Sermon 3: The Elder Son - Rev. J. L. van Popta
Reading: Deut 21:15-21; Luke 14:16-24
Text: Luke 15:25-30
Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ
The parable of the lost son, the prodigal son has two halves. It is about two sons. A man had two sons. In the first half, we hear of the younger son who asks for his share of the inheritance. We hear of how he leaves home, leaving father and brother behind. We hear of his riotous living, his remorse, his return. And how his father welcomes him home. But now we have the second part. The second son. What of him?
This morning I would speak to you of how
The elder son also rejects his father’s love.
- 1. He will not go in.
- 2. He is without joy.
- 3. Is he also lost?
- 4. The true elder Brother.
1. He will not go in.
The elder son… (It is striking that the Lord uses the word "presbyter" for elder here. Is there a reference to the leaders of Israel who will not accept that the Lord Jesus Christ welcomes sinners and eats with them?) The elder son—We meet him in the fields. We have not heard from him since he accepted the division of the estate. He is out working. Diligently working. Now we should not imagine that this is a house on a farm surrounded by fields. No, this house is in the village and the fields could have been far away. It is as if the elder son has been working, overseeing the work in a distant quarter section. At the end of the day, he returns. He walks the same road that his younger brother walked earlier that day. But his father is not watching for him, for he returns every day. He goes out to work; he returns. He comes near to the house, and what does he hear? He hears that a party is going on.
There is music, singing, dancing. The pipes were playing, drums and castanets, songs rang out. There was no doubt. This was a celebration. It is clear that he hears a loud, boisterous, joyous party in progress as he comes near to home. He must have wondered, "What is going on? Why don’t I know about this. Why was I not informed? Why was I not even invited?"
And we might ask the same. Why does he not know? Well, perhaps the father knew that if he notified the elder that he would try to stop the celebration. Or perhaps there was no time, the son was already on his way home. In any case, in these circumstances we see more clearly the difference, one from the other. One brother from the other. And also their similarities.
As soon as the father decides to kill the fattened calf, he needs to invite people to the feast. This is a feast of great proportion. It is perhaps like a wedding banquet. A fattened calf was fed and reserved for very special functions. It would likely be a year old or so and be of quite a weight. It could feed fifty, a hundred or more. The invitations go out. Up and down the street. There is a festive mood in the air. The neighbours come. They’re all invited. Just as the woman who lost a coin and found it invited all her neighbours, now the father invites the whole village. The music plays, the folk songs are heard, the children laugh and play. All attention is focused on father’s house.
The calf is not roasted on a spit. That would take much too long. It is cut in pieces and roasted in the bread ovens. As the men come home from the fields for the evening meal they would have heard the news. "There is a feast tonight! Unexpected joy. That son, our neighbour’s son, the one who went away, he has returned and his father is putting on a feast."
Everything is in motion. Commotion. When some of the meat is ready, (meat was not eaten often, only with feasts and festivals) the music starts. The village people come, sing, dance, drink wine, talk, eat, go out, come back in. The eating and drinking will last half the night.
And the older son? He hears the noise. He is suspicious. "What is going on here?" He calls a young boy. Our text says "servant." The word should likely be translated, "young boy." (He is not a servant of the house for he does not speak of his "master" but of the elder’s father.) He calls one of the boys in the street. The children would not be invited, but because of all the noise, the music and the joy, the children come. They cannot escape the excitement. There is likely a bunch of children on the street just outside the party.
He calls one of the boys and asks him what is going on. He does not just ask one question, but rather, he kept asking. He kept asking him questions. Our text implies a series of questions. He wants some details. The lad reports, "Your brother is back. Your brother is back safe and sound." The elder brother wants to know what is going on before he enters in. "Your father has put on a feast."
His brother is back. But is he back, wealthy or poor? Healthy or sick? And from the boy he hears the sad outcome of the younger’s adventure. He had lost everything. One third of the estate! And he will not go in. He will not celebrate. He does not care that his brother is home, "safe and sound" as the boy reports it. He does not care that there is a celebration. Well, yes he does care. He hates it. He despises it. He resents it.
Yet, custom requires his presence. The older son has a responsibility. He should be the maitre de. He should be at the door welcoming guests. That is his role as elder. He has a place in father’s home. A place of honour. He is the elder brother. If fact he needs to honour father with his presence. He needs to work together with his father.
But he will not go in. He knows that he must serve, welcoming the guests. He must serve, ensuring that all have enough to eat. He must do so especially for the honoured guests. The village elders, the rabbis, the teachers of the law. But more than that he would have to serve his younger brother, the guest honoured above all. And this he refuses to do. Hearing the news of his brother’s return, and of the celebration in his honour, he refuses to go in. He will not serve his younger brother; he will not honour his father.
2. He is Without Joy
The older son is angry. He is without joy. Everything left in the house is legally his. He has received the full right of inheritance. The will has been probated. The younger son gets nothing of what’s left. The elder gets it all. But the father still maintains authority. The elder has possession, but not disposition. The recently butchered calf is also his. Perhaps he feels that father had no right to do this without consultation. "It wasn’t his to kill."
And moreover, how could this be? How could the father reinstate the younger brother without some penalty? Village honour would not allow for this! "The family has been dishonoured! And now we are going to celebrate?! Absurd behaviour. I will not be part of this joy! I will not come to the banquet. I will not come." We hear an echo of that other parable of the Lord Jesus, of the king to whose banquet the invited guest would not come. And so he turns away from those who were invited and brings in the poor, the hungry, the lost.
Here too, this son, will not come to the banquet. But in so doing he insults his father and the guests. He does so publicly. Think of in the Old Testament story of Esther. King Ahasuerus calls for Queen Vashti, but she refuses to come into the banquet hall. In her refusal, she insults her husband the king. Moreover, her refusal is considered a threat to all the men and she is deposed at once. We would expect the father to be angry as well, with his elder son.
Word of the son’s refusal to enter spreads throughout the house. And then father hears. "Your elder son is outside but refuses to come in." The other guests expect him to be angry. "My son won’t come in? Why not? Of course he will come in!" We can imagine the elder, standing outside in the darkness, not wanting to enter into father’s house that is resounding with joy and celebration at the return of his younger brother.
The Pharisees complained of Jesus: "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." This parable was Jesus’ answer to them. It must have come as a shock to these religious people. Would they come in and join the Lord? How would they respond to God’s love for sinners? It was a real challenge to them. It is a challenge to those whose lives are marked by complaint and discontent. We know of the elder brother’s bitterness and resentment and his lack of joy. There is no real happy ending here. This is not a fairy tale… "and they all lived happily ever after." No, it is a parable; it is a dissection knife to cut us to the quick. It leaves us face to face with God’s love. Not only do we have to do with the return of the younger son, the prodigal. We have to do with the bitter son, the elder. The resentful one.
For when he is invited, he vents his spleen and bitterness against his father. The more we gaze upon the elder, the more we see ourselves. For what does he say when invited in? When his father pleads with him? "Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet, you never gave me even a young goat (much smaller than a fattened yearling calf) so that I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!"
Notice what he says… or what he doesn’t say. His younger sibling practiced over and over, saying: "Father…Father. Father I have sinned. Father." But this son does no such courtesy. He does not speak to "Father". He speaks with anger and disdain to a master whom he believes unjust. "I’ve been slaving for you." This was the spirit in which he was working for his father. He was slaving. There was no thankfulness. There was no joy. No love. Just slaving. "Never did I disobey a command; I never disobeyed your orders."
The younger sibling wanted to be made a servant. A slave. One who slaves and works hard to earn his keep. This elder son also has the same idea of being in father’s house. That it is a matter of slaving and working and earning blessings. "And about that calf you killed, you never have given even a young goat to me that I might have a feast with my friends."
And here also the elder condemns himself. He thinks that the fattened calf demonstrates the worth of the young brother. He does not see that it demonstrates an expression of his father’s love. He accuses father of favouritism. "You obviously love this fellow, this worthless fellow more than you love me." His attitude is: "I have worked. Where is mine?" Amazing, isn’t it? He never disobeyed his father’s commands and yet insults him by refusing to come into the house. Even as his father invites him in.
This is the spirit of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who confront the Lord Jesus. This is the spirit of the Pharisees by which the elder enters into the rank of the 99 who need no repentance (15:7). He has not disobeyed his father’s commands, yet has with this attitude and action broken the commandment of love.
He is like his younger brother in many respects, but also very different. The similarities and difference lie in this: The younger was estranged and rebellious while absent from the house. The elder was estranged and rebellious in his heart, while he was in the house. The estrangement and rebellion of the younger were evident in his surrender to passion and in his request to leave father’s house. The estrangement and rebellion of the elder were evident in his anger and his refusal to enter the house of his father.
The elder, by his own words, condemns himself. He declares in his little speech that he is not part of the family. He shows disgust with father’s house. He is no better than the younger who left with his portion of the estate and traveled to the far country. The difference lies in that the younger was open in his rebellion. The elder’s rebellion was in his heart: hidden, hardened, hypocritical. He remained in father’s house all the while hating his father. He denies a relationship with his brother. And in so doing with his father. He does not speak to "father" and he calls the younger, the prodigal, "This son of yours." He does not say, "My brother." No, he says, "this son of yours." He does not say, "My father." With this, he has removed himself from the family, from the household. He has passed judgment of "outcast" upon himself.
This can be seen doubly in his circle of fellowship. The elder’s friends do not include his brother or his father nor the family guests. The elder’s joy is in celebrating with his friends. A good meal, a party with friends, that is the occasion for joy. Not the return of a lost brother. For him there is no joy in that. There is no joy in celebrating with father. There is no fulfillment in rejoicing with the family. No, he wants to have a party with his friends.
Give him a goat, and apart from his family, he will rejoice. For the father the fattened calf was a symbol of his joy, a joy already present. The older son wants some good food to create a joy, a different joy. And here we see how far this son is from his father’s home and heart, even if he yet shares the hearth. He thinks that joy is rooted in pleasure. He does not see that joy is in knowing the father. That happiness is in knowing his brother. And that only pleasure can be found in having things. In things there is no joy or happiness or pleasure to satisfy the passions of the flesh. He has traded pleasure for joy and in the end has nothing but bitterness, happiness unknown.
He accuses the younger son of the master of the house (neither now counted among his own) he accuses the other son of not loving the master. "He spent your living. He wasted what you gave him. He is a rebellious son." One who should be put to death. We read from Deuteronomy 21. The elder wants to set the contrast. He places himself as one who has kept the commandments. He looks to father and says, "I have done everything you commanded me." He quotes from Deuteronomy 26:14. There the Israelite, in bringing the tithe of the first fruits is to confess his faith. He is to say, "I have done everything you commanded me." And then he was to pray, "Look down from heaven your holy dwelling place and bless your people Israel…" But the elder’s hope is perverted. He does not obey in love and then expect blessing, undeserved grace. He obeys begrudgingly, expecting that in the end he would earn all that he had. That his father would pay him for his diligence and faithful obedience. And when he realizes that this is not the case he sets up his brother in contrast.
"He is a rebel. Put him out. Send him away. Better yet, bring him to the city gate that judgment be passed and he be put to death." The elder, his relationships are perverted. He looks at these and sees the two of them as aliens. The elder son no longer has a brother. Nor, any longer, does he have a father. He looks down upon his brother with disdain and scorn. His father, a slave owner, he looks up to with fear. His heart is bitter. His only redeeming characteristic is that he follows orders. This by his own judgment. "I never disobeyed."
The Lord said of some Pharisees that they tithed the mint and dill, herbs grown in a window box, but forgot love for brother and mercy; the greater things of the law. Such is this brother.
3. Is He Lost?
This elder son. Is he lost too? There are many who remain at home. Many who do not go off to the distant land. Many who do not mingle with the world. Many who do not despise their inheritance. But who, though they are at home, have lives characterized by judgment and condemnation, anger and resentment, bitterness and jealousy. Those things so pernicious to the human heart. Many who do not show the fruit of the Spirit but continue to live with the acts of the sinful flesh dominant in their lives.
We have a tendency to think of lostness as those whose acts are quite visible. Whose sin is shown in their departure from the church. The younger son sinned in such a way that all could see and identify easily. His lostness is obvious. He misused his money, his time, his family. What he did wrong, not only his friends and family knew, he knew it himself. He rebelled against restraint, against morality, against common sense. He rebelled against the father. He was swept away by greed and lust. Having seen how all this led to real misery, he came to his senses and returned to his father. A classic human failure. A straight forward resolution. A gracious father.
The elder however, is more difficult. He did all the right things. He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, faithful, hardworking, respectable. A model son. Faultless, as far as that goes. But when confronted with joy, surprised by joy, a dark power erupts from the darkness of his hidden, hardened heart. Suddenly this is not an obedient faithful son, but a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish, bitter one. A son who lived his life in service to his father, not because of love, but because of duty.
He has become a foreigner in his own house. True communion is gone. Every relationship pervaded, invaded, by darkness. He tried to be good, likeable, virtuous. But how much sin is rooted in this? Is it less than that of lust and wild living? There is resentment among the faithful. There is judgment, condemnation, and prejudice among the saints. There is so much anger against others among those who are so concerned with avoiding sin.
Was he lost? Yes indeed, he too was lost and needed to be found. He too was in a far country, though he had never left his father’s house. He thought that he could make it on his own. That he could earn his father’s love by simply obeying the commands. "Just tell me what to do, and I will do it, and so inherit the estate."
So many Christians live this way. They think that if they just follow the rules that they will be able to earn their reward. Yes, they know that salvation is not theirs by right. That Christ has secured their salvation. That his death paid for sin, removed the curse, restored their lives. And yet, somehow, somewhere, there is a sense that I must earn my place within the covenant blessing. But this is not the case. It is not earned, it is a gift of grace. It comes to us through the working of the Holy Spirit. All Father’s good gifts flow out from his abounding grace through his Holy Spirit and in the love which he has shown to us in the true elder brother.
And with this we will conclude this morning. A fourth point.
4. The true elder Brother
The Lord Jesus, the one who tells the parable, he has acted, lived, and obeyed as the true elder brother. The apostle Paul in Romans 8:29 says that those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. He is the one obeyed all the commands, but he did this as the one who could do this perfectly. He is the one who welcomes sinners, lost sheep, you and me, to the banquet. He is the one who stands at the door and ushers us in. He is the one who serves at the table. The one who washed the feet of his disciples. He is the one who on behalf of the father makes sure that all will receive a place at the table, his table. He is the one who invites us all to join in the celebration banquet, the banquet that celebrates the repentance of sinners. He is the one who welcomes sinners and eats with them.
Even the words of the father to the elder son in the parable reflect the relationship between the Father and the eternal Son. "My son you are with me always, and all I have is yours." The Lord Jesus confirms that the glory that belongs to the Father, belongs to him too. All that the Father does, the Son does too. There is no separation between the Father and the Son: "I and the Father are one." There is no division of work, no envy, no competition. "The Son can do nothing by himself, he can do only what he sees the Father doing." The Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that there is perfect unity between the Father and the firstborn son, the eternal son. The firstborn among his many brothers. He says, "You must believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me."
Jesus is the true elder brother. He is the elder brother who did what the elder in the parable should have done. He is the one in whom the Father’s love was shown to all his resentful children. He is the one who has shown us the way home: he is the way. He is the beloved Son on whom the Father’s favour rests.
But what of the elder son in the parable. What of him? Did he go into the banquet? The question is left open because the question is for us. We are to see ourselves also in this, the elder brother. The mirror is held up for us to see ourselves. Not only can we be like the prodigal who goes away and lives in lust and passion. We can be like the elder who rigorously keeps the commandments and yet has no love and joy within the household of the father. We can refuse to enter into the banquet hall because we see sinners sitting there. There are at times those who say they cannot sit at the Lord’s Table because they see a sinner sitting there—as if they themselves were not. No, they kept all the commandments, "but that one there, that son of yours, he is a sinner."
So did the elder brother come into the banquet? The question hangs, suspenseful, unresolved. Did he go in? We do not know. The Pharisees, the teachers of the law, they saw the kingdom of God as a banquet, but no sinners would be welcome there. They would have seen in this parable however, that the banquet celebrates undeserved blessing, pure grace. Will they go in? We do not know.
Will you go in? Will we go in? Or will we be resentful, legalistic, lashing out in anger? The true elder brother, the Lord Jesus Christ stands at the door to welcome you. He will serve at his table. Your Father invites you in. Will you come to the banquet?