Have you ever heard the parable of the resentful brother? I am sure you have. I suggested recently that this might be a better name for the parable we know as The Prodigal Son. You may wish to read our last blog post as background for this one.
A man had two sons, and one of them took his inheritance and wasted it in a distant country. When his money ran out, he became desperate and returned home to his Father. Instead of punishing his son, the Father gave a feast in celebration of his return.
A comforting part of this story is that the Father is ready to accept us and celebrate when we return to him from our waywardness. But I think the story has more to do with the older brother. Notice how he responds in Luke chapter 15.
The Resentful Brother’s Response
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
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!’
‘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.’
We understand about the wayward son, but what of the older brother in this story? He is not dragged in as an extra to fill out the action—he is integral to the story itself. In fact the story seems to be about HIM.
This becomes more clear when we realize who is listening as Jesus tells this story. We learn from Luke 14:1 that Jesus ate in the home of a prominent Pharisee and the Pharisees were watching him carefully.
In 14:25 we learn that large crowds were following Jesus, which included the Pharisees, as we discover in the first verse of Luke 15,
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.”
The Pharisees complained frequently about Jesus keeping company with ‘sinners’ and on this occasion Jesus told the three related stories of chapter 15, including the story of the wayward son—who was a sinner.
However, the story is not about the wayward son; it was about the Pharisees as represented by the resentful brother. The portrait of the resentful brother captures them accurately! The Pharisees claimed to be God’s faithful servants and they despised the ‘sinners’ who did not, or could not, meet all they holy requirements they created.
So the story of the resentful brother was a poke in the eye for the Pharisees who thought they were so much better than the ‘sinners’ they avoided. The Pharisees felt that, because of their faithfulness, they should enjoy the favor of God and not share it with these useless people.
But Jesus tells them that the Father loves these ‘sinners’, even if the Pharisees do not.
How Does this Story Apply to Us?
When we read this parable, we usually identify with the wayward son and rejoice that the Father is ready to welcome us with gladness, but I wonder if we should compare ourselves instead to the Pharisees. As the Father’s religious followers, it is sometimes easy for us to look down on ‘sinners’ because they do not live by the standards we create. We do not want even to associate with them—but these are the people the Father loves.
But wait! Is this story REALLY about the resentful brother most of all? I suggest that the main person in the story is someone else entirely, and we will discuss that next time.