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Chapter 4 - The Eldest Son

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “‘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,’” Luke 15:25-32.


In general, the relationship between siblings is very complicated. The Bible itself contains many accounts of conflict between siblings. As much as parents may intervene, it is difficult to maintain a calm and peaceful environment indoors when siblings are at home. The relationship between them is bipolar. In a moment they are laughing and talking amicably, and then the mood changes and the fighting starts.


When my two older children were young, they began a typical argument that illustrates that a logical cause is not always necessary for siblings to disagree. They were small at the time, and we were all in the car going grocery shopping when one of them commented, "Dad, I want a dog." The other, not to be left out, said, "Father, I would like to have a kitten." The brother then replied, "You cannot have a kitten, because my dog would quarrel with him." This was a start to an illogical argument. They were at war because of animals they did not even have.


However, siblings often form a united front against an external threat. At school, you see as much. At home, siblings may constantly bicker, but when someone else starts picking on one of them, the other takes offense and defends his or her sibling. It would appear that only members of the family have the right to argue or fight against said sibling. This is the case at the end of the story of the prodigal son when the elder brother appears. In the account, Jesus says that the relationship between the two was not good. There were deep emotional wounds that were not healed.


With many people I have talked to, I have noticed the idea that the youngest son of the parable went astray, corrupted himself, wasted his inheritance in a dissolute life. He is considered the villain of the story by many. When we speak of the eldest son, the general understanding is that this one who stayed at home, working, obeying, doing everything right, was the "good boy" of the parable. Unwitting mistake.


Let us consider the person and character of the eldest son.


We have already mentioned before that our suggestion is that the parable be entitled: The Parable of the Lost Children. Why?

At first, the two boys lived at home with their father, enjoying the rights and privileges of children of the house. The younger considered himself worthy to receive his inheritance in advance, left the house, squandered all resources, spoiled his health, and finally returned regretfully home.


The eldest son also received an inheritance, but double for he was the eldest son. Let us remember that the father "divided his property between them" (Luke 15:12).


It is true that the eldest son stayed home, worked regularly in the countryside, and, to a certain extent, performed the duties of the house. In his words: "[I’ve] never disobeyed your orders" (Luke 15:29).


This expression reminds us of the words of the rich young man who approached Christ, and asked him, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus replied, "If you want to enter life, keep the commandments." The young man replied, “All these I have kept; What do I still lack?” Jesus tells him one thing is lacking (Matthew 19:16-21). Jesus then reveals a deep knowledge of the human soul by challenging the young man with a shocking proposition: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me," (Matthew 19:21). The sacred account states that "When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth" (verse 22).


What was missing in the life and heart of the young man who questioned the Master? He lacked the love of God in his heart. On this,

Ellen G. White commented:


“'One thing thou lackest,' Jesus said. 'If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow Me.' Christ read the ruler's heart. Only one thing he lacked, but that was a vital principle. He needed the love of God in the soul. This lack, unless supplied, would prove fatal to him; his whole nature would become corrupted. By indulgence, selfishness would strengthen. That he might receive the love of God, his supreme love of self must be surrendered," The Desire of Ages, p. 519.


"His claim that he had kept the law of God was a deception. He showed that riches were his idol. He could not keep the commandments of God while the world was first in his affections," Ibid., P. 520.


 Let us consider the inspired words of the Apostle Paul to the Roman Christians:

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law,” Romans 13:8-10.


Jesus said to His disciples, “If you love me, keep my commands,” John 14:15. Should we keep the commandments to prove that we love Jesus? Or do we need to love Jesus to keep His commandments? In fact, we cannot produce true love for Jesus. We need to accept Jesus to have His love in our hearts. The apostle John states: “We love because he first loved us,” 1 John 4:19.


"Righteousness is holiness, likeness to God, and “God is love.” 1 John 4:16. It is conformity to the law of God, for “all Thy commandments are righteousness” (Psalm 119:172), and “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). Righteousness is love, and love is the light and the life of God. The righteousness of God is embodied in Christ. We receive righteousness by receiving Him," Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 17.


How many commandments of God's law were observed by the young man who sought Jesus? None. Without the love of God in our hearts we do not keep the law of God, and he who breaks one of the precepts becomes guilty of breaking them all (James 2:10).

Let us turn our attention back to the older brother of the parable.


“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ Luke 15:25-30.


The eldest son was a hard worker. He had many good works of his own to present to his father. He was a cold duty-fulfiller calculating the reward he would receive for his hard work. He did not work out of love, but for the reward. His life was of continual labor. Being a hard worker is a virtue, especially when one works with dedication and love. Like the rich young man mentioned above, the older brother failed in this point as well. He did not have a loving relationship with his father. Just as the youngest son set out for a land far from his father's home, the eldest lived far from his father's heart. He throws this fact in the face of his old father: ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders’ (verse 29). He did not see himself as a son, but only as one more servant on his father's farm.


Religious leaders who were listening to this story could be found at fault of this as well. They did not have a relationship of love with God, but one of bondage. They were scandalized by the intimacy that Jesus held with God, for the Master addressed him as His Father. The Jews did not refer to God in this way. They were only servants and not children.


Despite the length of time that separates us from the facts we are analyzing, the truth is that this attitude permeates the relationship of many people with God today. They do not have the courage to approach Him to maintain a relationship of affection. They see religion and spirituality only as a list of duties and obligations. For this class, to be a spiritual person is to obey rules and principles. They are unable to open their hearts to the Father as they do to a friend. This person’s religion is arid and without joy.


What was the reaction of the elder son when he heard the party? He was indignant. Why? Because his father had put together a party of rejoicing over the recovery of his son who had been lost. "The older brother became angry and refused to go in,” Luke 15:28. He was not happy about his brother's return. Why? Perhaps because he feared that his inheritance would be jeopardized. After all, he was a cold and calculating. More likely, it was his difficulty in seeing the young man who had returned home as his brother. He does not refer to him as being his brother, but the account says that he treats him like a stranger. He refers to the younger man with words of indifference: “this son of yours” (verse 30). He seems to want to shout, "He's not my brother."


Lockyer points out that twice the happy father says, “your brother”. Brother, this harlot lover, my brother—never! Rudely and contemptuously he says to his father, “This son of yours.” Contempt, bitterness, and bitter sarcasm are contained within his act of bringing to remembrance the sins of his brother in their heaviest, darkest colors. Ellicott says: The very expression “this son of yours” shows a concentrated malignity, (paraphrased from All the Parables of the Bible, p. 333).


This was the difficulty of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. They could not understand why Jesus was "a friend of sinners." How He could walk with those kinds of people? They did not do that. They only related to good and just people like them. Those kinds of people, society’s outcasts, were not "my brethren".


The spirit of self-righteousness has not disappeared in our day. When a person who was far from God decides to return home not all "Christians" are happy. They look down on the new redeemed soul and do not believe in his or her conversion. An evangelical church in Curitiba posted a video on YouTube in which ordinary people are questioned about what they understand being a Christian is about. That is the worldview concerning believers. Between praise and criticism, one thing was clear: many who are not part of a Christian community have complained about the prejudiced with which they were treated when they enter a church. Would Jesus do that? If He were a member of one of these churches, how would He treat visitors who did not fit the standard that society considers normal? How would Christ himself be treated because of the friendships he would cultivate with these "strange" people? If we want to be considered followers of Christ we should treat "sinners" as our Master treated them, with open arms and hearts.


The elder brother did not even consider the young man as his brother. He treated him as “His father’s son". Though his heart was utterly devoid of love for his brother and fellow man, he declared that he had never transgressed a commandment. The fact was, he had not kept any commandment. He also lacked one thing: love, which is the basic and essential principle of divine law. He compared his life working in his father’s house, though not out of love, with the life of his brother who had gone astray but had returned home in repentance.


Champlin comments:

"He was told the story in brief but understandable words, but he could not share the general joy, for he was haughty, insensitive, legalistic, hateful, contemptuous, righteous in his own eyes, totally devoid of common human sympathy. He performed his tasks well and punctually and prided himself on his superiority over others. No one could defile his reputation because of any statement or scandal because such things were below him; yet he knew nothing of love and grace, and his heart was filled with hatred. He had gone astray in his heart, though he did not know it, and he had never felt any need for self-examination or to come to repentance.

"He was outraged; the original Greek term used here indicates not merely a sudden outburst of anger, but a permanent, deeply rooted disposition. His attitude, of course, was an allusion to the attitude of the religious leaders of the Jews who objected to the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ to the poor, to prostitutes, and to publicans or tax collectors, while at the same time He seemingly neglected them, who formed the elite class. Surely the adversaries of Jesus must have felt a strong sting in the face at these words of Jesus.


"'The eldest son put love aside, and as if by a just judgment he was set aside by love.' (Ellicott, in loc.) The father of the family continued to exhort him to soften so that he could attend the festivities, but he only pitied himself and thought that his faithful work had not been noticed or rewarded. Now the eldest son was the 'lost' son, for he had traveled that mile without sympathy, and had only come nearer to his grave. He had lost his filial feelings, and now he showed the hypocrisy he held in his chest,” The New Testament Interpreted, Vol. 2, p. 156.


The educator Ellen G. White has some important reflections on this point:

"Was the elder brother brought to see his own mean, ungrateful spirit? Did he come to see that though his brother had done wickedly, he was his brother still? Did the elder brother repent of his jealousy and hardheartedness? Concerning this, Christ was silent. For the parable was still enacting, and it rested with His hearers to determine what the outcome should be.


"By the elder son were represented the unrepenting Jews of Christ's day, and also the Pharisees in every age, who look with contempt upon those whom they regard as publicans and sinners. Because they themselves have not gone to great excesses in vice, they are filled with self-righteousness. Christ met these cavilers on their own ground. Like the elder son in the parable, they had enjoyed special privileges from God. They claimed to be sons in God's house, but they had the spirit of the hireling. They were working, not from love, but from hope of reward. In their eyes, God was an exacting taskmaster. They saw Christ inviting publicans and sinners to receive freely the gift of His grace—the gift which the rabbis hoped to secure only by toil and penance—and they were offended. The prodigal's return, which filled the Father's heart with joy, only stirred them to jealousy.


"In the parable the father's remonstrance with the elder son was Heaven's tender appeal to the Pharisees. “All that I have is thine”—not as wages, but as a gift. Like the prodigal, you can receive it only as the unmerited bestowal of the Father's love.


"Self-righteousness not only leads men to misrepresent God, but makes them coldhearted and critical toward their brethren. The elder son, in his selfishness and jealousy, stood ready to watch his brother, to criticize every action, and to accuse him for the least deficiency. He would detect every mistake, and make the most of every wrong act. Thus he would seek to justify his own unforgiving spirit. Many today are doing the same thing. While the soul is making its very first struggles against a flood of temptations, they stand by, stubborn, self-willed, complaining, accusing. They may claim to be children of God, but they are acting out the spirit of Satan. By their attitude toward their brethren, these accusers place themselves where God cannot give them the light of His countenance.


"Many are constantly questioning, “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before Him with burnt-offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” But “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” Micah 6:6-8.


"This is the service that God has chosen—“to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke, ... and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh.” Isaiah 58:6, 7. When you see yourselves as sinners saved only by the love of your heavenly Father, you will have tender pity for others who are suffering in sin. You will no longer meet misery and repentance with jealousy and censure.


"When the ice of selfishness is melted from your hearts, you will be in sympathy with God, and will share His joy in the saving of the lost.


"It is true that you claim to be a child of God; but if this claim be true, it is “thy brother” that was “dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.” He is bound to you by the closest ties; for God recognizes him as a son. Deny your relationship to him, and you show that you are but a hireling in the household, not a child in the family of God.


"Though you will not join in the greeting to the lost, the joy will go on, the restored one will have his place by the Father's side and in the Father's work. He that is forgiven much, the same loves much. But you will be in the darkness without. For “he that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” 1 John 4:8." Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 209-211


What character in the parables do you identify with? Are you a Scribe or Pharisee? Or do you identify with the repentant publicans and sinners who felt comfortable in the presence of Christ? Are you a stray sheep or a lost drachma in the home or church? Have you been acting like the prodigal son who returned to his father's house or as the older brother who was angry with his brother's return?


“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” Matthew 11:28-30.


“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away,” John 6:37.


“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time,” 1 Peter 5:6,7.


“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,” 2 Peter 3:9.


“As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain, For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation,” 2 Corinthians 6:1, 2.


“…how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him,” Hebrews 2:3.