Two Lost Sons, Elder Brother Syndrome

I am often amazed how unhelpful section titles in our Bibles can be. The parable of the Lost Son or the Prodigal Son may be the worst offender of them all. The Parable of the Lost or Prodigal Son is way more about the elder brother than about the younger son. It’s really about two lost sons. Jesus was saying that both the irreligious and the religious are lost. He is saying that both of these paths concerning man’s way of thinking about how to be with God have been wrong. I am indebted to Tim Keller for his insights here.

Younger and older brothers are in and out of our churches today. More people today consider themselves non-religious. And yet this spiritual of secularism/humanism has helped drive a movement of staunch, give no ground, conservative moment aimed at “taking back the culture.”

Many pastors trying to reach the “younger brothers” of this generation have encountered the internal struggle. They are feeling the same tension that Jesus felt from both sides. Whose side are you on Jesus on?

In the Lord of the Rings, the hobbit asks Treebeard, “whose side are you on? He answers: “I am not on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side…(But) there are some things, of course, who side I’m altogether not on.”

Remember that when Christianity first arose in the world it was not called a religion. Frankly it was the non-religion of its day. They would ask, where again is your temple or your statues? Today Christianity is the religion and the moralism.

The Younger Brother asks for his Father’s inheritance now!

This is a sign of deep disrespect. To ask him while he is living is to ask him to be dead. He wants he’s dads stuff but not his dad. The Greek word for stuff here is bios. Bios means life. Most of the wealth in that day would have been tied up in land. It would also have been probably about 1/3 of it.

The younger son uses it all up on prostitutes and partying as many people know. The father takes him back in a way that would be shocking to the hears in Jesus day because he is not only welcomed back but also receives good standing in the community by the act of wearing the Father’s robe.

The father is saying I’m not going until you’ve paid it back. I’m not going to let you earn your way back into this family. By the way there’s no way for the younger son to do so. (God’s kingdom is not about your worth its about birth.) He was born into the family and nothing he is going to do takes away the fact that he’s my son. He is saying, I am going to simply embrace you for who you are. Regardless of your nakedness, poverty, and possible sexually transmitted diseases, all of that is going to go under my spiritual covering because you came back. Put this robe on him. Whoa! But this cannot stand alone, otherwise the message is one of universal love.


Who was Jesus speaking to when he told this parable? If you flip back far enough you’ll discover it was the Pharisees.

Here’s where this gets interesting. So the father brings the son back into the family and makes him an heir once again with again a claim on 1/3 of what’s left. The elder brother can’t believe it and rightly so. He’s realizing he’s worked his whole life with his father and his is about to get a portion of his inheritance. He’s thinking, where is the justice in that?

Look he says, all these years I’ve served you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.

Then the father essentially says, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. Now will you go with me to celebrate at your brother’s party? And then the story ends.

Why does it end that way? Because both hearts of the brothers were wrong but the state of one of the brothers’ heart is more dangerous than the other… Both brothers used the father for themselves in different ways.

The message of the parable then is this. Obedience to God may also serve as a means of rebellon and both are equally selflishness. One of the keys of the Kingdom is selflessness. It is a principle that goes all the way through the narrative and teachings of Jesus.

In the novel, Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor says of her character Hazel Motes that “there was a deep, black, wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” And I am convinced that many people are guilt of this today. You can avoid Jesus and his claim as rightful ruler if you keep the rules.

That’s the very definition of the “elder brother syndrome.” Not sinning and expecting that to give us rights to God and his kingdom. And at its very core, it isn’t Jesus, its Judas. And this is one of the reasons we aren’t very successful at reaching our younger brothers.

Forgive us Father.

Luke 16:31-32 ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”