I am a laborer. I am obedient. I am hardworking and driven. I am the elder brother.
The parable of the lost son is the beautiful, heartbreaking story of God’s love not only for his wayward son but also his “righteous” son. The better-known event in the parable is the dramatic return of the prodigal. After squandering all he has and losing everything, this younger son returns home to the arms of a loving father. It’s easy to cheer for his return, assuming the parable is teaching that God welcomes us into his arms after we’ve disobeyed him and that, unlike the elder brother, we should do the same to others. Narrowing the parable isn’t necessarily wrong; the story does teach us these things and there is beautiful truth in them.
But I think fitting such a powerful story into a clean-cut solution lessens the knockout blow the story holds.
I believe most people can possess the tendencies of both the elder and the younger brother. But I think it can be easier for Christians, especially Christians who’ve grown rigid and “proud” of their faith, to slip into tendencies of the elder brother. For instance, I have a pretty good idea of God’s love, his attributes, and his grace like I have a pretty good idea of the answers to a study guide I’ve been reviewing all night.
We can form a cooperative partnership with God in which our lives are ruled and judged by performance rather than a relationship that brings the vibrancy of his grace and love into our lives. This is what drives elder brothers into the bondage of success and law. In the parable, the elder brother needs to somehow prove his worth to his father. He’s quick to speak and slow to learn and believes he deserves at least a small party for his good standing. He is a slave to goodness and approval. In their song “The Truth Is a Cave,” The Oh Hellos sing haunting words that describe the true nature of the elder brother:
I was bound
I was bound and determined
To be the child
To be the child you wanted
I was blind to every sign
You left for me to find
And the truth became a tool
That I held in my hand
And I wielded it but didn’t I understand.
Truth must be sought, but it can also be wielded as a weapon that intimidates the wayward son and isolates us from our loving father. As the parable comes to an abrupt close, the story is left unresolved: the elder son is left standing outside of the father’s house, unwilling to enter without his righteousness as well. The prodigal’s joy is laced with the sadness and weight the father feels for those who white-knuckle their righteousness and refuse to walk in. It’s ironic this is called “The Parable of the Lost Son,” when it’s actually the elder brother—not the “sinner”—who refuses to join the party (see Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God).
Absurdity of Grace
For the waywards and sinners, the story is a jubilant celebration of embrace. For the Pharisees, it’s a furious realization that they’re accepted in the same breath as the sinners. But the story isn’t ultimately about them—it’s about the father and the grace given equally, fully, and prodigally to both. With tears of joy in his eyes, the father hugs his young son, for he has returned home. And with tears gathering in the same eyes and longing in his voice, he reminds his elder son, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. Come in, my son.”
The grace is the same; it is extreme, absurd, beyond all we can ever imagine.
Though the parable ends, I have to hope the elder son came to his own senses, abandoned his righteousness in the field, and collapsed into the arms of his dad. And, in the same triumph that welcomed home the prodigal, the father would say, “Welcome home, my son. Come in and see your brother. You both have been gone far too long.” The late Anglican priest Robert Capon put it beautifully:
Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe . . . flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.
God is working to call us home from our wanderings and tune our ears to the sound of the only approval we will ever need. The apostle Paul urges us to remove our old garments and be clothed with the righteousness of God (Eph. 4:22–24). Those old, discarded clothes are indeed the rags of a wayward son—tarnished, stained, and battered. But they’re also the synthetic, shiny, designer clothes of the elder brother. Both must be peeled away by the hands of the only one who can pull them off our bodies, no matter how plastered they are to our skin, or our hearts.
Free and Easy Rhythms
For those of us who resonate with the elder brother, we have a Father who hasn’t stopped inviting us into his arms—despite all the résumés and trophies we hold up to prove our worth. He is our worth. Christ is the one who overtakes us with the free and easy rhythms of grace made possible through the cross. He is the one who enables a life of grace—a life seeking to trust ever more fully in the Father who summons both sons home. As Capon wrote:
Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting—no matter how many waverings, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you—you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life.
I am more wayward than I know. I am a son of grace. I am not my own.
I am his.