I recently finished reading Will God Run?, a book of sermons on Luke 15 by Charles Hodge, and I’ve also taken another look (after reading it previously) at Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, which also examines the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
When writing about or speaking on Luke 15, there is a tendency amongst many people to focus only on the Prodigal Son himself, while ignoring the Elder Brother. Doing this misses out on a key part of Jesus’ teaching, and one of the best characteristics of both of these books is that the authors focus extensively on the Elder Brother.
First, to some degree, both authors make the point that despite the fact that typical church-goers tend to view the Prodigal Son as the hero of the story, it’s actually the Elder Brother who they more likely resemble (throughout these quotations, emphasis is mine):
“…It is very hard to find one’s self in the elder son. Yet, the readers of this book are not prodigals; you readers are people at home. Your problem is not that of the far country but home. And really the lesson for brethren is not that of the prodigal but that of the elder son! The prodigal to us is the hero of this story and the elder son is the villain. Perhaps the man that we hiss as the villain is the very man we are and the very man we exemplify.”1
“Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers that we’d like to think.”2
In the context of Jesus’ parable, both sons are lost, but Hodge writes that in the church, we tend to ignore that in the case of Elder Sons:
“If the elder son could not rule, he would ruin. He was a product of his time and thinking. Perhaps our preaching has been harder on lusts than lovelessness, harder on stealing than covetousness. It is easier to change actions than attitudes! Herein is another lesson to be gained concerning church officers. We put prodigals out of the church because of scandal, but we put elder sons in the church as officers because of their outward rule keeping!”3
The Elder Brother had no love for his brother, which also damages his relationship with his father:
“You cannot love a father while not loving a brother. You cannot love a father while hating his son. John said we cannot love God whom we have not seen when we dislike the brother that we do see…Our problem as sons is learning how to be brothers.”4
And perhaps the biggest danger of all is that the Elder Brother exemplifies a type of works righteousness. The New Testament teaches that while good works are a vital part of the Christian’s lifestyle, all of us are saved by grace. If we aren’t careful, we can fall into the trap of thinking that our good works obligate God to treat us a certain way, and this was the problem of the Elder Brother:
“Now the prodigal son did the wrong thing for the wrong reason while the elder did the right thing for the wrong reason. And that’s the difference. Right deeds for wrong reasons. Now the truth has come out. All these years this son has not been a son. He had been a slave. He offered his work but not himself. Yet, these sons who appear so basically different are, in reality, basically alike. They are alike because both wanted to have his own way. Now to have own way the prodigal thought that he had to go to the far country, and he did. He wanted to have his way in the way of the living as he pleased. But the elder son also wants to have his own way—at home in the church. He is religious profession. A man who takes pride in his own religious accomplishments.”5
“The elder son is a hireling; he thought he could obligate heaven. He thought God and the church owed him something. Perhaps this is one of the hardest lessons a preacher has to learn—that he is serving God and not the church. And since he cannot obligate God, then the church owes him nothing. What if a man gives his life to God? What if the church does not appreciate him? The church has sinned in not showing gratitude and appreciation, yes. But God and heaven owe no man anything!”6
“If, like the elder brother, you believe that God ought to bless you and help you because you have worked so hard to obey him and be a good person, then Jesus may be your helper, your example, even your inspiration, but he is not your Savior. You are serving as your own Savior.”7
These are some hard-hitting quotations, and for me, some of them strike a little too closely to home. There is room for both Prodigals and Elder Brothers in God’s family, but both of them must have restored and healthy relationships with the Father. The selfish and self-righteous attitudes of the Elder Brother can disrupt that relationship as easily as the selfish and wild behaviors of the Prodigal can.
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1Charles B. Hodge, Jr., Will God Run? (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications, 2002), 74.
2Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York, NY: Dutton, 2008), 15-16.
3Hodge, Will God Run?, 78.
4Hodge, 80, 82.
7Keller, The Prodigal God, 38.