In Defense of the Older Brother

The Father is kind and faithful to both of His prodigal sons.

The story of the prodigal son is one of the most famous and referenced stories in the bible. (If you don’t know it, go read it - it’s found in Luke 15.) I’ve often seen the story boiled down to the older brother being bad and the younger brother being good. I don’t think that it’s as simple as that, though, and I think when we compact scripture like that, we miss a huge piece of what God is trying to tell us. 

We know the younger brother is a prodigal; he was lost and returns home; he sees the error in his ways and goes back to the father. How it’s often portrayed is that the older brother is bitter and angry that the father celebrates the younger brother coming home, like a real scumbag. I remember being younger and reading this story, being disgusted by the older brother. Aghast. How dare he be upset? In my mind the older brother was almost a villain, so far separated from me and my beliefs. Until God reminded me of the times in my life I have been the older brother. 

In His kindness, God really smacked me across the face one day while reading this passage. I was reminded of the times I have been jealous and bitter at fellow Christians. I was reminded of the times I cried out to God, asking why He blessed them and ignored me. Times when friends got married while I was still single, got a great job when I was working for minimum wage, and times when God healed other people’s families and not my own. I remember crying out to God in dark moments, “Why do you love them more than me? I’ve been faithful to you” followed by all the reasons they had not. (Look, I know it’s not a good look on me, but I’m being honest here because I think we’ve all been there.) At the end of the day, I wasn’t *really* upset that God was being kind to them- I just felt hurt, and honestly a little abandoned. I wanted to be reminded that I was still loved and wanted. 

After this realization, I read the passage in a new way. In verses 29-30, the older brother tells the father, “All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” Before I read this as the older son being entitled, when I put myself into the older brother’s shoes, what I really see is a hurt kid. Why do you love him more than me?” Because we know God’s character, we know the father didn’t actually love or care about either kid more, but that doesn’t change what the older brother was feeling. How many times in my own life have I known my feelings were irrational or not in line with what I know about God’s character, but I couldn’t stop myself from feeling them anyway?

When I saw the older brother through the lens of my life, the father’s response to him was radical for me. The father doesn’t scold him or punish him for his feelings. Instead, he is kind and gentle. In verse 31, he says, “Look, dear son.” He begins by telling him how he is still loved. He then explains the situation to him. 

31“His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’

God doesn’t owe us an explanation or owe it to us to remind us of His love when we’re, honestly, being jerks. But He does. He is so patient, kind, and gentle with us. We see over and over scripture people meeting them where they are at. Both brothers in this story messed up, had the wrong attitude, and did the wrong thing in this story. The amazing part, though, is that both brothers knew they could go to their father when they had messed up or were upset. The father showed kindness and grace to both brothers by the end of the story. He met both brothers where they were. 

If you’ve sinned, squandered your life away, and radically messed up- the Father is still waiting with love and open arms.

If you’re mad at him and don’t understand why He’s done what he’s done- the father is still waiting with love and open arms. 

No matter what your situation is, the story shows us that we can run to God. He can handle our mistakes. He can handle our big emotions. Go to Him, cry out to Him, and trust Him with your problems because the Father is faithful. 

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