If we were to believe that the purpose of this parable was only to illustrate the attitude of the younger of the two brothers, we would be mistaken. The preconceived notion that only the babe of a family suffers from the syndrome of the ungrateful, unthankful and unsatisfied heart is a persistent idea within both society and family alike. If however, we were to look within our own hearts with honesty, there is a chance that we might find the bitter roots of ungratefulness there as well, growing in secret.
An ungrateful, or unthankful attitude concerning present circumstance oddly enough does not spring up due to a certain unmet need, or a lack, but rather from the foolhardy practice of comparing ourselves with others. Whether we compare ourselves to others in more limited circles such as family or church, or more broadly such as society or the workplace, the outcome is always the same, that feeling of dissatisfaction, of being unfulfilled, ungrateful for that which we have already been given, hungering for more.
We have helped create and perpetuate such a self-centered society, that most people imagine love to mean that every one of their faults will be overlooked, all their desires and wants summarily met, and that by right of birth in this country, they are entitled to respect and unconditional obedience by all. I could go off on a tangent here, and point out some painful truths concerning how we are viewed by the rest of the world, why other nations view us as such, and prove by out very actions and reactions that most of it is due to how we view ourselves. When one looks down upon a person, simply because they were born on a different continent, even though that person may be better educated, well versed and intelligent, it tends to birth a sense of dislike if not outright hatred in the hearts of those who were so readily dismissed.
It all goes back to that feeling of entitlement that so consumed the young son, wherein he believed himself wiser than his own father, more capable of mapping out his life’s journey than one who came before him, who had dealt with the same trials, seen the same pitfalls, and successfully evaded the same snares.
Now that we’ve discussed if only in broad terms the younger of the two brothers, his rebellion, his stint in the far country, the disappointments he faced there, and finally his return home, we would assume that by contrast the older sibling, the one who was content with living in his father’s house, would be portrayed in a far more favorable light. Surprisingly things are not as they seem, as we discover in the second half of the parable of the lost or prodigal son.
As long as his brother was away from home, his older sibling did not feel his absence. He used the circumstances to his own favor, polishing his own image, and garnering more favor for himself from their father. We see him wrapping himself contently in the illusion of his own self-righteousness, with no one to oppose or contradict him. Feet firmly planted upon his own pedestal, the older brother looked down upon his younger sibling, judging and condemning him in his absence. He finds virtue in himself, thereby justifying his elevated perception of his own works, if only in his own eyes. His comfort level however, would soon be shattered by the unforeseen. The image that man tries to project to others concerning himself may fool those around him, but only until the day of difficulty and crisis arises. Only in times of crisis does a man’s true character come to light.
Receiving the repentant young son back into his home after his journey to the far country, the father of the two had yanked the pedestal from underneath the older sibling’s feet, depriving him of his elevated status and object of comparison. The Pharisaical mindset of comparing oneself to others rather than the standard of God, had been deeply ingrained in the older sibling, and when the object of his scorn had been forgiven, shown grace, and embraced as a son once more, his true heart began to show.
The unanticipated twist, at least from the viewpoint of the older sibling, was that his brother had been restored to the status of son, even after his rebellion. No, he was no longer entitled to an inheritance, he had already squandered that which fell to him, but the older brother went into a frenzy at the thought that his sibling’s deeds could be forgiven and he could be restored.
In order to understand the true reason why Christ had told this parable, we must take it in the context of two previous parables He spoke, as well as who his intended audience was. The crowds that Jesus drew, were not the sophisticates, or the higher echelons of society, on the contrary the first verse of Luke 15 tells us that tax collectors and sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. This did not sit well with the Pharisees and scribes, and they murmured saying that Christ not only received sinners, but also ate with them. While the young son in the parable that would follow represented the tax collectors and sinners, the older son represented the Pharisees and the scribes.
As the Pharisees listened intently to the first two parables Christ uttered, the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin, they were pleased with His words, for He spoke of sinners, those who were lost and needed to be found. It was not their spiritual condition that Christ was rebuking, at least not yet, and this pleased the Pharisees.
One could only imagine the surprise on the faces of the Pharisees, a surprise that could in no way be anticipated given the context of the first part of the parable. They had to sit and listen until the end of the parable concerning the prodigal son, to realize that within this intricate masterpiece of oration, their own spiritual condition did not go overlooked.
While the father received his young son with open arms, forgiving the insults and rebellion, the same could not be said of his older brother. For the older sibling his brother’s return was not a reason for rejoicing, but one of mirth and sadness. Although by the father’s standards the prodigal son was welcomed back into his home, it was not so with his brother. Two surprises were in store for the younger brother upon his return to his father’s homestead. The first was that his father had received him with joy, restoring his status as a son publicly, and the second was his older brother’s rejection.
Christ’s piercing gaze made its way over the faces of His listening audience, a gaze that pierced the heart, as they felt the searing, saw the knowledge in His eyes, that although they were able to hide their inward sin from the eyes of mere mortals, they could not so readily hide them from the Son of God. Their hidden sins were indiscernible to the naked eye, for the naked eye only sees the flowing robes, and pious countenance, but the eye of God sees beyond the shell, sees beyond the robes, and knows the hearts of men.
The life of routine the older son had come to enjoy, doing all the right things, at all the right times, only needed to be shaken, for his true nature to come to light. One small crisis, and all the beautifully arranged cosmetics, all the illusion that men have so craftily fashioned, fall away and the true heart comes to the surface. The sins of the heart, the sins of attitude, invisible and unsuspected, materialize and manifest when provoked. Even a joyous occasion, a moment of happiness such as the restoration of the prodigal son, the return of his brother to the bosom of his father’s home, was enough of a reason to provoke an outburst of rage in the heart of the older brother.
The first sign of the mask slowly slipping from his face, the first action that could be directly attributed to his true nature, was that as he came in from the field, and drew near to the house, once having heard the music, and having been informed of his brother’s return, the older son refused to go in. It was as if he could not bear to be in the same room with his younger brother, could not risk contaminating himself, could not breathe the same air as one who had gone off into the far country. Love and mercy had never taken root in the older sibling’s heart. He lived the letter, not the spirit of his father’s teachings, and for this reason forgiveness was a foreign concept to him. All those inward sins came boiling to the surface, jealousy, envy, hatred, righteous, or self-righteous indignation, all of them creating a perfect storm in the older son’s heart, blinding him to the beauty of forgiveness, love’s power to restore, and the endurance of mercy and grace.
No longer able to control his rage, unable to forgive, the older brother also betrays an attitude of disrespect toward his own father. It had always been there, this attitude of impertinence, it just needed a catalyst, a reason to come to the surface and make itself known. Not only is he unable to forgive his repentant brother, he also finds fault with the best father in the world.
His words, dripping with disgust suggest that he no longer considered his younger sibling a brother, no longer viewed him as a relation. While the older son refers to his brother as ‘this son of yours’, the father does not hesitate to remind him that he still considers him his son, and so he must accept him as his brother.
Is it possible that some persons we have written off, persons we no longer consider brothers, might still be considered sons by the heavenly Father?
The Pharisee personifies a person who neither acknowledges or appreciates the treasures he has in Christ, and as a consequence lives a life of spiritual poverty, similar with a life of servitude as the older son states: ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I have never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.’
Even though all the goods in his father’s home were at his disposal, even though he also was rightful heir, his attitude prevented him from seeing this. In his boundless love, the father spoke to the older son, informing him of two very important things, first that he was always with him, and second all that his father had, was also his.
Another shortcoming that the older son manifested was that he believed he could have a relationship with his father, based on his labors alone. He refused to acknowledge that not only the formal obedience was important, but also respect for one’s father, and love for one’s brother. Again we see the dissatisfaction ceremony and formality absent of relationship and love can spurn in the heart of even the most devoted of sons. Yes, the older son had been serving for many years, and had never transgressed his father’s commandment at any time, but there was no joy in his labors, no desire to know his father, no love in his sacrifice, just a mechanical repetition of those things which he felt he had to do.
Pharisaical righteousness will always point the finger, will always account for the failings and shortcomings of others, judging, despising, never willing to look in the mirror, never willing to acknowledge its own wrongs.
Rather than react as the older son did upon the return of a prodigal, may we rejoice for one who was lost has been found again. Rather than stand outside, attempting to find fault in the Father for showing love, mercy and grace, may we enter in, and realize it is reason for merriment when one who was dead, is alive again.
If we possess the Father’s heart, our constant quest will be to reach out to those who are in the darkness, hoping to bring them to the light. When love guides us, we will live in anticipation and joy of the day when we look afar off, and see a son returning to his father’s home, one whose eyes have been opened, and whose heart has been flooded by repentance.
You might never have traveled to the far country, you might be one of those who has never transgressed one of the Father’s commandments, and served for many years, and if this is the case, remember always, the Father is with you, and all that He has is yours. Rejoice in the knowledge that you never had to endure hunger, rejection, or living among the swine in order to appreciate the benefits of living in your Father’s home.
With love in Christ,
Michael Boldea Jr.