The prodigal story may be Jesus’ greatest hit, the most beloved and arguably the best known of all of Jesus’ recorded parables. The irony is that the character the story’s named after is not the character for which the story was originally told.
We so naturally identify with the younger brother we call the prodigal. To the extent that he was rebellious, any one of us could be that guy. But we can also remember moments when we realized our rebellion wasn’t working out all that well for us and, like the prodigal, we came to our senses. The prompting of God’s Spirit became the catalyst for repentance and turning our heart toward home. Because we were created in God’s image, when we “come to our senses,” we are actually coming back to our hard-wired God-consciousness. All that to say, we should all hope to be like the prodigal completely. Would God grant that all of our stories end like his did.
Then there was the father. There’s certainly much about him that we should seek to emulate as well. We should all aspire to reflect his redemptive heart and unconditional love. But Jesus didn’t tell this story to give us advice about how to deal with rebellious children.
The older brother, the character in the story who’s almost an afterthought, even left out of many prodigal sermons completely, is the one who actually frames the reason Jesus told the story in the first place. And the short of it is clear—we don’t want to end up like that guy, the one who represents the Pharisees (the group to whom Jesus was speaking), confused about what loyalty to the Father even means.
By the way, Jesus is uniquely qualified to tell the story the way He does. And this is why.
THE GRACE AND TRUTH QUADRANTS
I find quadrants to be a helpful tool in recognizing the relationship between to commodities. In this case, those commodities are both high value targets.
In the lower left black box (low grace / low truth), you’ll notice I put the word, religious. In the first and every other century, false religion has dominated the human landscape. There are over 10,000 religions in the world today, with two new ones being added every single day! And they all say the same thing. “I’ve formulated my own reality (with my unique “truth”), created systems to support that “reality” and will punish those who don’t conform.” That’s generally what the architects of false religion do, create false realities and then threaten people who don’t what to get on board.
In the upper left blue box (high grace/low truth), I added the word, relativistic. This is where the prodigal lived during the first part of the parable. “C’mon Pops, let me have what I’m going to eventually get anyway and go find my own path. It’s not the one you chose, but that doesn’t make me wrong. I’m just different from you.”
In the lower right green box (low grace/high truth), I put ruthless. That word might sound a bit harsh, but Jesus was concerned enough about the Pharisees’ hardened hearts that they become the subject of their own parable. They were represented by the older “good” brother. “I’ve always sought to please you, by honoring every word you give me, and refuse to allow someone who’s ignored your word to be honored in any way.” That was precisely the state of the Jewish people when Jesus arrived. They had high truth (albeit only one Testament), but they wouldn’t let anyone else in on it. It’s interesting how some of us try so hard not to be the one son, that we end up becoming the other one.
And then there’s the father in the story, actually the One telling the story. He lives in the upper right gold box (high grace/high truth). He alone is perfectly redemptive because He alone is completely full of both grace and truth. “The One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
When we aspire to be like Jesus, we’re recognizing the high value of both commodities. While grace isn’t helpful unless accompanied by truth, truth isn’t helpful unless accompanied by grace. Each gives power to the other. But without the other, neither work very well.
The younger son took his inheritance, wasted it recklessly and ended up recognizing he didn’t know as much as he thought he did. As Coach Wooden said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” The prodigal was broke, then broken, and then humbled. He couldn’t even muster enough income to afford pig food, so he decided to return home and ask his dad if he could apply for a job as a servant. His dad, said “No son of mine will be my servant,” and orchestrated a huge party to celebrate the return and restoration of his prodigal son.
Remember how the narrative describes the father running to meet the younger brother when his head popped up on the horizon? Had the older brother gotten to the prodigal before their dad did, there would have never been a celebration. He would have condemned his little brother for not meeting the expectations of the family and then would have sent him away in disgrace.
But that’s not to say that there’s not a lot to like about this guy. He was hard working, out in the field, probably trying to pull double-duty and compensate for the absence of his brother. He was very disciplined, following every order that was handed down to him. But his problem is that he’s so inflexible.
Craig Barnes writes about how that older brother attends his church. “I wish there were a fifth gospel in the New Testament devoted to reaching out to that guy because he's everywhere in the congregation I serve, wearing many names and faces. Frankly, we depend on elder brothers to keep the place running.”
That’s why it can be easy for churches to tolerate attitudes of spiritual superiority. "Older brothers" naturally see church through the lens of dutiful service. They tend to volunteer more. They might even tithe more. But they also tend to feel like they’re more deserving than others, and attitudes of spiritual superiority like that hold back the redemptive plan of God. Churches that provide safe harbor for older brothers seldom see younger brothers come to Jesus. How many times have we heard that? “I stopped going to church because the Christians there were so judgmental?” Older brother attitudes can easily seep into a church. We experience grace when we arrive, then forget that we ever needed it. “Not so fast, little buddy. Dad may want you back, but the rest of us don’t.”
Or, “Jesus may have invited you into His church, but I don’t want you to come to mine.”
Or, “Jesus may have been crucified at the hands of Roman executioners to redeem you, but I don’t ever want to speak to you again.”
“But Tom, you have no idea what they did to me!” I hear it all the time. “You don’t understand, it was the worst possible thing that could have happened.” It’s important to try to keep things in perspective, because the worst thing that could happen is that somebody finds the body of Jesus. But since nobody’s going to do that, we’ve got a fourth quarter to play. So, let’s stop being so petty and making it difficult for younger brothers who want to come home, lest the digressive spiral of legalism take over your perspective as well.
STEP 1—Prideful: “Everyone ought to think and act like I do.”
You may have noticed how American politics have been polluted by older brothers. How Hollywood is filled with older brothers. How social media is dominated by older brothers. “Everyone ought to think and act like I do.” The irony is, groups who successfully fought the older brother syndrome in our culture have now fallen into that same older brother trap themselves. This guy seems to be everywhere. I just hope he doesn’t live in your house.
STEP 2—Resentful: “If you don’t live up to my expectations, then we’re going to have issues.”
STEP 3—Disrespectful: “I refuse to celebrate your homecoming.”
Unchecked resent leads to disrespect. The older brother was so disrespectful, he wouldn’t fulfil his familial obligation to co-host his father’s party. His refusal to even attend would have resulted in the public humiliation of his father. This is important to recognize—the older brother was mad at the younger brother for humiliating the father. So, how did that older brother react? By humiliating the father, only in a different “righteously indignant” way.
The younger brother needed to recognize that grace does not negate the importance of wisdom. But the older brother needed to recognize that it is never ever ever wise to disrespect the Father.
STEP 4—Wasteful: “I’m too focused on my own feelings to see that I have a great opportunity here.”
The word “prodigal” actually comes from the Latin for “wasteful.” The younger brother wasted his father’s money and his family’s reputation. But the older brother ended up becoming even more wasteful, by wasting the opportunity to honor their father and redeem his broken brother. In fact, notice how both brothers followed the same path (1—2—3—4), but only one of them turned around and found his way home. Which raises an important question. Who’s the actual prodigal here?
Maybe he’s us—people whom God has platformed for 8 to 15 others to watch as we co-host their homecoming. And yet so many are content to sit the party out and waste those important opportunities.
We don’t want to be that guy. But it will happen, unless we’re careful to avoid taking that first step down.“Everyone ought to think and act like I do.” Which, by the way, is not even true—what we all ought to do is to think and act like Jesus (since He seems to have been right about everything). Sharing His opinions are super important, but your sharing mine or my sharing yours, not so much.
Jesus’ highest value was clear from the very beginning of His ministry. He came to forgive and restore. And He’s asking us to co-host some parties, celebrating how the people who have hurt Him, maybe even hurt us, want to come home.