We cannot read the story of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32) without realizing there are actually two lost sons. But because we have put so much emphasis on the younger son, we fail to discover what Jesus wanted us to learn through the experience of the older son.
The younger son is the story of self-interest turned into self-expression. The older son is the story of self-interest turned into self-righteousness. Both are lost. Both are portrayed as outside the father’s house–the younger in a faraway place, the older in a nearby field. The younger son is Jesus’ story of rebellion, the older son is the story of religiosity. Clearly, the religious leaders heard it that way (Luke 15:2, 16:14-15) as they listened to Jesus’ parables in this section of Luke’s gospel.
If we presume to follow Jesus, if we call ourselves Christian, it does not mean the younger son has nothing to tell us, but it does mean that the older son is the character we should study carefully. We are the older brother. His downward spiral can be ours.
It began as anger because the older son felt the father was “soft on sin” and offering cheap grace. It deteriorated into a denial of kinship: “this son of yours” (Luke 15:30), even though the father tried to keep the record straight: “this brother of yours” (Luke 15:32). It climaxed as the older son refused to enter the house and be part of a family that not only included “someone like that,” but put a ring, shoes, and robe on him.
And that’s where the parable concludes. Curtain down. Full stop. No happy ending. Self-righteousness on the outside–not because the father refused to invite the older son inside, but rather because the older son rejected the invitation. To accept it would mean having to admit his own version of lostness and it would mean having to be reconciled to someone he no longer wanted to be around.
Tragically, when the story ends, there is still one lost son.