There are two ways people seek the Father’s things. “Younger brothers” take things by being bad; “elder brothers” work for things by being good. Both are lost and estranged from the Father, yet God lovingly and graciously receives both when they stop seeking his things and begin seeking Him.
Introduction – The popular gospel tract “Two Ways to Live” clearly explains the difference between living your own way and living God’s way. This gospel presentation is quite effective for prodigal son types: the younger brother who is running away from God. But this parable exposes the main limitation of the tract. Jesus shows us the gospel is not just for younger brothers, but for elder brothers too.
I. Two Ways to Live and be Lost
A. The younger brother way: be bad (v. 13)
This is the way of irreligion. If small towns and small churches have lots of younger brothers who yearn to leave for a “far country,” they are even more populated by elder brothers. They’re the ones who stick around. How best to enjoy the good things that God gives to his children? Do it your way. Flaunt God’s law. Treat him as if he is dead to you. Be your own person. Seize the day. Work for the weekend. Do what feels good. Take no prisoners. Eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow you die. In philosophical terms, the hard-core younger brother way is Hedonism, and the moderate way is Epicureanism. The chief virtue of the younger brother is seeking personal pleasure; the chief vice to avoid is moralism. This is one way to be lost.
B. The elder brother way: be good (vv. 25, 29a)
This is the way of religion. How best to enjoy God’s good things? Avoid the sinful ways of the younger brother that lead to painful consequences. Do it the right way. Obey God’s law. Treat him as if he proportionally rewards good behavior. Be a team player. Delay your gratification. Work for retirement. Do what gets society’s respect and approval. Be responsible. Don’t eat, drink, or be merry, because today someone will die. In philosophical terms, the hard-core elder brother way is Asceticism, and the moderate way is Stoicism. The chief virtue of the elder brother is seeking approval; the chief vice to avoid is foolishness. This is the other way to be lost.
C. Both ways seek the same things (vv. 12a, 29b)
1. Although differing in strategy, both irreligion and religion seek the Father’s things. Both are selfish, arrogant, and ungrateful. Both see the Father as a taskmaster who owns stuff that must be earned to be enjoyed. What are the Father’s good blessings? Absolutely everything that he created if enjoyed for his glory according to his design! Family, friends, home, adventure, parties, food, sex, recreation, love, even virtue—everything.
2. Younger brothers rebel and take the Father’s things. They find themselves lost in spectacular fashion far away from the Father. Elder brothers obey to earn the Father’s things. They find themselves lost without ever leaving the Father’s side. Both want the Father’s things and don’t care about the Father. Neither understands what it means to be a son. Neither knows the love of the Father. Recognize that there are younger and elder brother tendencies in all of us. Remember: if there is a sinner in a parable, it’s you. If there are two sinners, you’re both of them.
Someone might object, “How do I know that’s true? I’m not a selfish person.” Here is what I’ve observed of both younger and elder brothers. Let’s just stick close to the parable and look at inheritance. Younger brothers are not alone in coveting a sizeable amount of money. The prospect of a hefty windfall of cash and assets also tempts sensible elder brothers. By lusting after what is not yet rightfully yours, or angling for the best position among heirs when time comes to divide up the inheritance, or by using your portion selfishly and sinfully, far too many family relationships are harmed, some never to be restored again. All for the love of money and the fear of being cheated out of your fair share. Brothers and sisters, I’ve seen it too many times. A good relationship with your family and your God is worth far more than the stuff you may stand to inherit. My advice to all of you is right now, make up your mind to rather be cheated, or wronged, or shortchanged, than to ruin relationships and your good name over stuff—no matter how much it is. One, it’s just not worth the heartache. Two, you will beautifully adorn the gospel of Christ and give more glory to God than you thought possible after the death of a loved one. And three, you just might set a tone of generosity and grace that others will see and follow too. Let’s learn from these two lost brothers: the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim 6:10).
II. The God who Loves and Finds the Lost
A. Realize the Spirit enlivens you (v. 17a)
The human heart is desperately lost. We cannot come to our senses without the Holy Spirit breathing new life into us. This point is not explicit in the parable, but we find it implicit in the first two “lost and found” parables, and explicit in other places in Scripture (Gen 6:5; Jer 13:23; 17:9; Rom 3:10-18). We must understand this truth because the alternatives are either pride or condemnation. Younger brothers who don’t realize the Spirit’s sovereign power in curing our sin-insanity will pridefully assume they came to see their lostness because they are more clever, good-hearted, or sensible than the rest. Elder brothers who don’t realize it is the Spirit alone who enlivens the lost will condemn them for not seeing clearly, for not stopping the sin-insanity, for not being sensible and responsible like themselves. Only by realizing the Spirit alone gives new life will we give glory to God alone. To assume we have any power (even a little) to save ourselves is the very essence of lostness!
B. Remember the Father loves you (vv. 20b-24)
It is the kindness of God that leads you to repentance (Rom 2:4). If you don’t remember that God is a loving Father and we are his children, you’ll always wonder if your relationship to God is based fundamentally on your performance. The younger brother faintly remembered his father as merciful, but he hoped that mercy would allow him to start again at the bottom of the household hierarchy. He had no understanding of how a son relates to a father—not by performance but love. The elder brother doesn’t understand love at all. He can’t fathom his father’s mercy. If the elder brother had his way, the younger brother wouldn’t come home unless he first cleans up his life, earns back the lost inheritance, and starts performing properly as a dutiful son should. Apart from remembering God’s love, a younger brother’s pains will only produce remorse and regret (2 Cor 7:10), and an elder brother’s performance will only produce bitterness and resentment (Lk 15:29-30).
C. Return with the Son who seeks you (vv. 1-2)
There is no consensus on what to call this parable: parable of the prodigal son, of two lost sons, of the prodigal father. I like to call it the Parable of the Three Sons. Can you see Jesus in the parable? In eating with tax collectors and “sinners,” Jesus is acting out what the elder brother in the parable should have done. Not only does the prodigal return uncertain that his father will receive him, he also has to face his callous, unloving, self-righteous, greedy elder brother. But thank God Jesus is different, even from Esau who nobly fell short as an elder brother (Gen 33:1-17). You have the elder brother the prodigal never had. Jesus journeyed from heaven to a faraway country to seek out younger brothers, reminding them of the Father’s love and mercy, and brings all of God’s lost children home. Jesus even seeks elder brothers who wallow in anger and jealousy. In telling the parable Jesus entreats elder brothers standing on the outside (the respectable religious people) to follow him into the joy of his Father’s house.
III. The Gospel Way of Life
A. Repent of being both bad and good to get God’s things (vv. 18-19, 28-30)
1. The younger brother shows us repentance from the vantage point of sin’s pig sty. The elder brother can’t bring himself to repent. From his vantage point he’s the good son who has done nothing wrong. He actually thinks dad owes him for his service and obedience (v. 29)!
About a year ago, a young man whom I had been helping for more than a year to navigate his early Christian life, turned on me. I wouldn’t call him a younger brother type, but he had started down the path of the younger brother and didn’t realize where he was headed. Now, understand what he was doing is the kind of thing that tempts parents to kick their adult children out of the house and change the locks. So it was very serious, but he didn’t understand the gravity of his sin, at least I didn’t think he did. So I tried to explain to him why he needed to wake up, repent, and come home to God. He heeded the message, but also shot the messenger. His harsh words of criticism to me were painful, but I decided to listen rather than dismiss him, because I couldn’t imagine Jesus cutting those off who had tried to wound him. And in that decision to listen I discovered in myself the heart of an elder brother.
2. It’s pretty easy to know who the younger brother types are. If you’re a prodigal at heart, chances are you (and those who are close to you) know it. But most elder brother types are clueless who they are. So how do you know you’re an elder brother? Look at how you react to criticism, especially when the criticism touches something that you are good at or something that is rooted in your identity. Do you get disproportionately angry and lash back at the critic? Do you find your thoughts dominated for hours, even days, in justifying yourself, building a case why you are right and the other person is wrong? Do you resent being corrected by a person whom you consider somehow beneath you?
“The more I reflect on the elder son in me, the more I realize how deeply rooted this form of lostness really is and how hard it is to return home from there. Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being. My resentment…is far more pernicious: something that has attached itself to the underside of my virtue. Isn’t it good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? And still it seems that my resentments and complaints are mysteriously tied to such praiseworthy attitudes. This connection often makes me despair…I am totally unable to root out my resentments…How to weed out these resentments without uprooting the virtues as well?…How can I return [home] when I am lost in resentment, when I am caught in jealousy, when I am imprisoned in obedience and duty lived out as slavery?…More daunting than healing myself as the younger son is healing myself as the elder son…I can only be healed from above, from where God reaches down. What is impossible for me is possible for God.” ~ Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 75-76.
Here are echoes of the Apostle Paul lamenting the war against sin within him (Rom 7:21-25). Loving God’s things (even virtues) more than God will always plunge you into darkness. You’ll either wander off from God and get lost by being very bad or being very good in order to get the things you lust for. So you must repent of being very bad in seeking God’s things, and you must repent of being very good to somehow deserve God’s things. In other words, full repentance is turning away from evil and turning away from good driven by evil motives, and turning to God. The irreligious person won’t repent because he’s rebelling against God. The religious person won’t repent because he’s working for God to establish his own virtue, his self-righteousness. But the gospel teaches both the irreligious and religious person, both the “bad boy” and the “good girl” to love God rather than God’s things.
B. Join in celebrating the lost who are found (vv. 24, 32)
Jesus concludes by tying all three of the “lost and found” parables together. It is fitting to celebrate and be happy when one who is lost and dead comes back found and alive (cf. Lk 19:10; Mt 10:6; 18:10-14). The father is not being “wasteful prodigal” but rather “extravagant prodigal” with his estate in throwing a celebration for his lost son found. It is fitting and right to celebrate. We must celebrate because to not celebrate is to refuse to join the heavenly father. This is the way God prescribes we respond to prodigal sons when they are saved. “It is necessary” that we imitate the angels and our heavenly Father who rejoice when the prodigal returns home. It is necessary that the father remind us (and we acknowledge) that both sons (elder and younger brothers) are members of God’s family. It is necessary that we celebrate God’s salvation coming to social outcasts. For “elder brother” types to experience the benefits of sonship and fellowship with God, they must celebrate the repentance of “younger brother” types. Otherwise “elder brothers” will remain outside, estranged from the Father and his children. Being outside and estranged is not compatible with salvation. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will be no means enter the kingdom of God (Mt 5:20).
C. Follow the true elder brother in seeking the lost (vv. 1-2, 4, 8, 20b)
Loving the Father never entails turning your back on the lost. Seeking the lost shows love to the Father. Despite what many believe, it is not merely the love of God that saves us. It is the love of God joined to the grace of God. One way to remember what grace means is the acronym G.R.A.C.E. (“God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”). Grace is free to the recipient, but it is expensive to the giver. If a gift does not cost anything, it is cheap grace. Grace therefore is love that pays a price. So how was the younger son saved from himself, forgiven, and restored back to his father’s family? Who paid the expense of his restoration? The elder brother who was the heir of all the father’s property! The younger brother could only be restored at the expense of the elder brother. This is the tragedy of the parable. The Pharisees were unwilling to pay the price to restore their brothers. But Jesus is the true elder brother who willingly and joyfully paid the price. The price to bring back sinners was the cross. Only the cross satisfies the law and the wrath of God due to both younger and older brothers for loving the Father only for his things. Only the sacrifice of our true elder brother accomplishes the loving and gracious plan of God to save both younger and elder brothers to bring you back home.
Conclusion – God has brought to our doorstep many people who, by their own admission, are younger brother types. You know I’m referring to our friends of Cristo Redentor. I rejoice that God has put us in this situation—unique in the history of this congregation. We as children of the Father, many of whom have never strayed far from his spiritual family, are in the position of the elder brother. Will we rise up, leave the comforts of home, and celebrate with our brothers and sisters in Christ, giving the kind of loving grace that pays a price? Or will we stay put, at a distance, looking in from the outside, guarding our comfort and reputation, watching from the back of the line as our virtue is burned away in God’s refining fire? There are three ways to live, but only the gospel way leads to life. May God melt our hearts to follow in the footsteps of our true elder brother Jesus, the one who saves us from ourselves.