Re-Instating The Elder Son

(Some years ago I wrote a piece on the parable of the prodigal son. I was not entirely happy with it and deleted it. Later I regretted this since I was convinced that my thesis, prompted in part by S.B. Ferguson’s frequent reference to Jesus as our Elder Brother, pp.13,33,45, etc., was basically correct though incomplete. Below I expound the parable as I think it was, at least in part, meant to be understood.)

Few passages of Scripture are better known and popular than the parable of the prodigal son. After all, the picture of bad boy making good is widespread and is based on a fairly common experience in every day life. Most, if not all, of us repent of and outgrow the sins of our youth (Ps. 25:7; Jer. 31:19). For all that, the prodigal was a bit special or his story would not have been told.

Some commentators tell us that the idea of a Jewish son asking for his inheritance was most unusual, if not unheard of. This, however, is not important. What is important in the parable is that he did. Furthermore, he did so in order to have what is nowadays often called ‘a good time’ out of reach of parental supervision.

Next, it needs to be noted that he did it in a far country. This immediately suggests he went to a heathen country where morals were generally looser than on home territory. This reminds us of times past when it was the habit of the sons of the rich Englishmen to undertake the Grand Tour and go off to France, Italy and other such places under the pretext of extending their education but often in fact to sow their wild oats. If we pay attention to Scripture in general we can hardly fail to become aware that the conduct of such sons is somewhat reminiscent of that of the heathen described by Paul in Romans 1. Here the prodigal son squanders his entire inheritance on loose living and fleshly indulgence. However, his good time is short-lived and in due course the harsh realities of life make their impact on him. When famine comes, he is alone, destitute, impecunious, deserted and forced into breaking the religious taboos of his upbringing. For a Jew, to have to deal with pigs and eat their swill was anathema, but that was what happened.

Leaving much to the imagination Jesus simply says he came to himself (v.17, cf. Mt. 21:28f.). When he realized, as many rebellious or misguided young people do, that home and parents are not so bad after all, the prodigal saw that it was now time to face reality and eat humble pie. (Wasn’t it Mark Twain who at eighteen thought that his father was a silly old fool but at forty a wise old man?) He would return (repent), express his regrets to his father and indeed to heaven itself and ask to be taken in not as a son but as a servant.

It would seem to be a fact that most people, not least commentators, adopt a rather indulgent attitude towards the younger son, though one wonders whether they would do so if as parents they found themselves in the same situation. It has always seemed somewhat inconsistent and faintly hypocritical to me for straight-laced, moralistic preachers to heap praise on the loose-living son and pour opprobrium on the law-abiding elder one. While they readily “welcome” the prodigal back into the fold, their reaction to the elder son or brother is much less accommodating, even hostile and vituperative. Why?

First, it is held that parables in general concentrate on making one main point. If this is so, that point here would seem to be, as B.B.Warfield expressed it, that “God in heaven rejoices over the repentance of every sinner that repents” (p.538). It is possible, however, that this rule is not as rigid as some suppose, and we must be prepared to ask if it is always the case especially since this particular parable seems to have two closely related but nonetheless separate parts. Second, it has to be conceded that Luke 15 begins with a reference to both tax collectors and sinners on the one hand and to the Pharisees and the scribes on the other. Consequently, most consider it to be obvious that Jesus is exploiting the elder son to attack the latter for their hypocrisy. This analysis is superficially convincing but in my view it fails to deal adequately with all the evidence.

Warfield appears to make an important point when he says that the elder brother is also a son and that the father loves him too (p.540). On its assumption, however, it seems a little odd that the father should have thrown a party on the return of his younger son and totally neglected to show any palpable appreciation of the son who had served him faithfully through the years. It needs to be noted at this point not only that this son is the elder brother but also that he claims to have worked for his father without ever disobeying his command – hardly the sort of thing that Jesus would have said of the Pharisees (Mt. 23; Mark 7:13; John 7:19). What is more, the father makes no attempt to deny the truth of his son’s claim. In fact, instead of suggesting that he sees him as self-righteous, unloving, lacking in compassion and understanding like the Pharisee in the temple (Luke 18:9-14), he gives the impression that he regards him as his dearly beloved son with whom he has a deep and abiding relationship. (Ladd, p.205, suggests that the elder brother did not know true fellowship with his father, but this is hardly supported by the evidence.) Even more to the point, he freely and apparently gladly acknowledges him as his heir. If this does not remind us of Jesus himself, then it ought to. So what if Jesus was in part portraying himself in the person of the elder brother. After all, we need to remember that Jesus as a true human being was capable of suffering hurt and wounded feelings. Arguably, apart from the possibility that he was trying to appeal to the sensibilities of his audience, as one who was tempted like the rest of us (Heb. 4:15) he was making a point for the benefit of those like missionaries and others who serve God faithfully and sacrificially in this world yet go without so many of this world’s rewards and consolations (cf. Mark 10:28-31)?

Of course, it may immediately be replied that the elder son, like the Pharisees, is at first hotly opposed to what seemed to be the over-the-top reception given to his good-for-nothing brother. True, yet what if Jesus is intent not simply on criticizing the Pharisees for their hard-heartedness but is trying to impress on all his audience the fact that he himself despite his unblemished obedience had received nothing from his Father in this world to soften the harshness of his unremitting toil on behalf of his unappreciative fellows. For him personally there were no favours, concessions, celebrations and the like, only the end as envisaged by the author of Hebrews (12:2). While the prodigal had devoured his patrimony with prostitutes, he in stark contrast had made himself a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom (Mt. 19:12). All he received were two public acknowledgements (Luke 3:21f. and 9:35). And even the priceless gift of the Spirit exacerbated the conflict between his own flesh and spirit, as the severity and intensity of his trials and temptations show (Mt. 4:1-11, cf. Heb. 4:15).

Commentators on the parable note that its end is left open. So we are left with the question: Did the elder son enter the house and join in the celebration? How we answer it surely depends on how we view him. We need to recognize first that it seems unjust that the righteous like Job should suffer in this world and in some cases fail to gain sympathy, reward or recognition. It is little wonder that they sometimes feel bitter, neglected and unappreciated. Second, it also seems to be unjust that the riotous and undisciplined should reap so gratuitously favour that they do not deserve. But this is a familiar theme of Scripture as well as of our own experience. Of course, the context changes but Jesus himself told the story of the labourers who did little but were paid the same wages as those who had toiled all day (Mt. 20:1-16). He also gently corrected rather than criticized Martha when Mary chose the better part (Luke 10:38-42). In such circumstances, it is natural for human beings to be tempted to react less than positively, as the elder brother seemed to do. (Ferguson, p.13, makes no concession to human nature and adopts a harsher stance. He suggests that a Pharisee lurks in the hearts of most men, ignoring the fact that even Jesus was human.) On the other hand, if we are at all sympathetic to him and realize that Jesus has put something of himself into his portrayal of the elder brother, we might well draw the conclusion that his natural feelings were overcome and that he entered the house to join in the general rejoicing. After all, he himself points out earlier in the chapter that there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7,10).

One thing is indisputably clear. This is what the real Elder Brother did (cf. John 14:2f.). In fact he blazed a trail and went in first (Heb. 2:10-13; 9:24; 12:2), and it behoves us as prodigals one and all to follow in his steps (cf. Rom. 8:29).

If there is any validity or plausibility in what I have written above, it prompts the question as to why it has not been recognized before. Apart from the reference to the Pharisees at the start of Luke 15, there is another important consideration. The traditional Jesus has been largely docetic, less human than he really was. (On Docetism, see further my The Ecclesiastical Christ, Still Docetic.) Lacking verisimilitude he has been a figment of the imagination. As such, he has been put illegitimately on a pedestal and to that extent he has been an idol. What am I getting at? The Jesus church history has presented to us was born of a virgin to ensure that he avoided the entail of original sin. Not being born of “carnal concupiscence” he has wrongly been separated from the rest of humanity (cf. Heb. 2:17f.) and has ended up as a sexless saint or, in the words of Julian the Apostate, a pale Galilean. In the Bible, however, he is genuine flesh and blood and tempted at all points just as we are. Furthermore, all his Father offered him was what cynical disbelievers call “pie in the sky when you die”. The author of Hebrews paints the picture rather differently. He implies that he suffered genuine pain in resisting sin and its consequence death (5:7), but when the latter had to be experienced on behalf of others, he endured the cross despising the shame for the joy set before him (Heb. 12:2). The truth is that the real Jesus was truly human and knew first-hand all the weaknesses common to humanity even though he himself overcame them (cf. Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 13:4). In view of this we can be confident that his sympathy for others was heart-felt (Heb. 2:17f.). As the elder Son he was indeed obedient, but that does not mean that he had no natural reactions. The point is that he triumphed over them and led not just one prodigal but also many others into the celebration (cf. Mt. 22:1-14).

There is a final point to make. Kistemaker suggests (p.216) that it would perhaps be better to speak of the two sons and their father and adds that by means of these three characters Jesus reflected the character of his audience. The prodigal portrayed the moral and social outcast, his brother the self-righteous Jew and the father obviously our heavenly Father. He goes on to say that Jesus addressed the members of his audience directly calling the sinners to repentance and the righteous to accept sinners and rejoice in their salvation.

Apart from noting with Paul that in reality there are none that are righteous (Rom. 3:10), this picture again is impressive. For all that, I would put the matter somewhat differently. Does not the parable of the Prodigal Son reflect biblical covenant theology? I pointed out above that the prodigal himself behaved like the heathen under the covenant with Noah (cf. Rom.1:18-32) but eventually repented and turned to his father (cf. Rom. 2:14,26). Next, if we accept Jesus’ comment that salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), it is important to recognize that it is supremely so from their only representative never to disobey his Father’s command as expressed in the law of Moses (cf. Luke 15:29). Finally, all those who believe in him need to be aware that he alone is the true heir of the Father’s kingdom for he alone by his total obedience as a slave in Egypt (cf. Mt. 2:13-15) and as a Jew under the law (Luke 2:40-52) met the condition of life and incorruption (2 Tim. 1:10, cf. Gal. 4:4f.). Christians by faith may indeed inherit all things but only through him and only as adopted sons (Rom. 8:14-17,32; Gal. 4:1,6f.).

As Sinclair Ferguson made so clear in his book “Children of the Living God”, Jesus is indeed our Elder Brother to whose image we are predestined to be conformed (Rom. 8:29).

(See further my Covenant Theology).



S.B.Ferguson, Children of the Living God, Edinburgh/Carlisle, 1989.

S.Kistemaker, The Parables of Jesus, Grand Rapids, 1980.

G.E.Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom, London, 1966.

B.B.Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, Philadelphia, 1952.