I’ve read the Parable of the Lost Son a lot. In fact, I have no idea exactly how many times I have read this parable or heard sermons about it. Even on this blog, I think I’ve written about the prodigal son three or four times. With all that exposure to this parable, I never once considered the position of the elder son and whether or not I might be like him.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Parable of the Lost Son, you can read it here in Luke 15:11-32. Go ahead and read it if you’re not familiar with it.

When the older son found out what his father had done for his brother, he wanted no part of it.

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.” 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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

Luke 15:28-30 (NIV)

I can relate to the older brother. I was the older brother in my house with a younger sibling. There’s something about being the most senior. As the first child, it’s like you’re a test subject for the “parenthood” experiment for your parents. Both of your parents bring baggage to the table regardless of how they were raised. Either they loved how they were raised and had the bar set way up high for what they thought they were supposed to do, or they didn’t care so much for how they were raised, so they are going to “do it better.” I know there’s also a middle ground mixing the two. Either way, there are great expectations for the eldest child because he is the measure of his parent’s skills at parenthood.

I don’t think most parents see it that way until they’ve had another child. Even then, they may never articulate it the same. Instead, they just do things differently. Like in this parable, the younger son asks his father for his inheritance, and his father gives it to him! His older brother must have been livid since he’d have never dared to do such a thing. Then, when his younger brother goes off, he hears about how he’s spending the money. Finally, when he returns home with his tail between his legs, and there will be justice, their father throws him a party! How unfair is that?

As I’ve said, I can relate to the older brother in this parable. Maybe you can too. However, since this is a parable, we need to look closely at who the older brother is in the parable.

When Jesus told this parable, he did so in response to something the Pharisees said.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Luke 15:1-2 (NIV)

Jesus told two parables before the parable about the prodigal son. The Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. You can read those in Luke 15:3-10. In both of those parables, the thing that was lost represented sinners. The sinners were found in both parables, and heaven rejoices. However, the end of the Parable of the Lost Son ends differently. While the father throws a party and everyone rejoices, representing God and heaven, the focus is on the elder son and his response to his brother’s return.

If we consider why Jesus told this parable, we can see that the older son represents the Pharisees. Like the older son, the Pharisees believed they had served the Lord faithfully by following the law. Yet, here is the Messiah hanging out with sinners. The Pharisees thought God owed them something, and when they heard this parable, they probably identified with the oldest son. As I’ve said, this parable ends differently than the previous two. It ends with an invitation to the Pharisees.

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”

Luke 15:31-32 (NIV)

The older brother thought he followed the father’s rules, but when his brother returned, he had no love for him. He lived by the rules and thought his younger brother should too. If that meant dying by the rules, then so be it. However, their father thought differently. He loved both sons, and when his youngest son finally came to his senses, he rejoiced and extended grace to him. The older brother thought their father’s love was something to be earned, just like the Pharisees.

Yet we can do nothing to earn God’s love. If anything, God loves us in spite of ourselves. That’s what I see in the father’s response to the oldest son. “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” The Pharisees, though a self-righteous bunch, were still loved by God. Everything he had was available to them. However, they needed to see that other people were coming into the Kingdom of God. Instead of bickering about it, they needed to rejoice and be glad. Instead, they were just as lost as the lost son.

We should be aware of how we see new people entering the church. Some of us have been saved for a long time, while others have not. Some are brand new and have never been to church. Thus, our minds should be focused on loving new people and rejoicing when they come to our churches instead of looking at how they behave. Pride was the downfall of the Pharisees, and if we’re not careful, it will be our downfall too.