I’m a huge fan of the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. I love how the parable is the capstone of three that talk about seeking and saving the lost. It’s my favorite parable since I first heard it shortly after coming to Christ in the early ‘90’s. It spoke to me. I was enthralled by a God who was willing to go to all lengths to bring His children back to himself. I so connected to the younger son. I hadn’t been the best person—drugs, alcohol, juvy, rebelling against authority—all stereotypes of a person before and after coming to Christ. As I heard the parable, I heard of grace, forgiveness, and acceptance from a God (despite myself).
Over the last decade or so, I’ve been seeing a trend in how the Parable of Prodigal Son is being preached. Instead of talking about the grace, forgiveness, and acceptance of the younger son by the father, sermons have focused on the older brother. I’ve heard pastors talk about how it’s hard as Christians to have our own story. Many Christians grew up in the church, in good Christian homes, have always gone to church, and can’t remember when they actually gave their lives to Christ because they’ve always given their life to Christ. I’ve heard pastors preach about how, just like the older brother, Christians who’ve been in the church the whole time are also welcomed into the party and celebration. In fact, they’ve always been part of the celebration and inheritance.
For these Christians, I guess this is reassuring. I’ve heard how many Christians who have grown up in the church, went to Christian schooling, a Christian college, and now are active members of their church feel a connection to the older brother. Many cite a sermon by a pastor that made the connection for them.
The problem is that focusing on the older brother creates an insular effect. When focusing on the older brother, making the connection between always being part of God’s inheritance and not needing some huge Road-to-Damascus-conversion-story, we no longer focus on the mission we are called to.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son isn’t about the older brother. It isn’t about our own attitude and focus on our own inheritance. We are not to identify with the older brother. We are the younger brother. All of us. All of us were once dead in our sins. All of us were at one time lost. All of us were at one time made alive in Christ. In fact, we are constantly being made alive in Jesus.
But even the younger brother isn’t the focus of this parable. In the trifecta of awesome found in the parables of Luke 15, we see that it is the one seeking the lost that we are to identify with. The shepherd seeks the lost sheep, the woman seeks her lost coin, and the father chases after his lost son. As followers of Christ, we are to pursue the lost. We are to pursue those far from God at all costs.
When we focus on just the older brother, we lose sight of the importance of celebrating those coming to Christ. We are focusing on ourselves instead, focusing on our own life, focusing on a pity party that we aren’t cool enough to be celebrated and so we turn inward. At the same time, as much as we are the younger brother, he isn’t the one we are to associate with. Instead, we are to be like the father and pursue, to run, to go forth. We aren’t supposed to look inward at our own issues but outward with full abandon to welcome in those who are far from God.
So please, stop focusing on the older brother. Instead start focusing on the mission. Please, stop preaching about the older brother and start preaching on joining in the mission of God so that those who were once dead may be alive, that those who were once lost can be found.
Joshua, thanks for sharing your story! I agree with you that this story is not meant to be a comfort and reassurance to "older brothers" that they are indeed invited to the party too. But, I'll admit, as one of those who don't have a "come to Jesus" story to tell, I've never felt particular resonance with the younger brother either. When our church last studied this passage, one of our pastors helpfully re-framed this parable by calling it the Parable of the Gracious Father. Indeed it is profoundly compelling to see the desire God has to meet all of us where we are at and see even those sheep who have run furthest from the fold He desires to see restored. In light of the Gracious Father, the older brother then becomes a cautionary tale of a hard heart. We know the older brother is invited to the party, but we don't know if he repents of his self-righteousness (just like the younger brother) or if he remains in the field, angry and self-righteous, unwilling to accept the grace of the Father (like the rich young ruler).
In the end, I agree with you--this parable should motivate us to join in God's redeeming and restoring mission!
Thank you for your thoughts and comment. Being in the CRC for just over 20 years, I've come across many people who feel bad that they don't have a Road-to-Damascus story. And in feeling bad, sometimes even look down on themselves as not being good enough Christians or something, like to be good enough they need some awesome story. And I think this is partially why many have been gravitating towards focusing on the older brother more so than anything else. I like the idea of changing the title to the Parable of the Gracious Father. That really shifts the focus. Both sons are offered grace and invited to the party. Both are to be part of the celebration. And we are to join in on this celebration and join in the mission of God.
Thanks again for your comments.
Thanks for sharing this! I have not yet heard the Parable of the Prodigal Son be preached where the focus is more on the older brother. But, I think you hit the nail on the head with many of your points. Despite growing up in the church and Christian schools, I still relate more to the younger brother (as you said, "All of us were once dead in our sins. All of us were at one time lost. All of us were at one time made alive in Christ"). Thanks again!
Good piece, Josh! Of course . . . there are lots of layers here and you yourself point out several of them in your post. Let's not forget that the trio of Luke 15 parables had 2 distinct audiences when the chapter began: the "sinners" gathered around Jesus and the Pharisees who took issue with the company Jesus kept. BOTH audiences had things to hear in the parables. In the Lost Sheep one, the good news for the sinners at table with Jesus was that God seeks them and rejoices over them when they are found. The bad news for the Pharisees is that they fail (a la Ezekiel 34) to do such seeking themselves. The Pharisees may also be represented by the 99 sheep who did not wander, but Jesus' little line about the 99 "who have no need to repent" is surely a bit of sharp irony--EVERYONE needs to repent, as Jesus surely knew. The problem with the 99--and the reason they don't bother to seek the lost--is they have forgotten that they, too, are saved by grace alone issuing in their repentance. So also in the Prodigal Son--the Pharisees are surely the older brother. They don't welcome the prodigal back and complain about the bad company he no doubt kept (prostitutes!) while in the far country. Since the Pharisees are one of the 2 main audiences for this parable, it's not bad to focus on the older brother now and then, NOT because they have no before-and-after conversion story to share but because they forget that EVERYBODY has a before-and-after story in God's eyes and that is what should motivate our joy at the return of the prodigal and our desire to share that joy with others by going out and seeking the lost as in the first two Luke 15 parables.
Maybe . . .
Thanks for the provocative post!
Thanks for your comment and reflections, Scott. You are very correct in that this parable has a number of layers and there is much you can point out with this parable. Sadly, with blogs, there are only a limited amount of space. I think part of what inspired this post for me was recently hearing it preached and then a conversation I had with my wife and others afterwards about how this parable has been interpreted and how it's been used over the years in different ways. Thank you again for your insight.
Thanks for the corrective, Josh. If people are using the older brother in the way that you describe, I wholeheartedly agree they should stop. However, recent developments of which I am aware, based on the book The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, cite the older brother as Jesus' target because of Luke 15:1-2, "Now the tax collectors and 'sinners' were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'" Jesus' target is the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who have misunderstood God's love and desire to reach the lost. In light of it, as elder brothers (those like me who were raised in the church, etc.) we are called to join God in His reckless, prodigal love for sinners and the lost. This is how I have understood the use of the elder brother, have you heard that before?
Joe.. Thank you for your thoughts and comments. With a blog post there is but a limited amount of words that might be used in speaking of one particular opinion on a topic. Yes, I will admit, there are in ways I painted things in broad strokes and things aren't starkly one or the other (as Scott shows eloquently above). Tim Keller's The Prodigal God is the oft quoted source for the interpretation to which I mentioned above concerning the older brother. Because my understanding of Keller's argument and thesis is based solely on the interpretation and telling of those who have used him as their source, I can only take the logical conclusion of their reasoning and evidence concerning focusing on the elder brother in such as way as that they then are identifying with the pharisees. If Keller is correct in his assertion (again, I haven't read his book so I do not know the full thesis) and the target is the Pharisees and teachers of the law, then identifying oneself with the target audience and hence the elder brother gives a bit of legitimacy to being a Pharisee, which, I believe, leads to insular thinking. Again, I have not read Keller's book, I have only seen the fruit of this particular interpretation.
That being said, Luke 15:1-2 does state that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were muttering against Jesus' choice of diner guests, but v1 also states that the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around to hear Jesus. As Scott states above (dude is from the Center for Excellence in Preaching and knows his stuff so I'm deferring to him her eon some things) there are multiple audiences here. We also have to take into account the third audience of this trifecta of parables--the intended audience of Luke. Luke wrote to a gentile, mostly Greek, audience. In understanding it from this different scope, I would say that the emphasis really isn't towards the elder brother as Keller would state but the fact that a gracious God comes running out to greet his lost son. I can't quote chapter and verse, but I remember Phil Yancey had a wonderful discussion about God' grace in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in his book What's so Amazing About Grace.
I would say that in this understanding the fact that, yes, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees that we are to have a reckless abandon of love for the lost. As well though, we see that here is the statement to us all that we all were once sinners and are welcomed home by a God who has gone forth searching for us, leaving all behind. In this same light though, we need to see this as the Good News preached to those outside of the faith hearing about the grace and forgiveness given by God as would the original intended Gentile/Greek audience.
I lean a bit toward's Joel Green and some others that in the prior parable, the shepherd leaving the 99 behind wasn't so much as leaving the pharisees behind to find the one per se, but the great economical and labor intensive cost the shepherd was willing to pay in order to find that one lost sheep. This same reckless abandon is seen in the celebration by woman when she finds her lost coin. Yes, it was a chunk of money, yet she spends more money to celebrate finding it. And finally, not only did the father go out to meet the younger son as he returned (as did the shepherd go out looking for the lost sheep) he also threw a huge shindig that involved a fatted calf (good eats...and he celebrated like the woman and her lost coin). For Keller's interpretation to work, it then must ignore most of the rest of these parables and the others throughout Luke and the original intended audience.
Again, thank you for your thoughts and comment. Hope this wasn't too long and convoluted of an answer.
(and I think I just wrote another blog post).
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