The parable of the second lost son Luke 15:25-32

Somebody once said that the parable of the prodigal son has been preached on from every angle imaginable except from the point of view of the fattened calf. So I thought I would remedy that omission tonight. But then I decided that instead it would be better to look at the second half of what is actually a double parable. The story of the first lost son is the first half. That wasteful prodigal son rebels and disappears into a far country where he ends up in a desperate situation. But he comes to his senses and heads home. He is welcomed by his loving father and restored to his position as a son within the family and everybody is happy. 32 … we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” ’ Everybody was happy, that is except the first son, the older brother. The parable of the first lost son, the prodigal, sets up the scene for this parable of the older brother.
Writing at the beginning of the 18th century, Matthew Henry commented, “By the older brother, here we may understand those who are really good and never went astray, who comparatively need no repentance.”
Perhaps like Matthew Henry you have a sneaking sympathy for the older brother. He was the goody-goody who stayed at home and kept the show on the road while his baby brother ran away to waste all his money having a good time. Perhaps you feel the older brother was entitled to feel a bit miffed by it all. If so, then you have completely missed the point of the parable. Let’s hear it through the ears of the middle eastern peasants who first listened to Jesus the poet from Nazareth. You’ll see why the whole story should really be called the parable of the two lost sons and the second part is the parable of the second lost son. Because the older brother was just as lost as the prodigal son, but in different ways. Firstly the older brother was lost because
He didn’t care about his brother
Think about it. He could have stopped his younger brother from going away in the first place. He could have intervened, but instead he did nothing. He never made any attempt to reconcile his brother with their father. As the older brother he had the responsibility of being the mediator in the dispute. He was as guilty as his little brother in the break up of the family. He may have been as happy to have his brother out of the picture as the prodigal was to get away. That’s why the older brother refused to join the celebration.
25 ‘Meanwhile, the elder son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 “Your brother has come,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”
28 ‘The elder brother became angry and refused to go in.
He should have been happy that his brother had come home – as happy as their father was. The father explained at the end, “we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” But instead the older brother was angry and resentful. He was obviously jealous.
29 But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
The older brother was jealous and he was self-righteous. “I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” Look how much I have done for you! Look how much he has hurt you! Don’t I deserve more than he deserves? Shouldn’t it be me who is the guest of honour? The older brother felt he was being treated unfairly. He accused his father of favouritism. He really didn’t understand why the father and the whole community was so happy.
Did you notice how he referred to his younger brother? Not “my brother”, but “this son of yours”. The older brother disowned the younger. He denied their relationship. But of course in doing that he was also denying his own relationship with his father. The older son was making himself the outcast from the family. He wants to portray the prodigal in the worst possible light. “He has squandered your property with prostitutes”. We never heard that in the first parable. The older brother is exaggerating, maybe even lying.
If that is the kind of dreadful way the older brother always treated his younger brother, maybe we can begin to understand why the prodigal left home in the first place. His brother had driven him away. So many families have those kinds of problems. In one way it makes me feel sorry for the younger son. I can begin to see why he felt he had to take his inheritance and just get as far away from his older brother as he could for a fresh start. It could well be that the older brother was actually lost before the younger one was, although his story is the second to be told so I think of him as the second lost son. Not only did he not care about his brother, more than that,
He didn’t care about his father
The older brother had accepted his share of the inheritance, when he should have protested as strongly as possible and refused the division of the family estate. Instead he went along with it and stayed silent. His response to his father is insulting.
28 ‘The elder brother became angry and refused to go in.
You would expect the father just to send a servant to command the son to come inside. But that isn’t what happened. Instead “his father went out and pleaded with him.” Such amazing love, leaving his responsibilities as host and coming out from the party to find his son, in its way just as amazing as the father’s love in running to welcome the returning prodigal. He should have punished his disobedient son for refusing to go in. He could have just ignored the older brother completely and dealt with the matter the next day. Instead he approaches his older son by making gentle requests and not by giving orders. But this display of gracious love does not win his son over. Did you notice how rude the older son was to his father.
29 But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.

Even the prodigal son had begun his appeal with a customary polite title, “Father”. Instead the older brother uses no title and just says, “Listen!” “Look here!” How rude can you get!
“I’ve been slaving for you” he says. “I’ve been a good servant – now where’s my pay? Where’s my banquet to have with my friends?” Not the father’s friends – the older brother’s friends. Another insult!
“I’ve been slaving for you”. All the time, he had been working living in his father’s house with the attitude of a slave, not the familiarity of a son.
“I never disobeyed your orders,” he said. Which was obviously a lie because there and then he was outside the house insulting his father by refusing to go in to the banquet. He knew how much his father longed to have his joy complete by having his two sons together again and the whole family reunited after so long. But the older brother still said, “I never disobeyed your orders,” and what is worse, he actually believed that to be true. The really sad part of this parable is that it doesn’t have a happy ending. As far as we know the older brother never did go into the house and join the celebration.
The second lost son didn’t care about his brother, he didn’t care about his father, and
He didn’t care that he was lost.
He didn’t know what he was missing. Somebody has commented that, “we see a son whose attitudes and relationships are sadly perverted. His only redeeming feature is that he carries out orders.” The younger brother was rebellious and estranged when he was away from home. The older brother was rebellious and estranged all the time when he was still in the house. The prodigal’s rebellion lay in his greed and his request to leave the house and the family. The older son’s rebellion lay in showing his anger, and in his refusal to enter the house and be part of the family. The older brother was not the aggrieved party here. The older brother has just as much to repent of as the younger, if not even more.
This second lost son has a warped sense of joy. His younger brother had been lost but now was found. He had been dead and now was alive again. What better cause for celebration. But instead all the older brother wanted to make him happy was his own feast with his own friends.
The Egyptian scholar Ibrahim Said wrote about the older brother,
“He is no better than the prodigal son who took his portion and travelled into a far country. The difference between them was that the prodigal son was an “honourable sinner.” He was perfectly open to his father and told his father all that was in his heart. But the older brother was a “hypocritical saint”, because he hid his feelings in his heart. He had remained in the house, all the while hating his father.”
The first lost son, the prodigal rebelled. But then he came to himself and set off to his father. He was welcomed with love and forgiveness, not as a hired servant but as a beloved son. The second lost son, the older brother, lived all the time like a hired servant and didn’t want to live as a son with all its privileges but with all its responsibilities as well. The older brother never came to himself: he never came to his senses. Even as the loving father came out to him, showing such love to win him back, the second lost son insulted and rejected his father and his brother. The parable of the prodigal has such a happy ending – the son is lost but then is found. But the parable of the second lost son does not have a happy ending. The older brother was lost, and chose to stay lost. And he really didn’t care. So now for the punchline.
Who is the older son?
Let’s remind ourselves of the setting where Luke tells us Jesus told these parables.
Luke 15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.’
The Pharisees were complaining about the fact that Jesus the Messiah was spending his time with disreputable people, tax collectors and sinners. In response, Jesus told a series of parables all about things which are lost and then are found. First was the parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 safe in the fold to search the countryside for lost one sheep, and brings it home rejoicing. Jesus explained the point of that story like this: “7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.”
Then Jesus told the parable of the woman who searched her whole house to find a lost coin. That story ends, 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.”
These two parables of a lost sheep and a lost coin prepare the way for the double parable of the first lost son, the prodigal, and the second lost son, the older brother.
In both of these parables the father represents God the loving heavenly father. In their original context the prodigal son who was lost in a far country but then returns home represents the tax collectors and the sinners. That first lost son also represents lost prodigal sons and daughters in every generation who come to their senses and return to God, and receive the wonderful welcome of the loving father however far they may have fallen. The prodigal son shows us how to be saved. In the original context the parable of the second lost son is about the Pharisees. Like the older brother, they were angry about the loving welcome God was giving to the prodigals who were returning.
But the older brother does not just represent the Pharisees in Jesus’s time. Both brothers rebelled and both broke their father’s heart in different ways. Both found themselves in a distant country, cut off from their father, the first physically the second emotionally and spiritually. Each of us can be like one or other of those brothers at different times in our lives.
We can be like the older brother if we refuse to show the same love and forgiveness and unconditional welcome which the father does. We are like the older brother when we refuse to join in the celebrations when prodigals return to the family. Even the angels are rejoicing when a sinner repents. We can be like the older brother if we are ever jealous of other Christians, or critical or angry or bitter or judgmental towards members of God’s family. If we ever view another Christian as “this son or daughter of yours” rather than as “this brother or sister of mine”. If other people are God’s children, they are our brothers and sisters. We can be like the older brother whenever we take God’s love for granted and demand what we consider we are entitled to, rather than receiving God’s grace with gratitude and humble dependence. We can be like the older brother when we serve God like slaves out of duty and cold obedience, instead of like sons and daughters out of devoted love and joyful gratitude. We are like the older brother if we rely on doing good works and think that we have no need to repent because we fail to recognize that we are lost. Luke 15:31 is heartbreaking. 31 ‘ “My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. All the time the older son was living in the father’s house as if he was a servant, instead of as a beloved child. The lost older brother gives a picture of what life can be like even for Christians if we don’t embrace life in all its fulness and the personal relationship with God which He invites us to experience with him.
These two parables are part of one great story, the parable of the two lost sons. The second makes no sense without the first. We could even say that the parable of the prodigal son is only setting the scene for the parable of the older brother. The two sons are both loved by the same gracious and compassionate father who shows great humility by going out to them to offer them reconciliation and forgiveness. The younger brother comes to his senses and repents and so he is restored to his home and his family. The older brother does not come to himself and he remains in his own eyes a slave and a worker in his father’s house. The second lost son never finds out what it really means to be a son. The prodigal was as good as dead, but he is brought back to life again. The older brother is as good as dead and he stays dead. The younger son is lost, but then he is found. The older brother is just as lost, and he stays lost. And that is not a happy ending.

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