And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 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.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. 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!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
Jesus turns the world upside down with this story. The lost son gets found, and the “found” son gets…lost? Is self-righteousness really more dangerous than self-indulgence? In Luke 15:7, Jesus says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” In this story, the younger son is the sinner who repents. The older son is the righteous person who doesn’t think he needs to repent. The more we think about it, the more self-righteousness is lurking around every corner. Have we ever drawn a blank during a confession time? “I guess I had a pretty good week!” we think.
To understand the danger of self-righteousness, all we have to do is analyze the older son’s complaint. “Look,” he says, immediately disrespecting his father. “These many years I have served you,” he adds, sounding more like a slave than a son. “I never disobeyed your command,” he claims, even as he refuses to share in his father’s joy. “Yet you never gave me a young goat.” He’s done everything right, and he hasn’t been compensated fairly. Do you see how self-righteousness destroys relationships? We struggle to call a parent “father” (v. 29); we struggle to call a sibling “brother” (v. 30). And we’re furious at the “injustice” of grace lavished on the unworthy. But are we really as good as we claim?
Older sons may boast perfection, but we fail repeatedly where it matters most. Like the older son, we “keep all the rules” and break the law of love. We don’t love the Father as we should. We don’t speak up when our younger brothers run away. We don’t stand in as ministers of reconciliation. We don’t go out and search for our younger brothers. We don’t come in to share our Father’s joy when prodigals return. Can we admit—in the words of Walker Percy—that we can get all A’s and still flunk life?
Jesus Christ is good news for older brothers. As the true older brother, Jesus succeeded at every point where the older son fails in the story. He loved the Father perfectly. He refused to remain silent when we sinned against the Father. He came to search for us and to reconcile us to God. He bore our shame on the cross, and he did it all for the joy of bringing us home. The unrighteous and the self-righteous both need to be saved, and Christ is loving and powerful enough to seek and save both. As you see self-righteousness in your heart, do you recognize the danger? Can you admit that you’re lost and need grace as much as anyone? The parable invites us to stop trying to justify ourselves and compare ourselves to other people so that we can make our home in the love of the Father.
And that’s the reason Jesus leaves the story unresolved. Because it doesn’t really matter what happens to the older brother in the parable. The question is: What will happen to the older brother in our hearts? How will we respond to God’s invitation? Will we stay outside or will we come in and share His joy? Will we remain a slave or will we become His beloved son or daughter? Will we trust in ourselves or will we trust in our older brother, Jesus?