Up till now in Luke 15 Jesus is showing with parables what it means that he “receives sinners and eats with them.” This was the accusation of the “Pharisees and scribes” in verse 2. Jesus said, in effect, when I receive sinners and eat with them, it is like a shepherd seeking and finding a lost sheep and rejoicing; it is like a woman seeking and finding a lost coin and rejoicing; and it is like a Father running out to welcome home a rebellious son who was humbled and repentant. Jesus’ words and actions toward sinners are the love of God reaching out for sinners. That’s what it means when he receives sinners and eats with them.
A Word to the Prodigal’s Elder Brother
Now at verse 25 the parable of the prodigal son takes a turn. Instead of answering the question: what does it mean that Jesus is eating with tax-gatherers and sinners, the question now is: what does it mean that the Pharisees and scribes are NOT eating with them? What does it mean that the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling about Jesus’ eating with them? That’s what this last part of the parable is about. Let’s read the end of the first half of the parable, starting with verse 24. The happy father says,
“This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.” And they began to be merry. Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things might be. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.” But he became angry, and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began entreating him. But he answered and said to his father, “Look! For so many years I have been serving you, and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a kid, that I might be merry with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with harlots, you killed the fattened calf for him.” And he said to him, “My child, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to be merry and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”
As we unpack this, most of us need to listen very carefully. This is passage for long-time churchgoers. This is a passage for people who don’t struggle as much with running from God as they struggle with condemning those who do. This is a passage for people who tend to think of other people who need this passage.
The elder brother represents the Pharisees and scribes who are standing by suspiciously and condemningly, while Jesus is eating with tax-gatherers and sinners. So let’s see what Jesus shows us about these people and what he shows us about God’s love for them.
These words go straight to the heart of what Christianity is. It’s a right relationship to God as our Father through faith. If we get that wrong, all goes wrong. And it seems that the elder brother got it wrong.
Slave or Son?
The key words to show this are the words of the elder brother in verse 29:
Look! [He says to his father] For so many years I have been serving you, and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a kid, that I might be merry with my friends.
There are several clues here that the way he relates to his father is dishonoring to his father and disuniting to his brother and destructive to himself.
- How does he see himself and his father relating? Answer: as master and slave. “Look! For so many years I have been serving you.” “Serving.” The word is for what a servant or a slave does. This is not the identity of a son, but of a slave. “For so many years I have been serving you.”
- Then he says, “And I have never neglected a command of yours.” How does he see his father? As an issuer of commands. He sees the father as a master giving commandments, and himself as a slave paying obedience. This is not the way the father wants his children to relate to him. This is a distortion of Christianity. It is not the Christian life
Acts 17:25 says,
God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything, for he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.
It dishonors God to treat him as a master in need of slave labor. What honors God is not slave labor, but childlike faith in his all-sufficiency.
Jesus said in Mark 10:45,
The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus did not come and hang out a help-wanted sign. He came and hung out a help-available sign. Jesus is eating with sinners because he is a doctor with a cure, not because he is an employer with a labor shortage.
The Pharisees and scribes couldn’t see that because they themselves had a totally different mindset: “For so many years I have been serving you, and I have never neglected a command of yours.”
Test yourself here. I fear that at this point many might say, “It seems to me that the elder brother really has a legitimate complaint.” If you say that, you’re not getting it. You are still thinking in the old way of master and slave and works. Not the Christian way of Father and child and faith. The question is not whether the son really has kept all the commandments; the question is whether the father wants to be related to as commander to slave.