2. The Scene with the Older Brother Is the Climax, Not an Afterthought
You may notice that the parable of the prodigal son ends differently than the previous two parables do. After the wayward son has returned and been reconciled to his father, there’s an additional scene: the older brother refuses to celebrate, choosing instead to criticize his father’s willingness to, in the words of the Pharisees, “welcome sinners.” The father pleads with his son to change his perspective, and then the parable ends. We never learn if the eldest son is reconciled to his family or not.
The reason for this “extra” scene is that Jesus is directing his attention back onto the Pharisees themselves. He explains the error of their ways by putting them into the third parable; they are represented by the firstborn son, and his words reflect their hearts.
Listen to the older son’s self-evaluation: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders” (v. 29). This is the self-evaluation implicit in the Pharisees’ posturing. They see themselves as obedient to the will and ways of God—unlike the tax collectors and sinners.
But the way the oldest son relates to his father reveals how the Pharisees—and, by extension, all legalists—relate to God. The son says he’s spent years “slaving for” his father. He categorizes their relationship, not with paternal or familial terms, but with the imagery of slavery. He is a bondservant and his father is a taskmaster. He sees himself earning the right to his father’s good graces through his slavish obedience.
This posturing can keep a soul out of heaven just as much as licentious living can. It’s the same posture taken by the rich young ruler who asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). For the legalist, life comes through being—or doing—good. If we’re honest, we all succumb to legalistic thinking to one degree or another.
And thus, to one degree or another, we all need to hear Christ’s plea to the Pharisees through the parable of the prodigal son, which leads to our third point.
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