I wrote previously about Luke 15 here. This post looks primarily at the Prodigal Son.
Have you ever felt like the “older son” in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)? I have often felt this way, and so has my wife. Earlier this week, I met someone else online who felt the same way.
I think a lot of “good” Christian people relate to the words and feelings of the older son.
Relating to the Older Son
I mean, why is it that people who lived the rowdy life get more praise and glory in the church (and from God too, it seems) when they repent and return than those who lived respectable and responsible lives?
Even when someone doesn’t spend their lives on sex, drugs, and wild living, but simply chases after worldly things like money, success, and fame, it often seems like they are the ones who not only get rich but also get recognized by the church when they decide to “start living for God.” Of course, they still have their millions of dollars in the bank which they earned while chasing mammon …
Those of us who dutifully worked at home for our whole lives look at this and say, “What is going on? I have lived faithfully, worked hard, made wise choices, didn’t squander my money, didn’t chase after success and fame, was faithful to my spouse, sacrificed for my children, faithfully tithed, never drank, smoked, or did drugs, and served God as best as I could for my whole life, and what do I get for it? No parties. No book deals. No invitations to speak at conferences. Instead, we get broken ovens, broken computers, broken windows, broken air-conditioning units, and an ant infestation … all in the same week. (That is exactly what happened to me this past week. Seriously.)
When this happens, we who are the older brother say,
What gives, God?! You throw a party for him? I’ve served you my whole life. Where’s my party? I’m glad he’s home and all, but if this is the way you treat your faithful children, it’s no surprise you don’t have more … I’m just saying.
I have actually known people who have purposefully “gone off the deep end” just so they could get asked to share their testimony in church when they repented and returned. And it worked! If you want to become a Christian celebrity, go sin for a season, and then repent and write a book about how God brought you back from the brink of hell.
Is this what God wants from us? It certainly seems so from Luke 15:11-32.
Let’s take a look.
A Brief Summary of Luke 15:11-32
The younger son effectively slaps his dad in the face when he asks for his share of the inheritance. This is akin to saying, “I wish you were dead.”
If this sort of behavior weren’t shocking enough, the father says, “OK. I’ll die for you. Here’s your share of the inheritance.” That’s outlandish! When someone says, “I wish you were dead,” nobody responds by saying “OK. I’ll die.” But the father did.
Then the son adds insult to injury by leaving family and home and going to a far country (all big no-no’s in Middle Eastern culture), to waste his father’s hard-earned money on drinking, parties, and sex.
Eventually he wakes up in a pig sty and realizes life is terrible. So he returns home to beg for a position among the household servants.
When the father sees his son coming, he runs out to meet him. Again, the father shames himself with such behavior. Middle-eastern landowners did not run. Running was for servants. In running to his son, the father shows once again that he only cares about his son. He does not care about himself. He is willing to act like a servant for his son.
When the son sees this, he realizes his father will never let him be a servant. So he simply confesses his sin. Note that he is already forgiven before he confesses. Forgiveness doesn’t follow confession, but precedes it. There’s a big theological truth there, but let’s finish the story…
The father is so glad his son is home, he throws a party for this son that has returned.
And now comes the older brother. He (rightfully?!) wonders why a party is being thrown for this wayward son who shamed the family name, insulted their father, and squandered his inheritance.
The father says, “We’ve been together this whole time and everything that is left is yours. But my son, who was dead, is now alive. That deserves a party.”
End of story.
I go round and round on this story (that’s one of the points of Jesus’ stories … to make us think about them for weeks, months, and years). I, too, feel like the older son. So does my wife. You probably do too.
Have we misunderstood the Parable of the Prodigal Son?
At one point in my life, I thought maybe that this was a parable from Jesus which describes how people in this world work, but this is not how it is in heaven. I mean, after the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus talks about the angels in heaving rejoicing (Luke 15:7, 10). But there is no such statement after the parable of the lost son. So maybe there isn’t a party in heaven for this son, but these parties only take place on earth where we have a broken sense of who should get glory.
Take church as an example. Who gets the glory, the honor, and the recognition in church? It is always the prodigal sons. The pastor gets some glory if he’s a good preacher, but if the pastor has a shady past AND he’s a good preacher, well, that’s the golden combination right there. Such a pastor will get more book deals and conference speaking invitations than he can deal with.
If this is the way of understanding this parable, then the point would be this: “Honor those who really deserve honor, which is those who are faithful, hard-working, and responsible. Don’t honor the users and abusers until they too have learned to become responsible people.”
This understanding must be rejected however.
First, it appeals to our religious pride (which is a big strike against it). Second, this understanding contradicts the message of the two preceding parables (even though the statement about the angels is not repeated), and Jesus seems to be building up to a point with the 1/100 from the sheep, the 1/10 from the coins, and the 1/2 with the sons, so this third parable is building to a crescendo, not seeking to make a contrast.
And in fact, it was this narrowing of focus from 1/100 to 1/10 to 1/2 that caused me to finally see what this parable is really about (at least, what I currently think it is really about).
The Missing Fourth Parable of Luke 15
The parable of the lost son is not really the last parable in the sequence.
And no, I don’t mean the parable of the shrewd steward in Luke 16, though that parable also fits within the thrust of what Jesus is teaching in these parables. The last parable in the sequence is an unspoken parable which fits between Luke 15:32 and Luke 16:1.
What parable is that?
It’s the parable of the 1.
Since Jesus went from 1/100 to 1/10, to 1/2, the next number in the sequence is 1/1, or simply the number 1. And who is the “1”? It’s the older son.
Note that the parable of the prodigal son ends with the father speaking to the older son, but we do not hear how the older son responds. We do not know if the older son goes into the party, or if he continues to sit outside in the dark throwing a little pity party of his own.
Heck, as the father said, everything now belongs to the older son anyway, so for all we know, maybe the older son threw a party for himself! And why shouldn’t he? When the father said, “Everything I have is yours,” it was almost as if the father was saying, “You want a party? Great! Let’s have one! Since you own everything, go ahead and throw a party!”
We just don’t know what the older son said or did.
Jesus doesn’t tell us.
It’s for the same reason that the book of Jonah has no ending. (I am writing about this in my commentary on Jonah … the similarities between Jonah and the older son are striking!)
Why does the third parable in this sequence have no ending? Why do we not hear what the older son says? Why does Jesus leave us hanging as to what happened?
Because the rest of the story is ours. The 1/1, the number 1, is you and me. The parable of the Prodigal Son has no ending because we are invited to end it.
If we identify with the older son in Luke 15, then we are invited into the story to provide it’s ending.
The father is now speaking to us and saying, “I have been with you the whole time. Everything I have is yours. It was right that we should have a party for your brother, for he was dead and is now alive. … But now, the ball is your court. Are you going to come party and play or continue to sit outside?”
And that is not an easy question to answer.
I don’t want to party with those who have abused the grace of God. I don’t want to party with those who have spit in God’s face and wished that He was dead. I don’t want to party with those who live irresponsibly and ask me to pay for it. I don’t want to party with those who spend their days sleeping around, watching TV, doing drugs, smoking, drinking, and collecting their monthly checks, which they can only collect people like me work our butts off every week and mark hard decisions about how to spend our money. They don’t deserve a party; they’ve been partying! I deserve a party. I’ve never had one! Where’s my party! On the other side of the spectrum, how come that rich doctor gets both a million dollar bank account and the big fat book deal? He chased money his whole life, and now that he decides to give a small portion away to children in Africa, he gets the book deal? How about me? I never chased money, and have always given away a large chunk of my income to children in Africa (though it’s still less than what he gave), but I don’t get the book deal, the radio interviews, or the conference speaking invitations!!!
You see how this goes?
Probably, if you feel like the older son in Luke 15, this is the sort of conversations that goes through your head too…
So as one older son to another, let me invite you into what I have been thinking and feeling should be our response to our father about our wayward and returning brothers.
There are four things we older sons can learn from the Parable of the Prodigal Son
1. There is No Older Son
First, the hard and difficult one.
I believe that when all is said and done, we will discover that there is no such thing as an older son.
In other words, you and I think we’re older sons, but we’re not. We are just prodigal sons who have not yet woken up in the pig sty. Oh, we’re in the far country, and our wanton living looks different than it did for our younger brother, but we are lost sons nonetheless. Our particular form of wayward living has a decidedly “religious” bent. We don’t spend our inheritance on sex, drugs, and alcohol. No, we spend our energy and life on self-righteousness, condemnation of others, and feelings of superiority.
One of the main truths of Parable of the Prodigal Son is that everybody is a Lost Son. Some of us just haven’t woken up to it yet.
Furthermore, the “older son” is the worst kind of “lost son” because we think we have stayed with God our Father, when in reality, we have gone into the far country of religion, which allows us to look down our self-righteous noses at everybody else who is not good enough, smart enough, or disciplined enough to truly live for God.
Remember what Jesus said to some of His onlookers? “I have not come to call the righteous, but the unrighteous.” Here’s the translation:
You’re all unrighteous; some of you just don’t know it yet. Those of you who think you are righteous are the worst kind of “unrighteous” because you are only “religiously” righteous.
As I have written elsewhere, while most of us think that Jesus came to rescue us from sin, I think the gospels seem to pretty clearly show that Jesus is more concerned about those of us trapped in religion than He is about those trapped by sin.
Religion is an invisible prison. It makes us think we are okay with God, when we may actually be further from Him than the greatest of sinners. Sinners typically know they are sinning. Religious people never do.
Religion blinds us to the truth of who we really are.
Note that in the Gospels, the “sinners” are little more than a side note. The real focus of Jesus’ interaction is with the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Whenever sinners are mentioned, it is usually in the context of setting up a discussion between Jesus and the religious people. Why is this? Because Jesus came to rescue us from religion! Sin is not that big of a deal for God. But religion? Now there is something He’s concerned with!
I sometimes think God allows people to sin so much so that religious people can have their eyes opened to their own sin!
And that’s the deal with the older son. He thinks he is better than his brother because he stuck around with dad. But he’s not better necessarily, for he is judging and condemning his brother, whom the father has accepted and forgiven! The older son is a lost son as well, and he too has turned away from his father.
So the Parable of the Prodigal Son should be called the Parable of the Prodigal Sons. They’re both prodigal, but in different ways!
2. The First Two Prodigal Sons in History
This leads me to the second point from this parable, which we actually arrive at by going all the way back to the first brothers in history, to Cain and Abel.
In Genesis 4, Cain was older than Abel. Out of anger at God accepting the younger brother’s offering, Cain murdered his brother Abel.
Remember what Jesus taught elsewhere: If we hate our brother, this hate leads to murder (Matt 5:22). If the older son in the parable continues down the path of anger toward the younger son at how the father has accepted him, the older brother could end up in the same position as Cain. That warning is implied here.
Yet there is a warning for the younger son as well. In Genesis 4, after Abel is murdered, God says that the blood of Abel cried out to him from the ground. What did it cry out? We are not told, but we can imagine: It cries out for “Vengeance! Retaliation! Retribution! Justice!” But note that in Genesis 4, there is none of this from God. God does not exact vengeance, retaliation, retribution, or justice. No, he seems to bless Cain. This doesn’t seem very fair either! And now the roles are reversed. Now it is the younger son who feels slighted by God!
One wonders if, after the party was over in Luke 15, as the younger son hung around the house and watched everything go to the older son, if the younger son ever started to feel slighted. Maybe he began to complain that the only reason he left home in the first place is because his older brother always looked down on him, and was better than him at everything. Maybe he began to argue that since he cashed out so early, some of the future profits of the farm should go to him instead of to the older brother if the inheritance between the two was to be truly fair. We don’t know what the younger brother might have said or felt in the future, but we do know human nature. If the younger brother was anything like the rest of us, he probably found reason to be jealous of his older brother, to complain against him, maybe even to blame his older brother for his own poor choices, and maybe even to cry out to his father for equality, fairness, and justice. Just like Abel.
But such a cry for vengeance and justice is not the cry of God. God has His own version of justice, which seems not at all just and fair to humans, because God’s justice is based on forgiveness, mercy, and love. This is why Jesus came and why Jesus died. And this is why the author of Hebrews says that Jesus brought a new covenant, which speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24). Abel’s blood cried out “Vengeance! Justice!” The blood of Jesus cries out “Forgiveness! Grace! Mercy!”
So Jesus, in telling a story about two brothers and alluding to the story of the first two brothers in history, is telling us all that we are both the older brother and the younger brother, and are feelings toward one another have nothing to do with what we have or haven’t done, or how we have been slighted or overlooked, insulted or abused. No, the story is all about forgiveness, grace, and mercy.
Both the older son and the younger son need to see how God has graciously forgiven and accepted each of them, one for his many sins and the other for his religious hypocrisy, and both can thank the father for His love, and then show each other the same love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness in return.
It is only when we come to this recognition that the party begins for us too.
This leads us to the third point about this parable.
3. Parties are only for Screw-Ups
Notice that parties are never thrown for the rebellious sinners or for the religiously self-righteous. Neither one gets a party as long as they are caught these two types of traps.
The younger son only gets his party when he realizes how much he has screwed up and how much his father loves and forgives him. That’s when the party begins for him.
Logically, then, the older son will get a party too … when he realizes how much he has screwed up and how much his father loves and forgives him too. That’s when the party will begin for him.
As I have written so many other places before: Death always precedes resurrection. Until there is death, there can be no resurrection.
The younger son died and has risen to new life. The older son has yet to recognize he is dead. But when he does, there will be life for him as well.
If, like me, you feel like the older son, then our prayer should be this: “Father, show me how I am the younger son. Let me see the pig sty I am living in.” Only then will the party begin.
However, it is possible that we may never fully come to this realization. We may never get the party. Or, more likely, we may never feel like we get the party. In that case, here is what will happen:
We will reach the end of this life and die. (There’s our death). And we will arrive in heaven and stand before Jesus, and I sort of imagine myself saying something like this: “Jeremy Myers reporting for duty, Sir! I have lived my whole life for you and for your glory, and now I am ready to live my eternal life in your service! What are my responsibilities in the eternal kingdom so that I might begin to serve you forever?”
And, based on what I read in this story, I think Jesus will look at me with a half-smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye and say, “Since you have been faithful in a few things, I will make you faithful in many. Do I ever have an assignment for you! Come with me.”
And he will lead me down the steps of the throne room, and to a secret door behind the throne. He will invite me to open the door, and as I step through, all my friends and family from this life will jump out and shout, “SURPRISE! Welcome home!” Someone will throw a robe on my back, put shoes on my feet, and Jesus Himself will put a glass of wine in my hand and will smile and say, “Duty? Responsibilities? Service? There’s none of that here. Now is the time to party, and this one is your honor, for you were dead and are now alive again.”
So even if you and I don’t get the party in this life, there’s gonna be a party for us too.
In the meantime, we can continue doing what only we can do.
If that’s serving to the best of your ability, and working hard, and living responsibly, and making wise choices, and living on a budget, that is wonderful. Just don’t look down on others who seem to not be able to live up to such standards (for whatever reason).
4. The Father Loves BOTH Sons – But the Older Son Gets Something Special
Here is the fourth point, which in my opinion is and most beautiful of all … note that in the end the only thing the father has for the older son is the only thing he has for the younger son – pure, unconditional love. God does not love you any more or any less than the younger sons who are out there. He loves and accepts you both the same.
Nevertheless, there is something you have with God that the younger son does not. It does not make you better, or more special, or anything of the sort. But there are benefits to living the way you do, and in the parable the father reminds the older son about one of them.
Note that the father says to the older son, “You are always with me.”
When it comes right down to it, why have you lived responsibly? Why do you try to make smart choices with your money, time, and resources? Why do you try to always please God and do what He wants? I think, if you are honest with yourself, it is because you love God and want to be with God.
And what does the father say to the older son? “You are always with me.”
Do you hear the tenderness? The love?
Do you hear the relationship?
The younger son went away to a far country. The younger son lost year upon year upon year of relationship with his father. We don’t know how many years pass between Luke 15:13-15, but for the son to spend all his money and for a severe famine to come upon the land, we are looking at probably at least a decade. Typically, a severe famine takes several years to develop. But during all that time, the father and the older son enjoyed conversation over everyday meals, working side-by-side in the fields, laughing at each other’s jokes, and supporting each other through the trials of life. There was never any party, but ten years of memories with his father are probably worth more than the most splendid party of all time.
People who live large portions of their lives apart from God still get the same love and forgiveness from God that we all get. They still get the party. But they don’t get the memories. They don’t get the history. They don’t get the fellowship that comes only with building a relationship through time and trials. And this fellowship is worth more than any amount of parties.
Think about it. If you could rewrite your life, which would you choose: First, you could go with what you have now, and the relationship with God you have now through years of sticking by Him, and struggling with questions and fears, and fighting off temptation, and making wise decisions (that sometimes turn out to be unwise), and persevering through temptation, and learning what you know about God, Scripture, and theology, but ending up as a relative “nobody” in the Churchianity.
Or, you could take all that and trade it for the story of someone who slept around, did drugs, got divorced four times, murdered somebody, landed in jail, found Jesus, got paroled, and then became an internally known Christian author and conference speaker even though they lived most of their life with no thought for Jesus. Would you trade your life for this one? I wouldn’t.
My life is not glamorous or glorious. It doesn’t have the ups or the downs or the highs and lows of other people’s lives. I often get jealous of the people who “strike it rich” with book deals and conference invitations, who get the parties and the fame because they were bad but now they found Jesus, but then I look back over my life, at how far Jesus and I have walked together, what we have been through together, and how we have suffered, and grieved, and rejoiced, and laughed together, and I realize that no book deal, bank account, or applause from men could ever substitute for what I have with Jesus. And I believe the richness of our friendship will only increase as I continue to walk with Him through the thick and thin of life.
If you feel like the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I believe the same is true of you. You see things and know things that few other people know, and this is due, in large part, to the fact that you have stuck with Jesus when many others have wandered off to the far country. Keep hanging out at home with your father. It may not be glamorous, but it’s good.
Note: A slightly different version of this post appeared at the All About Eve blog? There is a conference in Portland this October called “All About Eve,” and I am writing a weekly post for the 40 weeks leading up to this conference. The idea is that a modern-day Eve is having correspondence with me and a few other authors about her journey away from “Churchianity.” Click the link above to go read some of our “correspondence.”