Like a teenager picking a fight with his parents before a house full of guests, the older son behaves in a way that is not only hurtful, but humiliating. This son would rather not have fellowship with his father than accept his father's treatment of his brother.

The relevance of this to the context of Luke 15 is obvious. The Pharisees would not have fellowship with Jesus because of His treatment of people the Pharisees considered prodigals. Thus they were putting themselves outside the Father's house. Refusal to accept all those whom the Lord accepts reveals our relationship to God Himself.

The father could have ordered the older son with, “We'll talk about it later, but not now. Get inside, smile, and do your job.” Instead, the father who humbled himself to run to the returning prodigal humbles himself to appeal to the angry older brother. He “went out and pleaded with him.” His love for this son is as profound as his love for his other son.

The older son has contempt for such a response. And his anger unveils attitudes every bit as contemptible as the attitudes that led his brother to leave home. The “Look!” of verse 29 is full of disrespect, as is the litany of complaints. He hasn't stayed home because he loved his father, but because working in his fields was a way to get what he wanted. He has shared his father's house but not his father's heart. At the same time, he is full of contempt for his brother. “This son of yours” says volumes.

Despite his protestations, this man is more like his younger brother than he realizes. He is full of concern for himself. He cares nothing for his father's longings or his brother's needs. He is self-indulgent and resentful. Most of all, he is no better than a servant. “All these years I've been slaving for you.” He knows nothing of the joy of being a son. The younger brother was willing to become a servant; this son has been one in heart all along. He now stands exposed. This respectable son is, in fact, a rebel, lost in his father's house. He is so close to the father and yet so far from him.

What a penetrating portrait of the self-righteous and the religious! Morally respectable and publicly approved, such a person may be farther from the Father than the one in the pigpen.

The father's grace persists despite this outburst. He says, in effect, “We had to celebrate and be glad; we had no choice. Because of who I am, a father, I rejoice over lost sons who return. Not to rejoice would be to deny who I am.” 

Neither will the heavenly Father cancel the celebration. His heart aches, too, over the lost son-whether he is partying in the far country or working in the family's fields. What Jesus is doing with tax collectors and sinners is what the Father does in heaven.
But there is a fascinating omission. Did the older brother enter or not? We are not told because that is precisely the issue the Lord sets before the Pharisees and before us. To reject the Father's treatment of the most unworthy of sinners is to deceive ourselves about our need for grace and to forfeit the fellowship with God that is based on grace alone. As long as the Pharisees stayed angry at the grace shown to sinners, they stood outside the Father's house.

This material is taken from The Parables: Understanding What Jesus Meant, by Gary Inrig. Copyright © 1991. Used by permission of Discovery House Publishers, Box 3566, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49501. All rights reserved.

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