The Older Son’s Story: the Stumbling-block of Grace

So to the third character.

It’s a mistake to consider the parable without him; in fact it is really the final part of the story – the one which evangelists can easily forget – that carries the real punchline. Like a number of Jesus’ parables, the sting of this one is in the tale.

On the face of it, as is not unusual with siblings, the two brothers appear to be quite different. The younger brother wants to break all the rules while the older brother at least on the evidence of what he tells us about himself, keeps them. The younger brother is adventurous, he wants to travel, while the older brother stays at home, working on the farm. The younger brother is reckless and irresponsible while the older brother is a picture of duty. The younger brother shocks, the older brother is a conformist.

But the differences are only on the surface. One of the most striking things about this story is how similar the two men actually are. They have much more in common than appears at first glance.

Both brothers were estranged from their father.

There is more than one lost son in the story. At the end of the story the older brother is outside, refusing to enter the party. He may not have travelled as far as his brother, but he is still outside. And at the end of the story it is clear that it is his relationship with his father that is fractured while the younger brother has been restored. It’s not the first time in the Bible story that the younger is blessed while the older misses out. Jacob and Esau provide a dramatic example.

The older brother’s broken relationship with his father is most obvious at the end when he stands outside arguing with him. But there are hints that all was not well even from the beginning.

When the younger brother demands his share of the inheritance, the older brother also appears to get his share. He doesn’t trade it in as his brother seems to have done, but nor does he protest. Specifically, he does nothing to intervene in the breakdown of relationship between his father and brother. Some scholars believe that the cultural expectation of an older brother in such a situation would have been that he assume the role of mediator. But he is silent. Why did he do nothing to protect the breakup of the family?

Whatever may lie beneath the surface in the earlier part of the story, his hostility towards both his father and his brother comes into sharp focus when his brother comes home.

He is in the field when his brother arrives and the party begins. When he discovers why there is music and dancing, he reacts and refuses to go in.

Again it appears as though this was a breach of social custom. An older son would reasonably have expected to function as a host at a family dinner party. This older son is refusing to go in. When his father comes out to plead with him, here is how he replies:

‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’

At least the younger son had had the courtesy to call his father “Father”! The older brother’s reaction is completely devoid of respect. There is no evidence of any warmth of relationship with his father. Instead, as someone has suggested, his references to his slavish fulfilment of duty make him sound more like a union shop steward in a dispute with management over wages.

The sobering lesson from this is that there are actually two ways to be estranged from God. Billy Graham’s nephew, Tullian Tchvidjian, says that it’s possible to be lost through unrighteous badness and it’s also possible to be lost through self-righteous goodness.

Most of us have no trouble in pointing out the lostness of the killer or the drug-dealer or the serial adulterer: the younger brothers who are wasting everything in a reckless lifestyle. But what about the religious sinners who are lost in their unrighteousness? Who never get drunk, who never drive above the speed limit, who never miss a Sunday service or their evening prayers. They would never countenance the idea of doing anything morally dubious.

It is not that there is anything wrong with any of those things; except that goodness can have a way of turning us into older brothers. Self-righteousness can be so subtle and it can keep us away from God.

To refer to another parable of Jesus, it was the moral shipwreck of a tax collector who went home justified from the temple rather than the morally upstanding Pharisee.

Both brothers needed, and were offered, grace.

The grace that the father offered the younger brother is obvious. Despite all he had done, he found acceptance and restoration. The boy found grace when the father abandoned his dignity and ran along the road to meet him.

But the father left the house twice.

Leaving the house to run towards his younger son was the first time, but he had to leave the house for older son too. It is easy to miss that detail and to miss the fact that the older son also needed grace. Despite all he had said about his dutiful service, he had not been a loving son. Like his younger brother, he had disrespected his father. The father did not go out to accuse or humiliate him, but to plead with him.

The sinful and unrighteous clearly need grace; so too do the religious and the self-righteous.

It is probably easier to offer grace to the unrighteous than to offer grace to the self-righteous. It is hard to feel gracious towards a cold-hearted legalist. It’s very tempting to tell the self-righteous that if they choose to stay outside the party, it’s their loss.

I doubt that the older brother had any idea that he needed grace. He was so full of his own righteousness that he couldn’t see it. Grace was actually a major problem for him. His view of life was that you do your duty and you gain your reward. What his father had done in showing grace to his disgraceful brother was scandalous.

On several occasions when I have visited London, I have made sure to get along to a performance of Les Miserables.

Two of the central characters in this powerful story are Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, and Inspector Javert.  At the start of the story Valjean is shown mercy – he is let off the hook by a priest from whom he has been stealing silverware.  That act of mercy changes the direction of his life and he becomes a wealthy and successful man.  Through other events he learns to show mercy to others who are in need.

Javert, however lives to enforce the law.  It is his job and it is also his nature.  Throughout the story he pursues Valjean – who has jumped parole – until, through circumstances, the tables are turned and Valjean has the opportunity to kill him.  Instead of killing him, though, Valjean sets him free.

Shortly afterwards, Javert in turn is forced to let Valjean off the hook, but by now his well ordered world of law and justice has been turned upside down. Valjean has catapulted him into the world of mercy and forgiveness.  Javert cannot stand it and eventually he throws himself into the river.

Javert is the older brother. Duty must be done. He cannot exist in a world of grace, mercy and forgiveness.

There is a stumbling block with grace. The self-righteous stumble over it. They do not like it and do not believe they need it. They do not believe it should be shown to anyone else.

This is why the gospel is offensive to religious people who believe that faithfulness to their church allied to their general goodness will be enough when the come to be weighed on the scales of God’s justices. They don’t want to think that they need Jesus to save them. It gets worse when you suggest to them that heaven may be filled with rap musicians and people with piercings. That is the stumbling block of grace.

Unfortunately, over time, younger brothers (and sisters) morph into older brothers. One of the ways you will notice it is if you find it increasingly difficult to extend grace to other people. You become like the man in Matthew 18 whose huge debt was written off, only for him to go and grab a fellow slave who owed him by the throat.

The late Fred Smith said that it is almost impossible to love anybody who has sinned unless you’re aware that you are capable of the same sin.

Both brothers had to choose whether to come home.

The younger brother made his choice from a pigsty. The older brother was left with his choice from a place just outside the house where the celebrations were in full swing. Closer in geographical terms, but still at a distance in terms of his heart.

It’s interesting that the story doesn’t quite end. What do you think happened?

Was the older brother persuaded by his father? Did he relent and allow his heart to soften towards his younger brother? Or did he turn on his heel and stamp off back to the village?

We don’t know for sure.

The open-ended story meant that the Pharisees were going to have to write their own ending. They were the older brothers. The younger brothers were gathering around Jesus: they were coming home. That is what Jesus lived for. That was cause for a party. Would the Pharisees relent? Would they join the party and celebrate the grace of God that welcomed sinners home? Or would they keep on grumbling?

Perhaps we too need to write our own endings to the story.

What if we have so distorted the message and mission of Jesus that there is no welcome for prodigals?

What if, personally, someone we know has wandered far away and wants to come home? Do we stand on the side of the grace of God, with all its scandal, celebrating its scope? Or do we stumble over it?

What if, like the older brother, we have wandered away from the fire of God’s love? What if, like him, the affection has been lost i the dry desert of slavish duty?

How will you write the end of the story?


The younger son’s story.

The father’s story.


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