The two most well known parables that Christ taught are arguably the story of the “Good Samaritan,” and the “Prodigal Son.” And although the parables look seemingly different, the message they share are actually very similar and complement each other. So how are these stories similar? Let us first start with the story of the “Prodigal Son.”
1 Now the tax collectors and “sinner” were all gathering around to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told this parable….
11 Jesus continued, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a far country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer to be worthy to be called your son, make me like one of your hired men.’
20 “So he got up and went to his Father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick!’ Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”
Now most people, whether believers or non-believers, will end the story there. And the message they usually receive is simply that God is a loving Father who welcomes back his children who have backslidden. And although true, this is a much too simplified understanding of the story. It is also a wrong understanding of the story.
First off, we must pay attention to all the details of the story. We need to first look at and pay attention to who this parable was meant for. If we go back to the beginning, we will see that Christ had two audiences - first there were the “tax collectors and sinners,” and there were the “Pharisees and the teachers of the law.” The younger son was representative of the “tax collectors and sinners,” and the elder brother was representative of the “Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.”
In reality, this parable was meant for not only the prodigal younger brothers, but also for the elder brothers.
It is important to realize that Christ did not have to appeal to the younger brother types. They already knew they were wayward sinners. And they were drawn to Christ and His message of acceptance and forgiveness because they knew they needed it. Therefore, the main audience Christ had in mind when he was teaching this parable was actually the elder brothers, those who are what Tim Keller calls the “moral insiders.” The focus of Christ then, was not the immoral outsiders, rather, it was those who saw themselves as righteous, those who placed their faith in religious moralism. And this is why Jesus said to the religious leaders that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before [them]” (Matthew 21:31, emphasis mine).
Unfortunately, in our world today, not much has changed. Our churches are filled with “Elder brothers” who are blind to their own condition as a result of moral conformity. They do not see that they are the problem with our churches today. In their eyes, their moral rectitude absolves them of all obligation and duty to their fellow man. They take pride in the fact that they pay tithes, attend church every week, don’t do drugs, and keep most of the commandments - just like the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and just like the elder brother in the parable. And as a result, whether they know it or not, they avoid Jesus by keeping the moral laws. They are essentially their own saviors who do not need Christ, they are righteous by their own works, at least that’s what they think. However, what they forget is that “...all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
What people also need to understand is that, although the younger brother was far off from home, the elder brother was even more distanced from the father and alienated from the father, maybe not physically, but definitely in heart. We can see this clearly in the story by his reaction to the fathers welcoming of the younger brother. Infuriated, the elder brother refuses to join the feast to celebrate the return of the lost younger brother. We can also see that by his words, he was just as selfish if not more than the younger brother. It is also easy to deduce that he did not obey the father out of love and respect for his father, but rather, it was result-oriented obedience. But as we can see by the story, this type of service does not produce joy, instead, it produces pride, and an unforgiving judgmental spirit. Thus, the saying is true, “The thief of joy is comparison.”
Moreover, another thing this story teaches us is that, the elder brothers do things not out of their love for others, but out of love for themselves. Whenever they do things for others, they are in actuality, doing things for themselves. It may appear that they are feeding and helping the poor, but in reality they are feeding their own egos and pride; they are trying to help themselves.And it is a result of this type of selfish self-centeredness that many younger brothers do not want to go to church.
Churches should be full of born-again sinners who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, not with the righteous born-again righteous, who have redeemed themselves. And it is because of the elder brothers lacking an understanding of the true gospel that they unknowingly and/or knowingly become condescending, condemning, and judgmental. But God loves not only the lost and broken, but he also loves the hardened religious people - and we can see this in the fact that Christ saved a man like Paul, who by the standards of his time, was a Pharisee of Pharisees.
And this is why the story of the “Prodigal Son,” ends abruptly. Christ left it open for his hearers and us. He did this so that elder brothers would be able to finish their own ending. Christ gives His listeners a chance to repent of their own moral goodness. His hope is that elder brothers would come to the realization that being good is not the solution to being bad. What Christ wants us to understand is that salvation is not and cannot be found anywhere else other than in Him.
What people also tend to overlook is that Christ is an example of a good elder brother. All of us were or are the younger brother in some shape or form. We were all at one point in our lives lost. But God, the Good Father, sent His Son Jesus Christ to bring us home. And even now, Christ is seeking the lost, hoping to bring all of God’s children back home. And not only this, Christ out of His own volition wants to share His inheritance with us, at His own cost, and he paid for this with His own very life on the cross of Calvary.
Therefore, let the elder brothers follow in the footsteps of Christ and go out and seek the lost and help to bring them home. Let the elder brothers also learn something from the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” Let us not be like the priest or the Levite who walked past the injured, fallen, half dead man. Instead, let us be like the “Good Samaritan,” who went out of his way, to attend to the needs of a Jew, someone who in reality was not someone who he was to have any type of interaction with.
And rather than looking down on younger brothers, let us learn to have compassion towards them and not make judgmental assumptions on how they might have gotten where they are. For all of us have the same enemy, Satan, who’s only desire is to steal, kill, and destroy us - all of us should be able to relate to the man who was robbed and beaten in the story of the “Good Samaritan.”
Therefore, today, as you read this, I invite you to change the ending of your story. May you choose to be the good elder son, like Christ, and not the bad elder son who is essentially lost unless he has a change of heart. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit would convict you to repent of your religious righteousness, and instead, that you would receive the righteousness found in Christ. For if you do, you can be sure that all of Heaven will rejoice in seeing that you too have returned to the Good Father who is waiting for you with open arms. And you can be sure that in the last day, in the day of the Great Feast, all of us will be able to celebrate with true joy, seeing that not one of God’s children were lost, but all of us were found.
In the name of Jesus Christ,