by Shane Scott
At first glance there aren’t two more dissimilar characters in any of Jesus’ stories than the brothers in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger son, characterized by the impulsiveness we often associate with youth, demanded his share of the father’s estate and abandoned the family, setting off into the far country of debauched living. The older son, on the other hand, living up to the stereotypical dutiful obedience that marks so many firstborn children, stayed at home, compliant with all of his father’s commands. But a deeper look at the motives of the two sons reveals that they had far more in common than we might have first thought.
In the case of the younger son, his desire was clearly for self-indulgence. “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me” (Luke 15:12). He was consumed with satisfying himself, which is why he plunged into the self-absorbed and ultimately ruinous lifestyle that he did, what Jesus called, “reckless living” (Luke 15:13).
As many commentators have pointed out, the most heartbreaking aspect of the younger son’s demand was what it indicated about his relationship with his father. Normally, an estate is distributed when someone dies. To demand his share of the father’s property while the father was still alive was basically for the younger son to say to his father, “All that your life and livelihood mean to me is how much money I am going to get, and I want it now.”
The younger son demonstrated no love for his father, no concern for any sort of relationship with him. He looked at his father as a walking, talking ATM machine! Rather than loving his father, he loved himself, and the specific manner in which his self-love revealed itself was in self-indulgence. Prostitutes in the far country.
In the broader narrative of the Gospel of Luke, the younger son represented the tax collectors and sinners (cf. Luke 15:1). It is easy to romanticize the tax collectors and sinners, since stories like that of Levi the tax collector (Luke 5:27-32) and the sinful woman at the house of Simon (Luke 7:36-50) are such dramatic accounts of the drawing power of the love of God for those who would return to Him. But we should not forget that such people were returning from a life of self-absorption exemplified by the younger son. Lives of greed and extortion, lives of irreverence and immorality. Lives driven by pleasing self rather than loving the Father. That is one way to be lost.
But there is another way to be lost, represented by the older son. And ironically, it is very similar to the path of the younger son. Remember, the young son only related to his father in terms of what he could get from him, not in terns of love for him. With that in mind, listen to the words of the older son: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15:29). On what basis did the older son obey his father? On the basis of what he could get from his father. “You never gave me a young goat,” is his complaint. The older son was just as driven by selfishness as was the younger son. The only difference between them is how that self-centeredness manifested itself. In the case of the younger son, it appeared in the form of self-indulgence. In the case of the older son, it morphed into self-righteousness. But both sons shared the same problem, love of self rather than love of the father.
If there is any difference between the two forms of self-centeredness, it is that self-righteousness is even more insidious than self-indulgence. It isn’t that difficult to understand what a disaster a life of self-indulgence truly is. The younger son could come to his senses in the midst of the swine fields (Luke 15:15-17). But it is very easy to be deceived in self-righteousness, to fail to see that there is a problem, and that you are the problem! The story of the older son is a sad illustration of this, as he professed his perfect obedience to his father (“I never disobeyed your command”) at the very moment he was disobeying his father’s entreaties to join in the celebration of the younger son’s return!
There have been times when I have felt a little tinge of sympathy for the older son. After all, don’t we appreciate kids who are good kids, who stay out of trouble, who don’t run off and cause the kind of heartache that prodigal sons and daughters create? But that’s not the real issue. The real issue is, why did the older son stay home and obey his father? Or, to draw the application Jesus was making, why did the Pharisees and scribes keep the commandments that they kept? And over and over again in the gospels, the answer comes back, it was not about God, it was about them. It is the reason they blared trumpets when they gave to the poor. It is why they prayed on street corners, and disfigured their faces when they fasted. “To be praised by others…to be seen by others…that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). It was not because they loved the Father and wanted to please Him. It was to be seen by others and to be congratulated. Their religion was self-serving, not God-honoring, just as the older son stayed home and obeyed his father because of what he thought he would get, not because of any sense of love for his father.
So there are two ways to be lost. Self-indulgence and self-righteousness. But in reality, these are but two sides of the same coin of self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. Thinking of the older son in this way makes me very uncomfortable, because it forces me to confront my deepest motives as to why I want to serve the Father. Am I obeying Him to be seen of others? Am I doing so to simply cash in on a reward? Or am I doing so because – as the first and great commandment says – I love Him with my whole being? And, am I serving Him with a constant sense of my own unworthiness, a sense of my own need for His grace, a sense that is reflected in a gracious spirit rather than a contemptuous spirit toward the prodigals I know?
One of most beautiful elements of the story at the end of Luke 15 is the way that it ends. Or maybe I should say, the way that it doesn’t end. It is sort of a cliffhanger! It ends with the father tenderly reaching out to his recalcitrant older son, suggesting that God holds out mercy even to those the older son represented, the murmuring scribes and Pharisees. And as someone who often falls into the same pitfalls of self-righteousness, I take great consolation in knowing that God “is not a Pharisee when it comes to Pharisees” (Tim Keller, The Prodigal God, p. 84).
“As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13).
For More Study:
I have been preaching a series through the parables in Luke 15, which you can listen to on our website.