In Luke 15:11-32, we have a record of the familiar parable that Jesus told which is often called ‘The Prodigal Son.’ A more accurate title is ‘The Parable of the Two Lost Sons’, because both were lost, or even more appropriately, ‘The Parable of the Forgiving Father’, because the father is the real hero of the story. It is an amazing short story and through it, Jesus teaches us about grace. In Acts 1 we have the story of the lost younger brother who shames his father by asking for his inheritance right away and then goes and wastes it through wild living. Eventually, after he comes to his senses, he returns to his father who, surprisingly, runs towards him, shows great emotion and elevates him back to the full standing of a son. The father throws a huge costly celebration feast. There is music and dancing. What a story of grace – undeserved favour!
But the story doesn’t stop there. Acts 2 is about the lost elder brother. Unaware of what has happened, he returns from a hard day’s work in the field. He hears the music and discovers that his brother has returned home. He is furious and disgraces his father by refusing to go in to the party. His father comes outside and tenderly pleads with his son to come in. The listeners are on the edge of their seats. Will the older brother come in? Will the family be reunited? ... and then the story ends! A bit like those old crime dramas – just when you’re about to find out “who done it” ... it says ‘to be continued next week!’
To understand what Jesus is doing through this story we need to understand the historical context. In Luke 15:1-2, we learn that Jesus has tax collectors and sinners gathering around him. The Pharisees and religious people are upset about this because table fellowship implied acceptance in Middle Eastern culture. How can Jesus be hanging out with these people? The startling message Jesus gives to the tax collectors and sinners (the younger brothers) is that God’s grace is amazing, along with his love and forgiveness towards those who come to their senses and return to their Father’s house, regardless of what they have done. This is good news!
The even more startling message to the Pharisees and religious people (the older brothers) is that you can live a moral life of full obedience (the older brother never once disobeyed his father) and yet still be lost and outside the Father’s house. This is the great reversal of the story – the younger son who was outside the house is now inside while the older brother who was inside the house is now outside and we’re not sure whether he will come in. What a shock this must have been to the listeners who saw themselves as the ones who were IN and the sinners as the ones who were OUT!
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York, in his excellent book, The Prodigal God, shows how the two sons in this story are symbolic or representative of two types of people. They show us two ways that people try to find happiness and fulfilment in life.
Younger brother types represent those who choose the way of 'self discovery'. They choose to do their own thing, breaking free from the rules and traditions of society. These are the people who colour outside the lines and don't like boundaries imposed upon them. They look out for number 1. This sort of living may work for a while but eventually there are consequences and in the end it can become quite destructive. When younger brother types come to their senses and turn around (repent), the Father God is pleased and is willing to offer them his grace and forgiveness ... and a fresh start.
Older brother types represent those who choose the way of 'moral conformity'. They choose to keep the rules and traditions of society, because it is the right thing to do. They seek to be self-controlled and self-disciplined at all times. They are into ethical strictness.
What Jesus teaches, however, is that it is possible to always seek to do the right thing, to even be 'religious', and yet still be spiritually lost. Older brother types can easily tend towards being self-righteous, superior (looking down on others), and proud. When things don't go well for them, they tend to become angry, bitter, and resentful (after all, they deserve better). Towards others who are shown mercy or grace, they can be judgmental and unforgiving. Even their obedience to the rules can be out of mere duty ('I've been slaving for you all these years ...'). Theirs is a fear-based joyless compliance. The Father God appreciates their obedience but questions their motives and whether they are on a self-salvation project or really engaged with the Father's heart.
Which way do you lean? Yes, these are two extremes, but we all lean one way or the other. Sometimes we lean different directions at different seasons in our lives. A younger brother who is shown God's grace can gradually drift into an older brother attitude if he or she is not careful. An older brother whose life falls a part a bit, can react and become like a younger brother.
Two sons. Two ways of doing life. Both were wrong. Both were lost. Both ways of living are dead ends.
Amazingly, both sons were loved. The father in the story went out to welcome the younger brother home AND the father went out to seek to bring the older brother in. God is not a Pharisee to the Pharisees.
Who needs to hear this good news of grace?
- Young brother types! They need to know the Father's heart and the grace that is available to them. Christianity is not a religion. It is a relationship with a loving God.
- Older brother types! Tim Keller notes that Jesus attracted younger brother types but seemed to repel or offend older brother types. Churches today tend to attract older brother types but young brother types tend to stay away. Why the difference? Is the church preaching the same message as Jesus? Or is the church filled with more older brothers than we'd like to admit. A challenging thought!
A final thought ... This parable is the last of three parables that Jesus tells, in response to the criticism of the Pharisees, of him spending time with sinners. In the first parable, a shepherd goes looking for a lost sheep and when he finds it, he calls his friends to celebrate with him. In the second parable, a woman looks for a lost coin and when she finds it, she calls her neighbours around to celebrate with her. In the final parable, the younger son is lost but no one goes looking for him. This would have surprised the listeners as they would have been expecting someone to go. Who was supposed to go? The father? OR maybe the older brother? Cain (one of the first two brother stories in the Bible) had to learn that he was his 'brother's keeper'. This younger brother got a Pharisee for an older brother rather than a true older brother. Jesus was acting as the true older brother, spending time with younger brother types - going after them, loving and accepting them, and trying to help them to come to their senses and return to the Father's house. Will we be a true older brother, like Jesus, to the younger brothers of this world?
All three parables end with a feast - a party, a celebration. We all long to come 'home'. The gospel is 'good news' - for younger brothers and older brothers. We have a heavenly Father who loves us so much that he sent his only son to pay the price for our forgiveness and salvation. That's really good news ... and worth spreading!Sample Discussion Questions
- When did you first hear this parable? How did it impact you?
- What does ‘grace’ mean to you personally?
- As you were growing up, were you more like the younger brother or the older one?
- Which way do you lean now? Why do you think that is?
- How do you find relating to people who are opposite to you?
- What does the image of God as “Father’ mean to you?
- What ‘younger brothers’ do you know now that you could reach out to? What are some of the keys to reaching those far from the Father?