The Long Walk Home pt. 2: A Fresh Look at the Older Brother

In this second post concerning Luke 15 and the Prodigal Son I want to take another look at the older brother in the story.

We are all familiar with the actions of the father but what we tend not to focus on are the actions of the firstborn son. You remember the older brother who became angry at the reception his younger brother received upon returning home; the older brother who believed that he was right and deserved his position and estate. This is the brother we will look at today.

We as Americans see him as the one who is justifiably outraged even though we concede that his attitude was not right. We believe he did what was right. He stayed home and took care of the family. He didn’t squander or even ask for his inheritance. He didn’t leave the family. He was right all along…right?

Well, maybe not, let’s look again.

The first thing I want us to notice in the story is that the father has been looking for the son and the implication is that he had been looking ever since the son left home. In fact, when the son returns home we are told that the father sees him before he see the father.  The father has been looking all along desperately hoping for the return of his son so that his family would be whole again; if his son returns home honor will be restored to the family and his son will be safe again.

But where is the older son? Why wasn’t he looking?

Recall in my last post on the Prodigal that I explain the difference between an Individualist culture like America and a Collectivist culture such as that of the Jewish people. If you would like to refresh your memory you can read Part 1 on the Prodigal Son here.

In a collectivist culture because the older son had already been handed his inheritance he would have been known as the new head of the family but since the father was still living it was honorable to allow him to keep his position as head until he died. This meant that in order to show proper respect for his father and to protect the honor of the family it would have been the duty of the older son to seek the restoration of the family honor through the return of the wayward younger brother. This would have included looking for the younger son and seeking his restoration back into the family. This should have been the older son’s greatest desire because when the family is honored everyone benefits and his father would be alleviated of his suffering.

What we see instead is that the older son’s actions and attitude really aren’t different than the younger son’s. Sure the older brother didn’t leave home or squander his inheritance but his heart was seeking his own desires just like the younger son. His heart had no concern for the honor and safety of the family or his father. He was only concerned with his own honor and safety. He was concerned about keeping what was his.

 It must also be recognized that the older son’s actions brought about the same amount of dishonor to the father as the younger son’s.

Remember that the father handed out the inheritance to both sons. Recall that the Mishna stated that it was inadvisable to hand out inheritances while you are alive because if the you as a father fall into need you will have to ask for the inheritance back from your children and thus bring dishonor to the family.

Look again at the conversation between the father and the older son in Luke 15. The honorable thing for the older son to do would have been to give whatever the father asked without argument because he loved, honored, and respected his father. But in arguing and pointing out the younger son’s sins he was essentially taking the seat of authority over his father.

Notice his father pleads with him to understand. The father doesn’t demand that the older son simply accept what has happened. This is because what was left of the father’s estate had been handed down to the older son and this would have been the double portion. The double portion given to the firstborn was the indicator that the firstborn son was now the new head of the family as I stated before. The older brother in the story of the prodigal was now head of the family legally but it was honorable to allow the father to continue to operate in that position until he died. And in all respects the estate was rightfully the estate of the father to begin with. The father chose to hand it down but it was all rightfully his initially and rightfully his to handle until his death.

The older son in arguing and becoming angry with the father was causing his father to plead and beg for the blessing he wanted to bestow upon the younger son.  The older son was the cause of great dishonor upon his father and his family. Through this action we see that he is found to be just as guilty as the younger brother in dishonoring the family, and seeking his own desires.

What we don’t see in the story is a change of heart in the older brother. Much like the book of Jonah which ends with Jonah greatly lamenting that God saved a non-Jewish people from destruction the parable ends without the resolution we seek. The older brother as far as we know never changes his attitude.

Here is the point in all of this.  We, brothers and sisters in Christ, who have stayed with the church have the potential to be the older brother in the story of the prodigal. Now, this parable is indeed speaking about the relationship between the Jewish people and the Gentiles but there are further applications that remain here for us. 

We certainly can act the part of the Jews when we condemn those who walk away whether there leaving is willfully rebellion or as a result of deception rather than doing all we can to honor our father by seeking the restoration of our prodigal brothers and sisters.

There are those who have left God and the church for various reasons but most commonly they have left because 

WE have not valued the honor of the family of Christ

We have not understood that when God as our Father receives ultimate honor we benefit with honor for ourselves and increased opportunity in this world in which we currently live. We have not sought the safety of all over our own safety for the honor of our family and Father.

Restoration should always be our goal.

Not just in word and “prayer” but in actions. We should be out with the Father looking for the return of our brothers or sisters from the moment they decide to walk away 

-no matter what their motivation for doing so is

After all who are we to judge another man’s servant? (Romans 14:4) We should value their safety and honor over that of our own or our religion. Because... 

when they are restored honor is restored. 

We have instead valued religion and whatever benefit we believe we receive from our religion. All too often religion is protected above people and yes, at times at the cost of people.

For some the safety and perceived stability religion provides is what is valued and if those are threatened in any way religion is defended over protecting the honor of the family of God. We cover up things like power struggles, affairs, child abuse, gossip, the mishandling of God’s Word and more in order to protect the honor of religion whatever chosen denomination it may be. We believe that protecting the denomination protects the Holy name of God.

The problem is that when we protect the religious denomination over the person we dishonor the name of God. We bring shame and loss of opportunity for His family. We demean the name and work of Christ who was the means through which the estate was gained.

We like the older son don’t realize that our hearts are just as far away from the Father as the Prodigal who left his home and people. 

We sit in our estate that we did not earn and demand that the Father beg us 

to join in rejoicing in the restoration of honor to the family. Judgment and self-righteousness are chosen over love for our Father and each other.

We leave people to take the long walk home alone putting them in danger and causing loneliness and great dishonor for us all.

Works Cited

MJL Staff. What is the Mishna. n.d. (accessed May 16, 2017).
New American Standard Bible. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation., 1995: Update.
Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O'Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 2012.