THE OLDER SON
The second half of this parable has caused a debate in my heart. As I read about this older son who becomes
angry with his father, scorns his younger brother, and has a joyless kind of existence, I asked myself, "Who is
Jesus describing?" Is this a description of an unsaved, self-righteous religious person? Or, is this a description
of a person who has a genuine relationship with God, who is truly a son of the Father, but has slipped into the
grips of pride and self-righteousness? I am not sure that I have resolved this debate in my own mind yet.
However, the debate may not really be necessary. Self-righteousness is an ugly thing whether it appears in the
life of the unsaved religious person or in the life of the person who has a genuine relationship with God. Self-
righteousness bears the same kind of fruit regardless of where it appears. In the case of the unsaved it keeps
them from ever receiving salvation, and in the case of the saved it keeps them from ever enjoying salvation.
I think I can identify with Henri Nouwen in his insight into this parable. He says that this part of the parable
opened up to him one day when a friend commented to him, "Henri, you have more in common with the older
brother than you do with the younger son." It was a moment of self revelation for Nouwen. He began to see
himself as he had never seen himself before. He, like me, was the oldest son in the family. He, like me, had
grown up with a strong sense of duty. He, like me, had developed early in life a solid work ethic. He, like me,
was inclined to be judgmental toward people who did not approach life with the same diligence with which he
approached life. Some of us, who are saved, need to see ourselves in this older son. Some of us who have
never received Christ need to see ourselves in the older son. The only thing standing between you and the joy
of God's salvation is your self-righteousness. It is your sense of your merit before God that keeps you from
receiving God's grace. None of us will ever know or enjoy God's salvation until we are able to bow before the
Father like the returning prodigal and say, "Father, I have sinned."
Let's explore this parable together and see what it might say to us about ourselves.
I. HIS ANGER TOWARD THE FATHER.
When the drama of the prodigal's return began to unfold, the older son was in the field. He was as he usually
did doing his duty. After the hard day of labor as he returned to the house, he heard music and dancing. He
asked one of the younger servants what all of this sound of celebration meant. The servant explained to him,
"Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has him back safe and sound." It
was too much for the older brother. He became extremely angry with his father and refused to go into the
Doubtlessly this was not the first time he had been angry with his father. He may not have expressed it openly,
but there had been smoldering in his heart such anger for such a long time. It grew out of several things that
The older son thought that the father had been too soft in his dealing with the younger son. He probably
thought that instead of dividing him a part of the inheritance the father would have been wiser to have
disinherited him on the spot. The generosity of the father with an obviously rebellious son was too much.
The older son had also been bothered by the obvious grief and sorrow of the father over the rascal. The
father's grief over the son that had gone to the far country was obvious to everyone who knew him. Some way
his name would come up in almost every conversation. The father could be seen daily walking out to the gate
and looking down the road to the far country with a longing look in his eye. The father would anxiously question
any traveler who came by from the far country. He would want to know if they had seen his younger son or had
heard anything about him in the far country. This was too much for the older son. He thought the father ought
to just dismiss the memory of the younger son. He was not worth this much grief.
And now it was obvious that the father was being too generous with this worthless piece of trash that had come
back from the far country. He found the celebration totally offensive. He was angry with obvious weaknesses in
Such anger is not uncommon among the self-righteous. They will often have unexpressed anger toward God
smoldering in their hearts. Sometimes it will be because they feel like God has not dealt fairly with them. They
have received more than their share of the sorrows of life even though it is obvious that they have faithfully
done their duty. God has not dealt fairly with them. And as they look around they can almost always find some
prodigal, some unworthy piece of trash, that God has dealt with mercifully and generously. They are angry with
The anger may not keep them from continuing to do their duty. It did not keep this older brother from doing his
work in the field. It may not keep you from teaching your Sunday School Class, singing in the choir, giving
some money, or doing some other kind of religious deed. I have seen people who were exemplary in their
service in the church but they were eaten up with anger at the same time. Some times they have never sat
down long enough or thought deeply enough about their anger to become aware that their anger is really
directed toward God. Sometimes they will direct their anger toward a person who represents God to them and
not realize that their anger is really with God. It is the way of the self-righteous - they give birth to anger toward
II. HIS SCORN FOR HIS BROTHER.
Jesus makes the scorn of the older brother for his younger brother rather obvious in the passage. When the
older brother responds to the father he said to him, "But when this son of yours who has squandered your
property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf for him!" He will not speak of him as his younger
brother; rather he identifies him as "your son." It is as though he wants to deny that he has any relationship
with him. He is ready to mark him out of his life and memory. His decisions and actions in his judgment have
made him totally unworthy of any consideration or any place in the family. He has nothing in his heart but
contempt for his younger brother.
In his contempt for is younger brother he probably overstates the transgression of the younger brother. He may
even be guilty of slander. In the description that Jesus gives us of the younger son's journey into the far
country all that Jesus said was that he "squandered his wealth in wild living." The older brother describes his
actions like this, "He squandered your property with prostitutes." Were prostitutes a part of his indulgences in
the far country? They could have been but there is nothing in the text that indicates that they were. But in the
mind of the older brother he imagines the very worst and the most despicable behavior on the part of this
prodigal. It is a part of his holding him up to scorn. Have you ever wondered what the relationship would be
between your judgment of the activities of someone you hold up to scorn and what the reality might be?
Sometimes because of our scorn we see things worst than they are in the life of the younger brother.
One of the lessons Jesus obviously means for us to gather from this parable is that sensual indulgence in the
far country is not the only way that you can offend God. It is not the only thing that will keep you from enjoying
the love of the Father. It is not the only thing that will put a barrier between you and the Father. Self-
righteousness expressed in scorn toward your brother will do it as quickly as a visit to a house of prostitution. In
the eyes of our sovereign and holy God self-righteousness is just as offensive as sexual indulgence, or drug
abuse, or a dozen other dirty sins that we could hold up to contempt. Self-righteousness makes it impossible
for us to see our brother in any kind of realistic light.
We must remember the context of this total parable. Jesus is responding to the criticism that he has been too
close to sinners. The criticism had come from the religious leaders of the community, the Pharisees and
scribes. Jesus is indicating that scribes and Pharisees, the self-righteous, are out of touch with the heart of the
Father. They do not share the Father's sorrow over the wayward son because they do not value the wayward
son like the Father. They see the wayward son as trash but the Father sees him as a treasure.
III. HIS PROBLEM WITH HIMSELF.
The older brother's self problem becomes rather obvious when you listen to his response to the father. The
words that dominate his response are "I," "me,” and "my." He is totally preoccupied with himself. "Look! All
these years I have been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me even a
young goat so I could celebrate with my friends." As far as the older son is concerned, he is the one deserving
It is obvious that the older son saw himself however more as a slave than as a son. In his response to the
Father he said, "All these years I have been slaving for you." "Slaving" is a good translation here. It literally
means "I have been serving you as a slave." Instead of enjoying his status as a son, he has been relating to
the father as a slave. He has seen himself as being obligated to earn the favor of the father. He must prove
his worth and earn the father's favor by working in the field and doing his duty day by day. Because this is his
approach to life, there has been absolutely no joy or freedom in anything that he has done. No matter how
much he did, he never felt like it was quite enough. All of his expectations toward the father were based upon
what he had done.
This older son needed to do what the younger son had done. He needed to bow before the father and to
confess, "Father, I haven't left home but my attitude has been wrong. I have been trying to earn what you have
wanted to give. I have not allowed myself to receive your love, grace, and favor." The heart of the older son
was as far from the father as that of the rebellious younger son who went to the far country. His biggest
problem was his own estimate of himself.
Can you identify with this? I can. I struggle with some of this again and again in my life. I tend to feel like my
relationship with God is based on what I do for God. I have difficulty of just bowing before God and allowing my
relationship with him be totally based upon his love for me and his grace toward me. But this is what God
This is the very thing that has kept some of you from enjoying God's salvation. You never allowed yourself the
privilege of just receiving grace from the Father. You live with a nagging sense of guilt that you have not done
enough to earn His favor. And you are right, but you don't have to. The things that you do for God are
suppose to be because you are grateful for his love.
This is the very thing that is keeping some of you from salvation itself. You have always been fairly
respectable, done your duty. You have paid your debts and been faithful on your job. You have been faithful
to your wife and taking care of your children. Why should you have to bow before God like this trashy prodigal
and ask God for mercy? You think to yourself, "Surely God owes me salvation. Look at what I've done!" But
the sobering truth is your self-righteousness is as offensive to God as the abusive lifestyle of the prodigal that
you despise. You will have to come like the prodigal or you will never come to God. We have all sinned but our
sins express themselves in different ways. The way to the father's heart is open to those who will receive it as a
gift of grace.
I want to appeal to every older son in this house to come in and receive from the Father His love and to rejoice
with the Father in His saving work. Is it not good news that God loves all kinds of sinners?