This past Sunday, I had the privilege of preaching on the story of the Prodigal Son. This parable of Jesus is so familiar that prodigal has become a part of our vernacular – our everyday speech. A few years ago, Tim Keller wrote, Prodigal God, a helpful retelling of this parable. In his book, Keller made the salient point that there are two lost sons, not just the prodigal one, and that this should enrich our understanding of sin and lostness.
So I am grateful for Keller’s insights. Let me encourage you to read below to learn more about how the lostness of the “righteous” older brother is just as dangerous (or even more so) than the immorality of the prodigal son.
In Jesus’ parable, the prodigal son requests & receives his inheritance early. Traveling to a far country, this young man squanders his new-found riches on reckless living. We can only imagine the depths of his depravity.
Just when he wastes all his inheritance, a famine hits, leaving the prodigal son destitute. The only job available to him is as a caretaker of pigs. Seemingly the pay is so poor that the young man has to live and eat alongside the pigs.
Coming to his senses, the prodigal son decides to return to his father and repent of his sin. As he nears home, the Father sees him, runs to him, embraces him, restores him to the family, and throws a party to celebrate his return.
If the story was only about the lostness of one son, the parable would end there. But Jesus continues the story telling us that the elder brother learns of the prodigal son’s return. That a celebration ensued infuriates the elder brother, believing that the Father is playing favorites.
But when the Father learns that the elder brother is upset, he goes to his son, entreating him to join the celebration, which the elder brother refuses to do. His self-righteousness will not allow him to celebrate the return of the prodigal son.
The younger son easily fits into our typical understanding of lostness – he runs away, is completely selfish, and pursues seemingly every type of overt sin. We typically understand lostness, in other words someone who isn’t a Christian , as immorality. Those who are immoral are those who reject Christ.
But a little harder to see is that his older brother is just as lost. He is just as isolated from his father as the little brother. Immorality that separates us from God is obvious – what is less obvious and just as separating is self-righteous morality.
I imagine that some of you are skeptical at this point – so let me take a moment to further explain.
In Isaiah 25:6, heaven is compared to a lavish banquet, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples, a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” In Jesus’ parable – the reconciliation between the younger son and the Father is celebrated with a feast. The Feast is a metaphor for eternal life – all those reconciled to the Father will celebrate for eternity.
But the self-righteous son refuses to go to the feast because of who else will be there!
Tim Keller explains it this way; “The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his (morality); it’s not his wrongdoing but his (self-) righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of his father.”[i]
The prodigal son first rejects his father – wants his father’s stuff, rather than his father – this was his first, and greatest sin. But the prodigal son repents, and his relationship with the Father is restored.
Notice that the older son is just as fixated on his father’s stuff – the older son complained in verse 29 and 30 that he never had a party of his own, he’s mad that his dad gave-in by giving the inheritance, and he’s mad that the fattened calf is now gone. He even claims that he never disobeyed one of his father’s commands. It’s at this point that we see that the elder brother is the epitome of self-righteousness.
This self-righteousness reminds me of a real person – one that Jesus encountered – one who also believed that his morality would save him. In Mark 10, we are told of a rich young man who approaches Jesus and asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus responds with, “keep all of the commandments.”
The young man responds, “all of these I have kept since I was a youth.”
“I never disobeyed a command” – claimed the older brother.
“I have kept all of the commandments” – claimed the Rich Young Ruler.
Both the older brother and the Rich Young Ruler missed out on the Father’s banquet – one in a story, and one in reality & for eternity.
The danger of older-brother righteousness is that you will fail to realize you are in need of the Father.
Again, Tim Keller is helpful on this, “the younger brother knew he was alienated from the father, but the elder brother did not. That’s why elder-brother lostness is so dangerous. Elder brothers don’t go to God and beg for healing from their condition. They see nothing wrong with their condition, and that can be fatal.”[ii]
Each of us needs to do a self-diagnosis – am I an older brother? Is my self-righteousness putting me in danger of missing out on the eternal banquet?
Here’s some diagnostic questions we must ask ourselves:
- Do I care more about appearances than content and character?
- When life doesn’t go as I want, do I think God owes me something better?
- Do I feel superior to others – especially sinners? – like the Pharisees and scribes did?
- Am I condescending? Condemning? Anxious? Insecure? Joyless? Quick to anger?
- Do I want things from God, rather than God himself?
If you answered yes to these questions, let me entreat you to examine your heart. You too may be in danger of wanting what the Father gives, rather than the Father himself. And if so, you are in danger of missing out on an eternity of living in the presence of God our Father.
[i] Keller, Prodigal God, 35
[ii] Ibid., 66.