many of us have never left home to travel to distant lands. We have remained in the faith, saying our prayers and going for mass faithfully over the years. We have not despised our inheritance. We have not strayed to any great extent. We have not engaged in wild living. Yet our lives are characterized by the same things that marked the elder son in our story. We are filled with anger, resentment, bitterness and jealousy. And so little love.
We, also, are so particular about following rules. We know that Christ has secured our salvation, but we still feel that we need to earn our place at the banquet table. And when we see those we don’t believe deserve to be there feasting, we feel outraged. And in our outrage, we do what the younger son did in the beginning: break the father’s heart!
The parable of the lost son is not just about one lost son. The elder son was lost too. He was not physically cut off from his father like his younger brother was, which perhaps made it very difficult for him to realize this truth, but spiritually he was just as separated, if not more. Many of us who call ourselves Christians are lost as well. So what happens to us? What happens to the elder son? Does he go in? Jesus doesn’t tell us. But I believe each of us writes our own ending to this story. We can remain out in the cold, alone and isolated, resentful of those who are inside the house, partaking in the feast. Or we can go inside the house where it is warm and cosy and join them in a great celebration. The choice is ours.