The parable of the prodigal son is the most well known among the three parables found in Luke 15. It was through this parable that Jesus answered the accusation of the Jewish leaders and refuted their belief that sinners were to be treated with indifference. In these parables the lost ones are objects not of indifference but of love and care, illustrating how God deals with sinners.
The parable of the prodigal son is divided into two parts. The first tells the story of the younger son (verses 11-24), and the second that of the older son (verses 25-32). The younger son represents “those who have once known the Father’s love, but who have allowed the tempter to lead them captive at his will” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 198). Although he “wasted his possessions with prodigal living” in “a far country” (verse 13),1 the story ends with the phrase “They began to be merry” (verse 24). It has a happy ending.
This story of the younger son has been told more frequently than that of the older son, but the lessons from the second half are just as important. The older son represents not only “the unrepenting Jews of Christ’s day” but “the Pharisees in every age, who look with contempt upon those whom they regard as publicans and sinners” (ibid., p. 209).
In the parable both sons are lost, the younger one after he left home, and the older while he was still in his father’s house. While the second son became a prodigal when he left the father and broke his relationship with him, the older son was always a prodigal, because he never had a proper relationship with his father. This older son might be found even today among those who faithfully go to church each week.
Problems of the Older Son
So what are the problems of the older son? They are found in his answer when his father came out and pleaded with him: “All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” (verses 29, 30, NLT).
1. He is filled with self-righteousness.
This son believed that he was righteous because he never disobeyed his father. In appearance he is an obedient son, and he presents this obedience as the basis of his righteousness. But he has forgotten one very important thing—what makes him righteous in his father’s eyes is not his obedience but his relationship with him. This relationship is based not on what he has done but what his father has done.
Likewise, there are those today who are proud of what they have done for God and for the church, and are “filled with self-righteousness” because they think “they themselves have not gone to great excesses in vice” (ibid.). We should remember, however, that what makes us righteous in God’s eyes is not what we have done but what Jesus has done for us.
2. He works as a servant rather than serving as a son.
The older son complained to his father about the many years he had worked for him with no apparent reward. Giving deeper insight into this complaint, Ellen White explains:
“When the father comes out to remonstrate with him, the pride and malignity of his nature are revealed. He dwells upon his own life in his father’s house as a round of unrequited service, and then places in mean contrast the favor shown to the son just returned. He makes it plain that his own service has been that of a servant rather than a son. When he should have found an abiding joy in his father’s presence, his mind has rested upon the profit to accrue from his circumspect life. His words show that it is for this he has foregone the pleasures of sin” (ibid., pp. 207, 208).
For Profit or Joy?
Our privilege as God’s children is not in receiving something from Him but in serving Him as His children. In Christ’s day the Pharisees “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” (ibid., p. 209). What about us today?
All That I Have
What the father says to his son in the parable is what our heavenly Father says to us today. He speaks to His children who are in His house, “All that I have is yours” (verse 31).
This means that whatever belongs to Him has already been given to us as a free gift of the Father’s love. The only thing He expects from us in giving us all these things is to live not as His servants but as His children. He deeply desires that we enjoy our life as His children.
3. The older son does not acknowledge his brother as a brother.
The older son never acknowledged the younger son as his brother. The father as well as the servant designated him “your brother” (see verse 27), but the older son called him merely “this son of yours” (verse 30).
The older son was angry when he heard of his brother’s return and his father’s hearty welcome. This attitude suggests that he was not concerned about what had happened to his brother—it seems he never wanted his safe return.
In contrast, the father had been very anxious about the safety of his lost son. From the day the young man left, the father was eagerly waiting for his return. For this reason, even “when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion” (verse 20). But since the older brother had not shared his father’s anxiety over the missing son, he did not share in the father’s joy when the lost son returned home.
Sharing the Father’s Sorrow and Joy
Just as the son ought to have shared in his father’s concern and later joy over his wayward brother, the children of the heavenly Father are to share in their Father’s sorrows and joys.
By not sharing the father’s concern, the older son wittingly denied the fact that his father still loved the lost son and that he was eagerly waiting for his return. This tells us that he was never a son of his father in the genuine sense.
As sons and daughters of God, we should remember that He loves sinners. These sinners who are the objects of our heavenly Father’s love must be the objects of our love too. In the parable there was never a time the father did not acknowledge the lost son as his own. He never renounced being his father. Likewise, the heavenly Father never renounces His lost children. Thus, we should acknowledge the lost not as “this son of yours” but as our brother or sister.
In the parable the younger son “was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found” (verse 32). But what about the older son who was lost while living in the house? Will he be found? The answer for this question hangs on our individual decisions.
1 Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Kyung Ho Song, Ph.D., is an associate professor of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary located at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines. This article was published June 9, 2011.