Jesus turns the world upside down with this story. The lost son gets found, and the “found” son gets…lost? Is self-righteousness really more dangerous than self-indulgence? In Luke 15:7, Jesus says, “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.” In this story, the younger son is the sinner who repents. The older son is the righteous person who doesn’t think he needs to repent. The more we think about it, the more self-righteousness is lurking around every corner. Have we ever drawn a blank during a confession time? “I guess I had a pretty good week!” we think.
To understand the danger of self-righteousness, all we have to do is analyze the older son’s complaint. “Look,” he says, immediately disrespecting his father. “These many years I have served you,” he adds, sounding more like a slave than a son. “I never disobeyed your command,” he claims, even as he refuses to share in his father’s joy. “Yet you never gave me a young goat.” He’s done everything right, and he hasn’t been compensated fairly. Do you see how self-righteousness destroys relationships? We struggle to call a parent “father” (v. 29); we struggle to call a sibling “brother” (v. 30). And we’re furious at the “injustice” of grace lavished on the unworthy. But are we really as good as we claim?
Older sons may boast perfection, but we fail repeatedly where it matters most. Like the older son, we “keep all the rules” and break the law of love. We don’t love the Father as we should. We don’t speak up when our younger brothers run away. We don’t stand in as ministers of reconciliation. We don’t go out and search for our younger brothers. We don’t come in to share our Father’s joy when prodigals return. Can we admit—in the words of Walker Percy—that we can get all A’s and still flunk life?
Jesus Christ is good news for older brothers. As the true older brother, Jesus succeeded at every point where the older son fails in the story. He loved the Father perfectly. He refused to remain silent when we sinned against the Father. He came to search for us and to reconcile us to God. He bore our shame on the cross, and he did it all for the joy of bringing us home. The unrighteous and the self-righteous both need to be saved, and Christ is loving and powerful enough to seek and save both. As you see self-righteousness in your heart, do you recognize the danger? Can you admit that you’re lost and need grace as much as anyone? The parable invites us to stop trying to justify ourselves and compare ourselves to other people so that we can make our home in the love of the Father.
And that’s the reason Jesus leaves the story unresolved. Because it doesn’t really matter what happens to the older brother in the parable. The question is: What will happen to the older brother in our hearts? How will we respond to God’s invitation? Will we stay outside or will we come in and share His joy? Will we remain a slave or will we become His beloved son or daughter? Will we trust in ourselves or will we trust in our older brother, Jesus?