Deep Dive into Jesus' Prodigal Story Part 4: The Older Brother

Sep 19, 2023

Sometimes when Tom preaches, he makes a funny statement to get his point across. He says that we often put the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. That's what we do with the story Jesus told his crowd in Luke 15.

We call this the story of the "prodigal son."

I don't think Jesus would call it that. Look how he started it, 

"A man had two sons."

This is a story about a man who had two sons. BOTH sons are equally significant in the plot, (as is the father.) 

Don't forget that Jesus was speaking to Pharisees and Scribes (the righteous members of society in His day) who were criticizing Him for sharing meals with tax collectors/sinners. Where the prodigal son represented the tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees and Scribes were represented by the older son.

With that in mind, let's read the story with a spotlight on this son, the firstborn of the father.

Bailey, (in his book, The Cross and the Prodigal) tells us that the older son would have known about the conversation his younger brother had with his father. Servants, neighbors, friends would have overheard the interaction and passed the news of the absurd request throughout the village. He goes on to say that certainly everyone in the village knew what was happening when the younger son started cashing out his portion of the estate so he could leave town.

I love this verse from Ecclesiastes 10:20 that describes the kind of world people were living in at the time,

"Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king, nor in your bedchamber curse the rich; for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter." 

The walls apparently had ears in those humble homes. Basically, people are pretty much the same today as they were then.

The Older Son Shirked His Responsibility

Without an understanding of the culture, we miss something very important--something Jesus' audience took for granted.

The older son shirked his responsibility to serve as the family mediator. Bailey explains that in a village quarrel the two parties never make up directly. No one could "lose face," so they worked out their differences with a third party called a mediator. "This go-between fluctuates between one party and the other until he works out a solution that both sides can accept. There can be no winners or losers. The mediator then arranges a public meeting in which the two antagonists shake hands, embrace and kiss each other in token of reconciliation. The mediator is always selected on the basis of the strength of his relationships with the quarreling parties. In this case, the older son would be the unspoken choice as a go-between."

Can I stop right here and tell you how much I love this?! What a great way to find solutions in a community of people! Today we pay dearly for third party strangers to iron out our differences and then part enemies! In Jesus' day, mediators stepped in--not for monetary gain--but out of love for the warring factions, and their mediation led to reconciliation! 

But back to the story Jesus told his audience of sinners and religious leaders. Let me just let Bailey share what he discovered when teaching this Scripture to people who lived in middle eastern villages, 

"In the villages when I come to this point in a sermon on this text, I always ask, 'Who must be the reconciler?' The villagers always answer from their pews, 'His brother, of course.' Everybody knows this. Furthermore, he must start immediately. It is up to him to step in at once and try to reconcile his brother to his father. The family and community demand it. But our man is silent. He refuses to fulfill the sacred responsibility that village custom places on his shoulders. Clearly, for some reason he does not want reconciliation to take place. If he hated his brother, he would still fulfill this task for the sake of his father." 

Up until now, I just thought the older son was staying out of it. He was keeping his distance and letting the conflict exist between his father and his brother. I had no idea that his absence in this first part of the story was an indictment on him! 

Bailey went on to explain that not only was his behavior not in keeping with his responsibility toward his brother, but it was also not in keeping with his responsibility toward his father. Don't forget how important it was to honor your father in this patriarchal society! 

"In the east personal relationships are supreme, For the sake of you, my friend, my relative, I am willing to do everything. The climax comes in relationship to one's father. For his sake I am duty bound to do everything and anything. But here the older son refuses. The refusal is a clear indication of his broken relationship with his father. Things are not as they should be between him and his brother or him and his father." 

Huh! Who knew! 

The Pharisees and Scribes did...

Firstborn Sons Often Flaunted Their Favored Position

In Jesus' day the firstborn son was the favored one. Not only did he receive the majority of his father's inheritance after his father died, but he was also next in command while his father was living. You would think the mother would be the 2nd in authority, but she was not. The firstborn son was. Of course this son received the responsibilities that went along with being the head of his household; he took care of his family and represented them in the community. 

Bailey tells us that often these privileges of the firstborn son produced "insufferable arrogance." He suggests that this might be the unspoken background of Jesus' parable. "The arrogance of the older brother may well have contributed to the rupturing of the younger man's relationship with is father." 

Think on these things as you remember that Jesus was speaking to Pharisees and Scribes, as well as tax collectors and sinners.

Something is Amiss Between These Brothers

Another thing we might not know today that Jesus' audience knew then was that the elder son was terribly absent when his brother left home. This is how Bailey explains this to us,

"...the father, because of his position of estrangement with his younger son, cannot bid him goodbye. Custom would not allow it. The elder son again is responsible. He would be expected to plead with him not to leave and remind him of the father's love. He would say to him, 'My brother, your father is an old man. You may not see him again. Do not leave us. Your mother will go blind weeping. We cannot bear even the thought of your departure.' Then, if the boy is determined to leave, he must tell him that their prayers are with him, invoke God's protection for the journey and plead with him to return speedily." 

Traveling in the middle east in the first century was not like traveling in the middle east today. Wild animals, robbers, the terrors were legitimate. Bailey shared in his book that even in his day, living amongst villagers in the middle east, family members embraced and wept as if they were being parted forever when their family member left them for a week or so to visit a town 30 miles away. The heartache of separation was real, and its ache expressed in loving ways when family members left on journeys.

But in Jesus' story, the older son is nowhere to be seen when the younger son leaves home.

The Pharisees and Scribes Understood What Was Written Between the Lines

Knowing these things, now you understand what the Pharisees and Sadducees understood. They were represented in this parable by the father's older son.


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