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The Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother

Their work: These men worked for their father, a wealthy landowner.
Their character: Both of the brothers were sinners. One committed the sin of unrighteous living and the other the sin of self-righteousness.
Their sorrow: Both men were alienated from their father. Geography separated the prodigal from his father, while pride separated the elder brother.
Their triumph: The father's open arms and homecoming feast welcomed the prodigal. There was no happiness for the elder brother except the misplaced belief that he was better than his wayward sibling.
Key Scriptures: Luke 15

A Look at the Men

This biblical account is one of Jesus' parables, often called "The Story of the Prodigal Son." But it's really the story of not one but three men: the prodigal son, the elder brother, and the waiting father. Each plays a critical role in the narrative.

What the younger son asked of his father was unthinkable. Inheritance was paid to a man's sons upon his death, so in prematurely requesting the birthright from his father, the boy was saying that he wouldn't care if his father were dead. His rebellion was open and shameless, a public embarrassment for the entire family. And what he did broke his father's heart.

The older boy was every father's dream. As an employee, his efforts were productive, his work ethic was flawless. Even his conduct was exemplary—and he did not hesitate to review all of these qualities in his father's hearing. He had every confidence that his virtuous behavior earned not only his father's respect and riches but his love as well.

But the elder brother carried a deep grudge. The insolence of his younger brother's words and the slack in his life ground away at the elder brother's soul like a millstone. And the special attention the young son drew from the father turned the older son's grudge into hatred.

As far as the elder brother was concerned, the moment the inheritance payment was made to his sibling, the boy's days as a member of the family were finished. Now the older son was his father's only son, and the benefits of his father's wealth would be exclusively his.

Unfortunately for the elder brother, this was not his father's disposition. The younger son, even with his inheritance paid in full, was still a member of the family. Neither open defiance nor running away would have any effect on his father's love for him. This infuriated the elder brother, but his simmering anger was about to be turned into a bubbling cauldron.

The father threw a party. It was bad enough for his absent little brother to keep their father in distress while he was in a faraway land, but to have his father throw a celebration when he returned home was more than the elder brother could bear. In his attempt to punish the father for his grace, he refused to attend the merrymaking, preferring to sulk instead.

In this parable Jesus was declaring all of humankind "sinners," and he divided them into two groups: prodigals and elder brothers—the unrighteous and the self-righteous. And he underscored the fact that the heavenly Father—the living God—loved both and was willing to forgive both.

Contrition for his blatant sinfulness earned the younger brother full forgiveness and a party in his honor. But the older son's inability to see his self-righteousness as sin kept him from receiving the forgiveness his father would have freely extended. So he spent the night alone, overhearing the joyous celebration but experiencing none of it himself.

Reflect On: Luke 15:20–31
Praise God: For his mercy.
Offer Thanks: For the picture of the waiting father and how it tells us of the loving heavenly Father who is eager to forgive our sins of unrighteousness and self-righteousness.
Confess: Any tendency to believe that good deeds earn us a place in the kingdom.
Ask God: To change your attitude, to give you a compassion for the lost and to make your obedience to him a response to his love rather than treating it as a way to earn his love.

Today's reading is a brief excerpt from Men of the Bible: A One-Year Devotional Study of Men in Scripture by Ann Spangler and Robert Wolgemuth (Zondervan). © 2010 by Ann Spangler. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Enjoy the complete book by purchasing your own copy at the Bible Gateway Store. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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