Skip to content

Parables Of The Master

The Lost Son And The Elder Brother

The parable of the prodigal or lost son is perhaps the most well-known and touching of Jesus’ many parables. It touches the heart of every mother and father who have ever had a wayward child. It also touches the heart of every lost sinner who desperately is seeking to find the love of God.

The three parables in Luke 15 were in direct response to the Pharisees’ challenge: “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” The first two parables (the lost coin and the lost sheep) stress the determination of the Lord to seek and to save the lost. The parable of the lost son stresses not only the love of a forgiving father, but also exposes the deep disease of self-righteousness among those who consider themselves God’s people.

In the end both the lost son and the elder brother suffer from the malady of self-seeking. The young brother said, “Give me.” The elder brother complained, “You never gave me.” It is important that every person see himself both in the lost son and in the elder brother.

— We are all like the rebellious son —

Very few people go through their teenage and young adult years without a streak of headstrong rebellion. This younger son was headed on a course of self-destruction. He wanted his share of his father’s inheritance now! He then left home and wasted his possessions with riotous living. He lived what he thought was the good life–with wine, women, and song. Then his inheritance ran out, and his new friends deserted him. He was reduced to the most degrading job of all for a Jew–taking care of ceremonially unclean pigs. The younger son hit bottom.

All of us are by nature like this younger son. We were dead in sins and trespasses. We were under the power of the prince of the air, and we all conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind (cf. Eph. 2:1-3). It is sometimes a difficult thing to face what we were and what we have done. Sometimes the words of “Abide With Me!” strike powerfully home: “Thou on my head in early youth didst smile, and though rebellious and perverse meanwhile, Thou hast not left me, oft as I left thee . . . “

— We would be like the contrite son —

The younger son “came to himself.” he came to his senses as he remembered the love of his father. He could not even claim to be a son any longer. All he wanted was to be a servant in the house of his father. It was not easy for him to go to his father and admit that he was wrong. The father rejoiced in the return of his son and restored him to full sonship. In fact, he prepared a feast, “for this my son was dead and is alive again.”

How many children and young people who have wronged their parents do not also discover this same long-suffering love in their earthly parents?

Only the Holy Spirit can break the cycle of sin and destructive life-style that is a part of us by nature. In the depths of our despair, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins and leads us to truly repent of those sins as did David, who confessed, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done this great wickedness” (Ps. 51:4).

It is a miracle of God’s grace when the Father’s love penetrates our rebellion and hopelessness and reminds us of His unconditional love for us. You who were dead in sins and trespasses, God made alive. Our salvation is the personal story of a father and a son, of waiting love and repentance, of return and joyful welcome, of free forgiveness and exuberant joy. This is the story of God’s love for us as revealed in Jesus Christ.

— The danger is that we will be like the elder brother —

The key to this third parable in Luke 15 and the answer to the religious leaders who condemned Jesus for “eating with sinners” is found in the attitude of the elder brother. He was angry because of the attention the father gave to his younger brother. He also felt that he had deserved more because he had been the “good son.” He resented the love the father showed to his younger brother.

Should not the elder brother also have rejoiced in the return of his lost brother?

The wrong, self-righteous attitude of the religious leaders of Israel was laid bare in this parable. Jesus’ seeking love provoked the dissent of the “righteous” Pharisees and scribes.

Similarly, it is very easy for “good” Christians today to look down on “real” sinners and even resent Jesus’ unconditional love and acceptance. Sometimes members of churches want to impose conditions of public repentance on certain kinds of sins. Sometimes there is an unspoken self-righteousness that questions the genuineness of faith of other “bad” sinners. In many churches the attitude conveyed is that you have to become as good as we are in order to be a part of our group. A real danger among conservative Lutherans is that the devil injects the unspoken attitude of the elder brother into the fellowship.

The key is to identify with the younger brother rather than with the elder brother. We were dead, but now by the grace of God we are alive in Christ. We were lost, but–thanks be to God’s grace–He found us and accepted us in Jesus as His beloved sons and daughters. Let us come to the Father and find His accepting love.

This is a parable of “amazing grace.”

–Pastor John Schierenbeck