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  • Don Walker

The Prodigal and the Elder Brother


One of the best known of Jesus’ parables is the story of the prodigal son. In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of how the younger of a father’s two sons secured his inheritance, traveled afar, squandered his wealth on riotous living, and ended up in the pig pen. Out of his crisis he repents, and headed home with the intent of being a servant in his father’s house. The father excited to see his prodigal son return had compassion on him, restored him to his place in the household and threw a party.


All of this special attention being bestowed on his younger brother caused the elder brother to become angry. The elder brother had stayed home, served the father, and now felt slighted. The father had never thrown a party for him. The father then reminds him that all that the father had was his. In other words, the father had kept his covenant with the older son. But it was also the heart of the father to show compassion to his repentant son – the prodigal that had returned.


Now here is the question for us. Whose sin was worse – that of the prodigal or that of the elder brother? Be honest, in your opinion, whose sin was greater? Was the sin of the prodigal greater having deserted his family and squandered his inheritance with prostitutes, or was the lack of compassion and self-centered resentment shown by the elder brother the greater sin?


Your answer reveals a great deal about yourself and your attitude in the light of God’s Word.


Two basic characteristics of God are His righteousness and His mercy. These two aspects of God’s nature are not in conflict with each other. They work together in harmony. We must never lower God’s righteous standard, yet we must never neglect to show mercy and compassion. We, as believers, must learn to walk in the balance of these two things. Both reflect the full heart of the Father.


Let us take note of what the Scriptures tell us concerning Jesus:


“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth. And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”

John 1:14, 16-17


If my response is that the sin of the elder brother was greater, it reveals a “lop-sidedness” on the side of grace and mercy. If I take the position that the sin of the prodigal was greater, it reveals a “lop-sidedness” on the side of truth and righteousness.


This little test tells us which side of God’s equation we lean too heavily toward – because either response is unbalanced and therefore incorrect. Sin is sin, and both sins are equally evil in God’s sight.


It is in Christ that mercy and righteousness come together. It was at the Cross that God’s righteousness and God’s mercy converged in time and space. The righteous demands of God’s law were met, yet God’s mercy was revealed. Jesus received justice so that you and I might be shown mercy. “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps. 85:10).

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