Our third sermon in our Prodigal Son series at Grace Life focuses on the oft-overlooked elder son and the self-righteousness with which he reacts to the father’s compassion for the younger son. You can also download the audio version of this sermon at www.gracelifelebanon.com or find us on Sermon Audio.
The Other Prodigal Son
What happens when God pushes us out of our comfort zone as individual Christians and as a church family? A man dressed in rags, wreaking of sweat and alcohol walks in and sits down next to you during the service, or maybe a wealthy lady comes in that’s a known advocate for abortion. A person with different skin color come forward for baptism, or maybe a known criminal just released from prison shows up.
These may seem like farfetched or unreasonable situations, but are they really? Isn’t the story of the prodigal son meant to awaken our thoughts to the incredible reality that Christ died for every kind of sinner? The Pharisees and scribes are mad at Jesus for “eating with tax collectors and sinners” (vv.1-2). But really, they’re mad that reprobates are repenting of their sin. Jesus gives three parables as a witness. All three have the same outline: something is lost, then found, followed by a celebration.
We’ve followed the prodigal on his descent into sin as he left home and pursued a lifestyle of wastefulness resulting in devasta-tion and destruction. This is what it looks like to be lost. But then we get to see what it looks like to be found by God. God turns the prodigal around, demonstrated through the prodigal’s repentance. We learned two aspects of repentance: repentance is a gift of God’s mercy and grace; and repentance is more than admitting you’ve done wrong—it’s a change of mind that leads to a changed way of living.
The prodigal returns home, and the father’s waiting; his posture toward him is predetermined mercy and grace before the son was even able to finish his words of repentance, even before the son had returned “to himself”. And the father responds with joy! This is the picture of what God the Father is really like: He predestines our repentance according to His sovereign grace, and He rejoices “over one sinner who repents” (v.7, 10). Therefore, we ought to be happy too win sinners come home.
So, all is well again in the prodigal’s family. The sinning son has come home. And everyone is happy—or are they?
Luke 15:25-32—“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘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!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ ”
At the beginning of the parable, you’re thinking this is a classic case of good versus evil, the good brother and the bad brother. The bad brother despises his father by demanding the inheritance and abandoning his dad. The good brother stays home working for his dad, never demanding anything, and always “respecting” his authority.
Most often, preachers emphasize the sinfulness of the younger son—and reasonably so because his sins are blatant rebellion. And then they tack on a few superficial words about the elder son’s anger, often saying something like, “You can’t really blame him”. And if we’re honest, we can see how the elder son would appear to be more of a sinner than a saint. He has served his father faithfully many years. But, if we play off the elder son’s anger this way, we’ve missed the whole reason for Jesus telling this story.
In the context of the parable, it’s obvious that the elder brother is anything but good. In fact, Jesus uses the elder son to show us the malignant, black heart underneath the skin of sin. Sin is more than surface behavior like we see from the younger brother. Sin runs deep, and the elder brother’s sin is just as prevalent and malevolent.
Be assured, both sons are prodigals. The younger pursued happiness through open rebellion and self-discovery. The older pursued happiness through the appearance of outward moralism. But both sons love themselves more than the father. Therefore, both are self-righteousness. Today, we’ll be identifying the elder brother’s core characteristics of self-righteousness. This is important so that we can examine our own testimony as followers of Christ to be sure that our lives look more like the repentant prodigal and not his moralistic but unrepentant older brother.
1. Anger is the disposition of moralistic prodigals (vv.25-28). The older son had been working in his father’s field, and “he heard music and dancing” as “he drew near to the house” (v.25). He asks a hired servant about it ( v.26). The servant “said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound’ ” (v.27). A lost brother has come home alive, not in a body bag! This is reason to celebrate! Instead, “he was angry and refused to go in” (v.28a).
The elder brother’s refusal to go in to the party is every bit as offensive as the younger brother’s refusal to stay at home with the father. Both are an affront to the father’s goodness and authority. Both are a means of shaming the father. What is the elder brother so angry about?
2. God’s grace angers moralistic prodigals (vv.28-30). Listen to the oozing bitterness and seething anger from the lips of the elder son: “His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘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. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ ” (vv.28a-30).
The elder brother uses the word “never” to make himself look more mistreated. And especially important, he brings up the “fattened calf”. Jesus mentions the calf three times in the parable, so it must be important. It was rare for families to eat meat in that day. And the fattened calf was the most luxurious of all luxuries if you had one. You would slaughter one only for the most important reasons, perhaps weddings or the birth of a baby.
The elder brother is basically blubbering, “It’s not fair!” I agree. It’s not fair. But grace is never fair, at least not in the way most people use that word. Grace is grace, it’s unmerited, unearnable, and unattainable through our best efforts. Grace is God’s prerogative. Only God’s vote matters. The moralistic prodigal is angered by God’s grace.
Anger is a serious sin. It’s not always expressed in flyoff the handle fits of rage. Anger most often comes in the form of simple complaints that we disguise as hurt feelings or frustrations. Anger itself is sinful, but the root underneath is even deadlier. Little of our anger is righteous because most of it is centered on ourselves; and self-centeredness is by its very nature dissatisfaction with God and His grace. Have you noticed we love God’s grace when we’re the ones receiving it, but when it comes to others we deem unwor-thy of His grace, how quickly resentment emerges? Why does the elder brother hate God’s grace toward his younger brother?
3. Moralistic prodigals believe they have earned a right standing with God (vv.29-30). There’s plenty of evidence from the elder son’s tirade against his father that proves he believes he has earned his place with the father. Three phrases in particular stand out: (1) “Look, these many years I have served you” (v.29a); (2) “I have never disobeyed your command” (v.29b); (3) “You never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends” (v.29c).
Each argument is about quantity and quality, and moralistic prodigals still use these types of justifications in the Church today. Some trust in the quantity of years they’ve been a part of the Church or the quantity of hours they’ve served in the Church or (most frequent of all) the quantity of money they’ve invested in the Church. Be careful about declaring, “I support the Church with my offerings.” If someone thinks the offering money they give is theirs, then they have a serious misunderstanding of God’s grace.
Moralistic prodigals not only trust in the quantity of their service but also the quality of their service. Most don’t think they’re sinless, but they do think themselves sinless enough to be accepted by God. And they certainly think themselves less sinful than other Christians.
4. Moralistic prodigals see themselves as morally superior to other sinners (v.30). Notice how snootily the elder son talks about his brother. “But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (v.30). The elder son refuses even to acknowledge the younger son as his brother; and he refuses to acknowledge the property the younger son squandered was his to squander. All the while, the elder son fails to see the seriousness of his own sin, and in doing so, he fails to see the goodness of God, which is the gravest sin of all.
5. Moralistic prodigals see themselves as morally superior to God Himself (vv.31-32). “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (v.31). The father’s reminder that “you are always with me” stands in contrast to the elder son’s claims to being mistreated. The father is the greatest treasure both sons have; and when you have the father, you have everything the father has. Therefore, the elder son has experienced no loss at all; and by complaining to the father, he is accusing the father of sinning.
In the same way, beware of an angry, complaining spirit about God’s grace toward sinners you believe are unworthy of forgiveness. Your anger is ultimately an accusation that God has sinned against you. Rather, remember that when we have God the Father, we have it all. And when prodigal sinners get saved, we have nothing to feel threatened about. Instead, we must have the same attitude of the father toward his prodigal sons. “ ‘It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found’ ” (v.32). What self-righteousness do we need to repent of today?