Both sons in this story had something in common: neither truly knew his father. Yet both sons in this story are very different. One brother was humbled and came to his senses, and the other was too caught up in his own goodness to partake in the true joy of God.
The traditional focus of this parable has always been on the father and the younger son, but in reality, the parable is divided into two parts. Part 1 is about the younger son and redemption after the fall-out, and Part 2 is about the older brother and his self-righteousness and inability to see love. Brad H. Young describes the brothers, “A person living without God is like the younger brother running away to a far country. But the elder brother living at home with his father is no better off. He is much like a religious person who misunderstands the divine nature and lacks a meaningful relationship with God. The elder son does not show love for his father and struggles, perhaps unsuccessfully, to forgive his brother. He cannot share the joy of his father over the return of the runaway.” The younger son received his inheritance and ran off with all of his money. He spent his nights wasted and drunk. He didn’t want to work on his father’s farm anymore, he wanted to experience the party life. The older son, however, remained by his daddy’s side the whole time. He stayed and worked, even though he too had received his inheritance. And yet even though it appeared as if he was doing the “right thing,” he still missed the mark by a mile. He believed that being better than everyone else would automatically produce a deep relationship with his father. He compared himself to his brother and perhaps based his spirituality on it. Little did he know that he should have compared himself to God. Only then can we become righteous. Neither of these men had a deep, personal relationship with their father, and both suffered because of it.
The younger son was justified by his father. What does justified mean? It means it was “just as if I had” never sinned. One of the older brother’s many problems was that he thought he did not need to be justified. He thought he couldn’t have sinned, and thus thought he didn’t need anyone’s humbling forgiveness, mercy and grace.
So what truly is the point of this parable? Is it to focus on redemption? Is it to display God’s ultimate fatherly love? No and no. While these are key truths on the parable, the focus itself is on the older brother’s attitude and mindset. I believe that the point of the parable is to rip off the face of hypocrisy. Jesus used this tale to tell us that going through the motions and hard-heartedness will destroy you. He showed how they will slowly turn you into something completely different than what you think you are. John MacArthur writes, “This, then, is the central and culminating lesson of the parable: Jesus is pointing out the stark contrast between God's own delight in the redemption of sinners and the Pharisees' inflexible hostility toward those same sinners. Keeping that lesson fixed firmly in view, we can legitimately draw from the larger story (as Jesus unfolds it) several profound lessons about grace, forgiveness, repentance, and the heart of God toward sinners.” The older son came this close to getting the point. But he missed it. Envy and jealousy for his brother prevented him from experiencing a real relationship with his father. What was easily available for him became out of reach for him. He was a hypocrite, a self-righteous person. He believed he could get into the Kingdom of God by doing good things. His self-righteousness kept him from understanding that it is only by the Father’s forgiveness, mercy, love, and grace that he could enter.
What is the purest joy you can experience? For me, it’s when I know that one of my lost friends has been found. It’s the repentance of a rebel. The saving of a sinner. The knowledge that someone will spend eternity with God is the best feeling ever, when you think about it. Now I’ll admit that sometimes, some of my purest joy has been over a goal, a girl, or a gift. But that just proves that I’m not perfect, and it shows an area that I need to work on. The Bible says that the angels spend all night celebrating the repentance of a person. If that’s what the angels do, then what does God do? Have you ever thought about God’s response to a sinner becoming saved? I can’t imagine the pleasure and ecstasy that he feels when someone gets saved. The problem the older brother had was that his heart was so cold and emotionless that he felt no joy at the return of his younger brother. You can’t have a true relationship with the Father and not feel joy when the lost get found.
The Story of the Father and Two Sons is such a personally touching story because we can all relate to the characters. Some of us are true prodigals and some of us are religious hypocrites. Some of us have spent part of our lives living in sin and embellishing fleshly desires. Some of us have spent our lives as “good people” who just don’t quite get it. I do believe, however, that there is a reason why we choose to focus on the Prodigal son instead of the Hard-hearted son: the Prodigal’s story ends in a celebration over his return, while we leave the older brother in a spiritual cloud of deceit. You can’t help but smile when you read about the joy his father felt when he came home. Everything about the Prodigal’s story is simply wonderful and marvelous. We watched the younger son grow from a prodigal to a returned and beloved son. The interaction we have with the older son, however, is all bitter. His rock-hard heart kept him from loving his brother, and he acted like an immature child when his brother returned. His inability to understand his father’s love helped grow a rift in his relationship with his father. He realized that he did not quite know his father like he believed he did. He performed the good deeds, yet he never had faith. In all of his showy goodness, he failed to realize that his deep-water faith was still in the shallow end.