I had a math teacher in high school, Mr. Brown, who was well known as the funniest teacher at our school. He always had a joke for us, most which ran off the rails toward the end as, we were told by another teacher, he realized that he couldn’t tell that joke at school. One day in class, he got some smart remarks from a kid named Brad and a kid named Ryan. So he launched into a joke about them. He starts, “So Brad was heading down to the river one day to go fishing and as he was on his way he saw Ryan coming back from the river carrying a basket. Brad asks Ryan ‘Hey, what’s in the basket?’ and Ryan answers ‘oh, some fish I caught.’ Brad then asks Ryan, ‘Hey, if I guess how many fish you have in the basket, can I have one?’ and Ryan answers, ‘oh, sure, in fact, if you guess how many fish I have in the basket, I’ll give you both of them.’”
At this point we all laughed because it was a sick burn on Ryan. Way to give the answer away, dummy, we all thought. But the joke wasn’t over. Mr. Brown kept going. “Brad thought for a minute and finally answered, ‘17!’”
What we thought was just a sick burn on Ryan ended up being a sick burn on both of them. The joke had two punchlines.
A Story with Two Punchlines
When it comes to the Parable of the Lost Son, we encounter something similar. Most folks think this parable is about the son who went away, the one who was lost and then at the end of the parable is found. We think it’s just like the first two parables in this trilogy: the lost sheep is found and brought home, the lost coin is found and brought home, the lost son is found and brought home. And if we stopped there, we still have a really good parable. But when we get to the point where the younger son has returned home and is celebrating, we realize that the parable is not over. It has two punchlines.
The father had two sons. The younger son left and wasted his money on prostitutes and frivolity. The older son stayed home and obeyed his father. But at the end of the parable, who is with the father? And when we come to the end of this parable, which son is the lost son?
Let’s turn our attention to the older son and we will learn that not only is this parable about the radical love of God, not only is it about the possibility of grace and forgiveness, it is also a sharp rebuke to those unwilling to go seek out the wayward brothers of this world and a rebuke to those unwilling to let them back into the family. Today we will see that the point of this parable is really for the older brother. And many of us are the older brother.
A Trilogy of the Lost
Let’s remember a couple of things:
- Jesus is talking to the Pharisees after they have complained about him eating and drinking with sinners.
- Jesus has demonstrated that God’s heart is a heart of love toward these “lost” sinners. He tells three parables to show God’s heart: 1) The Lost Sheep. A shepherd realizes that 1 of his 100 sheep is missing and goes out into the country to look for it. The shepherd rejoices when he finds his lost sheep. 2) The Lost Coin. A woman realizes she is missing 1 of her 10 coins and turns her house upside down looking for it. The woman rejoices when she finds her lost coin. 3) The Lost Son. A man’s son leaves home and squanders his wealth sinfully and the father goes out looking for him…
Wait, that’s not what happens in this story. The pattern is interrupted. Nobody goes looking for the lost son. We might ask, “why doesn’t the father go looking for his lost son, just as the shepherd went looking for his lost sheep and the woman searched for her lost coin?” “Does this father not care for his son as much as the shepherd cared for his sheep or the woman her coin?”
At the point of the story where we would expect the father–or someone–to go and look for the lost son, it doesn’t happen. The son returns home after coming to his senses, not because someone went out to look for him.
A Plot Twist
But this plot twist turns our attention to an oft-overlooked character in this parable, and a new addition in this set of parables: a third figure, the older son.
In this culture, it would not have been the father’s responsibility to look for his missing son and restore him to honor. That burden belonged to the older brother. The expectation for the older brother in this story would have been to go out, find his brother, and restore his father’s honor by providing restitution for his younger brother’s misdeeds. The younger brother has brought shame upon his father’s house; the older brother must reclaim honor by reclaiming his younger brother and restoring him to their father’s house.
But, as we see, that is not what happens. The older brother never leaves home to go look for his younger brother. In fact, he has remained home, obeying his father faithfully all these years. When the party begins, he’s still in the fields working.
He has to ask a servant what the commotion is about. He has no idea that his younger brother has returned home. The servant, delightedly, tells the older brother what has happened. Instead of going into the house to join the party and celebration, the older son storms out to the fields. He is anything but happy his younger brother has returned.
The Real Lost Son?
We are told, “he became angry, and didn’t want to go in.” Why would he have been so angry? Why wouldn’t he have wanted to celebrate the return of his brother and his father’s honor?
Economics. With his brother restored to sonship, he would be in line to receive an inheritance again. That inheritance would have been sliced out of the elder brother’s inheritance–he stands to lose ⅓ of his future estate because of this. It is understandable he would be resentful toward his younger brother. But this is not the only reason why.
In verse 29, after his father has come out to the field to plead with him to come in, he says:
“but he replied to his father, ‘Look, I have been slaving many years for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’”
And here we see that what’s really going on. Beyond his veneer of obedience lies a bitter, angry young man.
A Much More Subtle Sin
We see that what he really wanted was the same thing his younger brother wanted: not the love of the father, but the father’s things. He wanted respect and honor from his father and he wanted his inheritance from his father. The younger brother did, too. They just went about it differently.
The younger brother’s sin was more obvious: he told his father he wished him dead and demanded his inheritance, then subsequently lost it all on prostitutes.
The older brother’s sin is much more subtle: while he has been doing what the father wants from him, he has done it only to get what he wants, not to please his father. His sin is one of pride, that he has done what is right and thinks he is now entitled to the blessings of his father.
Avoiding Sin to Avoid A Savior
The older brother’s path to God is through sin avoidance and self-righteousness. In this, he is very much like the Pharisees in Jesus’ audience. He is similar to Flannery O’Connor’s character Hazel Motes in Wise Blood: “There was a deep, black, wordless conviction that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” The older son does not want a Savior so he strives to obey the father as best he can.
But we see the resentment in him. He calls his obedience to his father “slaving.” He has not done what is right for the sake of what is right, he has done right to get what he wants from his father.
Elder brothers obey God to get things. They don’t obey God to get God himself–in order to resemble him, love him, know him, and delight him.” The Pharisees in Jesus’ time were much like this–their strict obedience to the Law of Moses was only done to get God to come back and reclaim his throne and drive out the Romans. It was only done so they could be prideful and self-righteous in comparing themselves to others. And in our time, our churches are filled with older brothers, folks who attempt to control God through their righteous behavior.
So religious people can be avoiding Jesus as Savior and Lord as much as the younger brothers who say they don’t believe in God and define right and wrong for themselves.”
One does not have to go far from home to be lost.
The older brother represents anyone who would seek access to God through his or her own good works. The older brother represents anyone who would be bitter and resentful toward younger brothers when they are welcomed home by the Father. The older brother represents anyone who feels they deserve a reward from the Father for their good behavior.
And what is God’s message to the older brother: “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
The Father says to the son: you have me! I am your reward! I am your blessing! You are with me, the one who gave you life and gives you life.
The older brother wanted the same thing as the younger brother: the Father’s stuff. They both wanted the benefits and blessings of the Father without having their Father.
On the underrated album “Zooropa,” Johnny Cash sings a song with U2 at the end of the album called “The Wanderer.” There is a great line about halfway through, talking about citizens sitting on church steps: “They say they want the Kingdom, but they don’t want God in it.” We want what God can give us, without wanting God, because when we have God, we are held up to a standard of holiness and love that we cannot bear to look at on our own.
Which Son is the Lost Son?
And so at the end of this parable, the lost son–the one the Father had to leave home to look for, the one who is NOT with the Father, is the OLDER SON! The lost son is the Pharisees, not the “sinners.” The sinners have recognized their need for a Savior, their need for forgiveness, their dependence on the grace and mercy of their loving Father. The Pharisees continue to think they do not need God’s forgiveness, that they do not need a savior. Being “lost” has nothing to do with one’s behavior, righteous or sinful. Being lost means one does not know Jesus, that one has not accepted the grace and mercy of our loving Father.
If this is the definition of lost, it changes our perception of who needs the Gospel, of who truly needs Jesus. The Gospel needs to be preached in our churches just as much as it needs to be preached outside of them. There are lost people within the church as well as without.
The Message of the Lost Older Son
So the message of this older son is twofold–do not think you are saved simply because you attend church, that you grew up in the church and have done all the right things. Without Jesus, you are still lost and in need of the Father’s love and mercy. And secondly, it is our responsibility, our privilege, to share the Gospel story with others, in the hopes that they will take steps closer to Christ. IT is our responsibility, as those who are still at home with the Father, to go out and find and restore the younger sons of this world who are in desperate need of God’s mercy.
I am an older brother, in more ways than one. I am the oldest of four children. I have resented my little brother and my little sisters for many things over the years. And I am the one who never left home, who always strived to do the right thing, who never smoked or chewed or dated girls who do. This parable is for me. This parable is for anyone who, like me, can be tempted into thinking God owes us for our good choices, who thinks that we are entitled to God’s blessings without having to deal with God himself. But this parable reminds me of the Father who was not content to just have his younger son in the party with him, the Father who left the party, went into the fields to plead with his older son to join the fun. It is a reminder that God’s love is indefatigable. It is unextinguishable. It is infinite. It is eternal. It is for you. And it is for me.
Thanks for reading! I hope you found this encouraging. If you enjoy this blog, join me on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter, Threads, and Instagram @revsteve83.