The Self-Righteous Older Brother:
Repentance in Luke 15:25-32
By Zane C. Hodges
As we have seen in our last two articles in Grace in Focus, Luke 15 is not at all about the repentance of unsaved people. On the contrary, the chapter is about the repentance and restoration of Christians who have wandered away from their Shepherd and His flock (15:4-7), from their place and role in the Christian church (15:8-10), and from fellowship with God their heavenly Father (15:11-24). The final section of Luke 15 furnishes us with a vital and instructive postscript, or addendum, to our Lord’s teaching on Christian repentance.
As the older brother of the prodigal son returns from his work in the field, he hears the sounds of the celebration inside the house and, upon inquiring, is told their significance: "Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf" (15:27). The older son is far from pleased with this information about his father’s party for his younger brother. In fact, "he was angry and would not go in" (15:28). As his subsequent words make plain, he is not really angry with his brother, but with his father for giving him such a lavish welcome. In short, he does not share the joy that his father feels on this occasion.
The older brother thus represents a type of Christian whose attitude toward a wayward Christian brother is far less charitable than is that of God, his heavenly Father. The successors of the older brother in this parable have been numerous in the history of the church. Let us look at his attitude more carefully.
The father of this angry brother is gracious enough to come out to talk to him, and his dad "pleaded with him" to join in the celebration (15:28). Although he might well have ordered his son into the party, that would have been foreign to the whole tenor of the occasion. God Himself, of course, has no intention of commanding us to feel joy for the restoration of a wayward Christian brother, since true joy must necessarily be spontaneous. Needless to say, such joy must always spring from the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
We Shouldn’t Overestimate Our Service
The complaint of the older brother is very instructive. He begins with an assertion of his own faithful service to his father by saying, "Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time" (15:29a). Clearly this brother is quite self-satisfied with the performance of his duties on the farm. No doubt he had worked for his father for a long time, but we may be permitted to doubt the full truth of his sweeping claim that he "never…at any time" had disobeyed his father. True, he had never left home as his brother had done, but to claim that he never violated a commandment from his father was no doubt going too far.
Christians who have long served God run a serious risk of falling into the psychological and spiritual trap in which this older brother was caught. We may sweepingly survey our years of service as praiseworthy while conveniently forgetting the numerous failures, large and small, that have occurred over those years. It is even surprising how committed Christians can sometimes rise to high levels of indignation about the failures of others in the church when, in fact, perhaps years ago they themselves exhibited the same or similar failures. In their criticism of others, they may exhibit a lack of patience or compassion of the type they themselves once needed both from God and from their fellow believers. The danger of becoming self-righteous about our Christian commitment is quite real and our memories often conveniently block out recollections that might seriously puncture our self- satisfied perspective. Indeed, we can sometimes even forget our present deficiencies and failures!
We Shouldn’t Criticize Our Father’s Actions
This attitude is bad enough, but the older brother now goes further with what amounts to an accusation against his father. For now this self-righteous man declares: "[I did all this] and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends" (15:29b; italics added). Like almost all self-satisfied people, this brother feels that his father has given him less than he deserves. Not only has the fatted calf never been killed for him, he has never even been given a young goat for a party! In the same way, self-righteous Christians often feel aggrieved that God has not blessed or rewarded them more lavishly than He has. In fact, if there is some hardship in the self-righteous person’s life, he is likely to feel that he deserves "better than this" from the God whom [he thinks] he has served so well!
Such people entirely miss the spirit that our Lord Jesus Christ enjoined on His disciples when He said: "So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’" (Luke 17:10). Obviously this is a far cry from the older brother’s arrogant criticism of his father.
There is a kind of irony in the fact that the older brother does not express a desire to "make merry with" his father, but rather he wishes to do that with his friends (v 29). He is way out of touch with his father’s heart on this occasion and he does not think in terms of sharing his parent’s joy, but simply doing something with people of like mind with himself. This is a tragic outlook indeed!
Sadly, the self-righteous Christian is often very much at home in the company of other self-righteous people with whom he can spend time commiserating about the low estate of the church, the faults of other believers, etc. Were God Himself to walk in on such a gathering, it would "spoil the fun" since the spirit of the self-righteous critic is truly a great distance removed from the spirit of a loving heavenly Father who longs for the return of His wayward children.
We Should Heed Our Father’s Gentle Rebuke
The father’s rebuke of his angry older son is gentle but firm: "Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours" (v 31). "Have you forgotten your advantages?" the father is asking. "You enjoy my presence at all times, and you are also my heir." With these simple words, the father delineates the sharp contrast between his older and younger sons. The younger son had left his father’s presence for a long time, accumulating all the ravages that his prodigal lifestyle had wrought. Moreover, he had squandered his inheritance since the money he had asked for and used was "the portion of goods that falls to me" (see 15:12). The inheritance of the older son was still fully intact. There was no need for him to feel resentment and jealousy simply because his father was having a celebration for his repentant son. The disadvantages of those wasted years were very real for the prodigal son. The older brother was far ahead of the game simply because he had stayed home.
There is no reason for believers to resent a straying Christian who returns to the fold. Such Christians have sustained real and tangible losses that obedient Christians do not experience. They have thrown away "treasures in heaven" which they could have been accumulating during their wayward years. Moreover they have lost the personal experience of the presence of God, for although He has always been with them, they have not been with Him in the sense of enjoying His fellowship and instruction. The longer a Christian lives his life apart from God, the more telling all these losses become. The solemn fact remains that, even after repentance, we cannot turn back the clock and relive those wasted years. It is well for the obedient Christian to recall these facts, since no amount of rejoicing about a brother’s return can erase that brother’s losses.
The father’s final words are: "It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found" (v 32). The words "it was right" translate a Greek verb that could also be rendered, "it was necessary." The father is arguing that in the very nature of the situation joy is fully appropriate. "For your brother," says the father, was as good as dead to you; you had lost him. But now "your brother" is "alive" and "found"—that is, he is once again a part of your experience. That this is an appeal to brotherly affection hardly needs to be said.
In fact, in referring to his brother, the older boy had called him "this son of yours"! And he had roundly condemned him because he had "devoured your livelihood with harlots" (v 30; italics added). But how did he know for sure about the harlots? He hadn’t even talked to his brother yet! His spirit towards this erring brother is harshly judgmental. He thinks the very worst of him and is utterly lacking in brotherly affection. He won’t even call him "my brother"! His father’s words, "your brother," gently remind him of this basic fact.
What the older brother sadly lacked was the perfectly natural feeling of joy that should come—not simply from recovering a son—but from recovering a brother as well. In the parable itself, this was in fact his only brother. How happy he should have been to see this brother walk back into his life, just as his father was so happy to see his son walk back into his. Joy was, after all, the truly natural reaction for both of them to such an event as this!
We Should Share Our Father’s Joy
The apostle John has reminded us that "this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also" (1 John 4:21). And he goes on immediately to say: "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him" (5:1). If a Christian truly loves his heavenly Father, he will also love his Christian brother, whom he recognizes as such—not by his obedient life—but by his faith in Christ for eternal life. If love for the divine Begetter and His begotten child exist in the believer’s heart, he will naturally experience joy when a wayward brother returns to God’s flock. And in experiencing that joy he will "enter into" the very joy of God Himself. Or in other words, he will join the party!
The story of the self-righteous brother of the prodigal son carries a salutary reminder. Even those who remain in the Christian fellowship can get so out of touch with God’s heart that they miss God’s "feast of joy" when a backslider returns to the fold. But the same gracious Father who welcomes his prodigal sons and daughters home, also urges his self-righteous children to soften their hearts and join in the celebration.