The Lesson of the Older Brother (Luke 15:11-32)


The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the ones that people love.

Even outside Christian circles, even among people who have never picked up a Bible or heard it read out loud, plenty of folks can tell you the story.

Whether they themselves are prodigals, or not, it’s just a story that people know and love.

There are a million and one stories like it, in a general way.

There are a million and one stories of a young man leaving home and encountering challenges along the road, culminating in some sort of struggle with good and evil itself, and even a journey into some kind of netherworld, only to emerge with a new awareness of himself—and to return home, changed.


That’s also the plot of “Star Wars,” after all. And Huckleberry Finn. And, for that matter, “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

You can rattle it off like that because it’s also the hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell in his wonderful book on world mythology, called The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

But what makes the Prodigal a different kind of hero is that his struggles are entirely of his own making—the circumstances of his leaving home, the circumstances of his own suffering and struggle, the netherworld he enters of poverty and starvation and being less important than the pigs he’s put in charge of—all that is absolutely his own fault.

It’s also true that he doesn’t encounter a magical helper along the way–Campbell’s book tells us always to keep a lookout for the magical helper. But there isn’t one here.

Maybe there doesn’t need to be. The struggle between good and evil in this hero’s journey is confined to what’s going on in the heart and the head of the Prodigal himself.

The fact is, magic can’t really help you with that.

But however it is, then, that the Prodigal son has his moment of clarity, whatever it is that says to him, “Wow, this is just rock bottom. This is just not going to work. I need to change my life”…however it is that he comes to that moment, the key thing is simply that he has that moment…that he finds that clarity.

And to me there is as much grace in that simple, unexplained moment with nobody else around, as there is in all the moments of encounter that follow.

The Prodigal’s return to life begins at that moment.

But the reason people love the story is not because of the moment of clarity. It’s not the first grace that amazes everyone, but the second one.

The reason people love the story is because of the father—the man that the Prodigal has treated so selfishly and impertinently.

As the Prodigal begins his journey home, he knows what he has coming to him.

But when he arrives, it turns out that he doesn’t have to do any convincing, any pleading, or any currying of either favor or pity.

He’s greeted not according to what he deserves, but according to the love of the father, who it turns out, hasn’t really been angry so much as worried sick.

The father is relieved beyond measure, and so greets the Prodigal Son with love and generosity and gratitude for his deliverance.

More grace. Grace overflowing.

And of course, the deeper point there is that we’re being told about a God who never gives up on us. A God who is prepared to love us even when we make mistakes, and even when some of those mistakes are doozies, and even when they are directed somehow at Him.

The father in this morning’s parable is generous, almost to a fault. He rejoices in the son who once was lost and now is found, was blind but now can see.

More grace.

That’s why people love this parable, even if they’re not Christian. Even if they don’t believe in God. It’s that second kind of grace that people seem to talk about.

We love the story because we’d like so much to believe that the Universe works that way…or at the very least, that there are people like that out there.


So it’s no wonder that if you asked the average person to tell you the story of the Prodigal Son, their version would probably build toward that second grace.

It would end up with that image of father and son embracing out there where the road meets the driveway, happily ever after.

But the story doesn’t end there, with the hero returning home a chastened and changed man.

The story doesn’t end there, because it turns out that not all of the Prodigal’s accounts are squared that quickly.

It turns out that there’s another chapter to tell.

Because the father is not the only one living under that roof.   There is also the older brother, and he is not so easily swayed by the sheer joy and relief of the Prodigal’s return.

On the contrary.

The older brother comes home from another long day in the fields, and hears the music and sees what’s up, and his reaction is not joy and relief, but rather shock, and rage, and deep, deep resentment, which is still just sort of hanging there at the end.

And I would submit to you that this is where some of the parable’s most important wisdom is to be found.

The real wisdom of this parable is in how it puts those two moments of grace in tension with one another.

God’s love is comforting and welcoming and forgiving…and real beyond all measure. At the same time, God’s love is pushing us to do the long, lonely, and painstaking work of fixing what is broken in this world, and especially, God calls us to acknowledge what it is that we have broken and to do our best to fix it.

In the Prodigal’s first moment of clarity, when he “comes to himself,” I think what we may be seeing is the very first inkling of that God-given push in the heart of the Prodigal to fix what he has broken.

And actually, that may be the bigger story.

Because to me, at least, the story of how that resentment will resolve is not answered in the parable as Jesus tells it. And that’s because it can’t be.

Because the older brother’s resentment can’t be answered in a hug, or in a single night—in one dramatic gesture.

It’s not because he’s petty or cruel or spiritually immature.   It’s because his hurt is real.

The brokenness of the relationship of the two brothers is real.

And so if the older brother’s forgiveness is to be real, something more patient will be required.

The Prodigal needs to show that he’s committed to that.

That is part of the emotional debt that the Prodigal must repay.

And that why I’d say it was that first moment back in the distant country—the moment when the Prodigal came to himself and began the journey back home, uncertain of what would happen when he arrived—it was that first moment of grace that needs to come full circle, not the second.

In fact, I’d say that the return to life that began with that moment of clarity will not be complete without it.


Scripture tells us that forgiveness is not so much about some kind of cathartic emotional crescendo.

Forgiveness is about the restoration of communion, about fixing what is broken, about reestablishing relationship with one another.[1]

It is about being able to move forward together, however slowly, even as so much remains painful, or embarrassing, or not yet healed.

When Jesus tells us to forgive, he’s calling us to reconciliation, in all our complexity, and not just to letting bygones be bygones.

Jesus is certainly not calling us to let bygones be bygones in the name of God.

So what I think Jesus is saying to the prodigals out there is that, even as the Father forgives us, important work remains to be done.

Even as the Father loves us, the road to renewal remains a long journey, and it is not enough to make things right only with Him. That’s only the first step.

Because we need to live a different kind of life in the light of that forgiveness. We need to show that we are changed people, and to show it every day, and not just to him, but even more so, to the people who won’t believe it for a second, at least at first. We can’t write them off, even when their first instinct is to write us off.

You see, the Prodigal can’t simply hug the Father and then wander over to the buffet to help himself to the fatted calf.

No, if you ask me, the real story begins the next morning at dawn, when the party’s over, and the guests have all gone back home, and the men in the house are wandering into the kitchen, looking sleepy and maybe even a little hungover, just trying to grab a cup of coffee before it’s time to get out to the fields for the day, same as always…when a new day dawns, and it’s just another day.

Will the Prodigal be there, ready to do his part?

Will he be out on the porch, putting his old workboots back on?

Just what is he willing to do to make things right? And for how long?

Scripture tells us time and time again that humble faithfulness to day’s task is a lot more impressive than the one-time gesture, no matter how grand.

So to me, the real question is not whether the older brother can find it in his heart to forgive.

The real question is whether the Prodigal can find it in his heart to be loving, to be dependable, to be hard-working—to be everything that he once was not—in order to restore communion between him and his family.

Because that’s what forgiveness really requires.

It requires answering the call of that first kind of grace.

It is easy enough, in principle, to love the God who always forgives.

But the love that interests God is the love we show in practice, and especially the love we show in practice for those who are not currently inclined to love us back.

God does not ask us to root for Him. God asks us to follow Him.

So this week, I wonder whom you and I might seek out, not so that we have a worthy audience for some particular grand gesture of ours, but so that we can humbly and patiently begin to seek healing and a restored sense of communion with one another.

I don’t know if figuring that out will mark the beginning of a return to life for you.

But I know that it is the beginning of life abundant.

It is the beginning of truly being found, and of finally coming to see.



[1] This is from L. Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis.

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