him to do (okay, injecting some imagination here, but bear with me). I
can’t know exactly what the elder brother was thinking, but I can imagine. I propose that he resented the younger brother’s impertinence, thought the old man to be a fool, and viewed himself as a contrast in wisdom and propriety.
The elder brother, in my imagination, toiled day in and day out just doing what was expected of him with no particular concern or thanks. In light of his steadfastness he must have viewed his younger brother's lack of commitment to the family and lack of contribution to life as shocking. Perhaps (I imagine) the thoughts of the Elder brother may have gone something like this:
Imagine that young brother, making such demands on our father! Demands that are outrageous and completely out of order! I can’t believe that brat had the nerve to demand his inheritance before our father is even in his grave! Even worse than the impertinence of the son, is the foolishness of our father, who gave away what is rightfully his to allow that selfish, immature, spoiled brat squander it! Talk about enabling! Nobody in their right mind would have just given half of what they owned to a foolish child like that! Perhaps I should get our father checked for dementia and take steps to protect him from being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous child!
Fulfilling the expectations of the elder brother exactly, the younger brother squanders his birthright and does himself in. He hits rock bottom when the reality of eating slop from the feeding trough of an unclean animal confronts him with undeniable evidence of his failure. Then, the miracle happens. He sees the utter depravity of his way and turns from it. Lock, stock, and barrel, the younger brother turns.
In the meantime, while the younger brother has had a whole-hearted conversion, the elder brother never feels that he is in need of such grace. After all, he might ask, what could he possibly have done that requires him to ask for forgiveness?! The outward righteousness of the elder brother’s own life saves him from ever having to confront the fact of his own need for grace.
He cannot accept the fact of the unconditional love his father bears for his younger sibling. He thinks the old man to be a fool. Feeling himself justified by self righteousness instead of by virtue of the love that flows to him from the father, the elder brother stands outside of the circle of love. He reveals himself as not understanding or accepting the love of his father and, in so doing, he becomes the rejecting child, the new prodigal.
Another passage which teaches the attitude expected of God’s people is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke chapter nine:
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”Self righteousness “shows itself in a lack of loving service toward others, and particularly an indifference to the poor” (Keller). Let us be more like the Prodigal, and less like the Self Righteous brother.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1667/1670
National Gallery of Art
National Gallery of Art
*My blog post from yesterday mentioned that a few years ago, when studying this parable, I read the book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, by Henri Nouwen.* (In 2007, I wrote two blog posts about that book, the last of which is HERE). My earlier blog posts focused on the father and the younger son. The book Return of the Prodigal by Henri Nouwen, can be found at the following link: