“Prodigals” Part 3: The Elder Son

Rembrandt van Rijn, 1661, “Return of the Prodigal Son”Rembrandt van Rijn, 1661, “Return of the Prodigal Son”

Rembrandt van Rijn, 1661, “Return of the Prodigal Son”

Greg Taylor invites you to come with friends in tow Sunday, March 3, 2019 when we look deeper into the life of the Elder Son in the Prodigals Story in Luke 15.

A man had two sons . . .

The most famous story of Jesus is not only about one son named the “Prodigal.” In this mini-series of sermons, we’re remembering that the story begins, “A man had two sons.” The two parts of the story occur like this: the younger son (Luke 15:11-24) and the elder son (Luke 15:25-32). So this mini-series is called “Prodigals,” and we will be invited to see ourselves in the characters of this powerful parable.

Today we focus on the elder son, the one who stayed.

The Elder Son

Sunday March 3, 2019 we remain in the moment of the parable of the two sons when the elder son returns from the fields and finds a celebration in progress.

Did Rembrandt paint the elder son in the painting?

When you look at the digital replica of the Rembrandt painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son, there is an aloof observer on the far right of the painting. Often in great paintings we’re not given every detail. The painting is not labeled, “father,” “younger son,” and “elder son,” and the scene is not a literal interpretation of the moment the younger son returns. We don’t see the elder son in the scene of return in Luke 15.

Instead, the elder brother was out in the field. When he returns, he hears music. He sees dancing. He called one of the servants and asked, “What’s going on?” The servant seems to have soaked in the moment and exudes joy.

He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 

But instead of bringing joy, the elder brother becomes angry. What’s this sudden rise of anger in the elder brother? He’s so angry, he does not enter the party. After working in the fields, he was probably hungry and would have enjoyed some of the fatted calf! But he is unable to step over his anger and enjoy the return of his younger brother.

He doesn’t go to his father. His father comes out of the party and seeks out the elder brother.

His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Frederick Buechner makes this point in Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale: “The fatted calf, the best Scotch, the hoedown could all have been his too, any time he asked for them except that he never thought to ask for them because he was too busy trying cheerlessly and religiously to earn them.” 

Next Step

As you consider this story of the elder brother, consider that many of us who read blogs like this, who attend church regularly, “keep the rules,” see prodigals and wonder how they could squander the wealth of the father, are the elder brother.

The elder brother is also lost. He is lost in his bitterness, resentment, anger, and has disconnected from his father and brother, from the celebration, from the whole community.

Henri Nouwen says this about the elder brother:

“The more I reflect on the elder son in me, the more I realize how deeply rooted this form of lostness really is and how hard it is to return home from there. Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being. My resentment is not something that can be easily distinguished and dealt with rationally.

It is far more pernicious; something that has attached itself to the underside of my virtue. Isn’t it good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? And still is teems that my resentments and complaints are mysteriously tied to such praiseworthy attitudes. This connection often makes me despair. At the very moment I want to speak or act out of my most generous self, I get caught in anger or resentment. And it seems that just as I want to be most selfless, I find myself obsessed about being loved. Just when I do my utmost to accomplish a task well, I find myself questioning why others do not give themselves as I do. Just when I think I am capable of overcoming my temptations, I feel envy toward those who gave in to theirs. It seems that whatever my virtuous self is, there also is the resentful complainer.

We are confronted with the resentful complainer not only in the elder brother but in ourselves.

Nouwen asks, “Can the elder son come home? Can I be found as the younger son was found? How can I return when I am lost in resentment, when I am caught in jealously, when I am imprisoned in obedience and duty lived out as slavery?”

The story ends and we don’t know if the elder brother will go into the party. We’re left wondering also about ourselves. Can we step over our anger and resentment and celebrate with the return of the prodigal? Three times in this set of three parables the call is to celebrate (v. 6-7, 9-10, 31-32):

“And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

“Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”


Dear Lord, we are capable of being the younger child or the older child at any given moment in our lives. When we are full of bitterness like the elder child, we see how the father comes to us. Would you help us listen to you and enter the party?


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Greg Taylor

Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey. Find his voice on World Christian Broadcasting or on The Journey Podcast. You can buy his books at The Journey Store.