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Lessons in Mercy from the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother

March 28, AD2016

Pixabay - praying angel

This year the Gospel reading for Laetare Sunday included the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), an appropriate choice as we paused to break the somber tone of Lent and rejoice. The return of the Prodigal Son is a time of great rejoicing, for the son who was once lost is now found.

Why Did Jesus Include the Older Brother?

This parable is probably one of the most cited and most studied in all of Scripture and it fits well with this Year of Mercy. It is certainly apt to contemplate the abundant mercy the father shows his wayward son. But have you ever wondered why Jesus included the character of the older brother? The scenario of the merciful father and the repentant son effectively models our relationship with God the Father. We are sinners; yet God welcomes us with open arms when we see the error of our ways and humbly ask His forgiveness for our sins. What does Christ want us to learn from this third character of the parable?

Perhaps because I am an oldest child, I have always felt a kinship with this older brother who strode the straight and narrow path and always worked to please his father. As any oldest child will tell you, Mom and Dad are never as hard on the youngest as they were on the oldest. I completely understand the older brother’s frustration. Where are the consequences? Where is the justice?

Yet I doubt Jesus was trying to highlight the penalties of being the first-born. The simple lesson is that virtuous living kept the older son close to the father and that itself was a reward. Often the person who consistently seeks to be close to God through prayer, regular Mass attendance and simple love of neighbor remains anonymous, while the person who undergoes a radical conversion is treated like a celebrity. Still, if you ask the convert, he rues the time he spent in sin and error and would gladly forego the celebration if he could recover the time he lost.

The Elder Brother’s Pride

A more complex consideration is that the older brother serves as a warning against self-righteousness rooted in pride. He is understandably offended by the pain the younger brother’s selfish and irresponsible behavior inflicted on their father. But he is consumed by anger when he sees his sibling being welcomed with love instead of being condemned.

The older brother’s pride highlights the disparity between his own virtue and his brother’s vices. Yet this same pride blinds him to the hardness of his own heart. The love and forgiveness he is withholding from his brother causes his father as much pain as did his brother’s reckless living.

Christ never shunned the sinner. He dined with them. He embraced them. He forgave them. He loved them. He expects the same of us. When he taught his disciples to pray, he instructed them to forgive those who sin against them just as they ask the Father to forgive their own sins. But forgiveness is hard. It requires both grace and humility.

We glibly declare that we need to love the sinner and hate the sin but when the sinner repents and asks for our forgiveness we all too often point our fingers in judgment and demand retribution. When we withhold mercy, we sin against our Heavenly Father, just as the older brother sinned against his own father when he refused to forgive his brother. If we truly believe that no one is beyond redemption, then who are we to refuse our brother the opportunity for reconciliation?

Refusing to Enter the Banquet

Returning to the parable, Jesus shows us what happens to those who refuse to forgive. The image of a banquet is often used as a metaphor for Heaven. When we see the older brother he is outside the banquet. The father reaches out to him and pleads for him to enter and join the celebration. He refuses. He is excluded from the banquet, not by the father, but by his own unwillingness to find joy in his brother’s redemption.

While it may be more comfortable to see ourselves as the older brother, paragons of virtue able to discern the sins of those around us, it is important to remember that the older brother was virtuous only in the eyes of the world. His soul was actually severely wounded by pride leaving him bitter and unhappy. It was the younger brother who found true virtue and holiness because he humbled himself before his father, admitted his sins and pleaded for forgiveness. He was the one who enjoyed the father’s banquet.

The parable of the prodigal son serves as a message of great hope for the infinite availability of God’s great mercy if we but repent and ask forgiveness. It also serves as a dire warning of the grave consequences for refusing to extend our own meager mercy to our neighbor. We can exclude ourselves from the banquet of Heaven with our refusal to forgive.

We now find ourselves basking in the glow of the Easter season for Christ has redeemed us. Salvation is now possible because of the remarkable gift of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Reflecting on the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son should prompt us to do more than just drink from the font of Divine Mercy and seek forgiveness for our own sins. We must also serve as a conduit of this mercy by joyfully welcoming the repentance of sinners and freely offering love and forgiveness to all those willing to accept it.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Denise's vocation is being a wife, mother, and grandmother. Her occupation has wound its way through being a practicing family physician to studying Catholic health care ethics to writing and teaching about all things Catholic. She is a fellow with Human Life International and regularly contributes to the HLI Truth & Charity Forum. She also writes a monthly column for Zenit.org. She and her husband John have been married for thirty years and have lived all over the United States, courtesy of John's Air Force career. They are now settled in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and blessed with four children and three grandchildren (so far).

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  • Lucas Tjg

    What about the assurance by the father to the elder son on his inheritance – that all the father has is the elder son’s one day? Doesn’t that count?

  • Birgit Atherton Jones

    You thoughts were a welcome reminder to this first born. True love and mercy know no bounds. I’ve often struggled with this passage because I identified so fondly (pridefully) with the older son. As my mind has pondered this and past homilies have formed a better understanding, I’m finally ‘getting it’. Thank you for solidifying the meaning for me.

  • Being first born, I also tend to identify with the older son and I’m glad you went into depth about the warning Jesus was giving us concerning not forgiving others. I’m also grateful for this year of Mercy. It’s that sinful fault of mine (of many) that I have asked the Lord to help me with during this year.

  • james

    ” As any oldest child will tell you, Mom and Dad are never as hard on the youngest as they were on the oldest. I ”

    Mom and dad also make the most parenting mistakes too, their lack of experience contributing to all
    kinds of quirks. Experience teaches you to recognize a mistake once you make it again – anon

  • Guy McClung

    Denise, you have made a very important point-so often I dearly want Christ’s mercy for me (and I need it), but it is a real pain for me to then extend that same mercy to some others. Thank you for this fine Easter message. I am always struck by the line in the story of the prodigal son “And the father saw him from afar off.” This means that the father was there, day after day, waiting, watching for the son to return. It is humbling to me to think that when I was in the wrong, there was the Father, watching, waiting. Because He loves me. The line from the Hound Of Heaven applies “Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee, save me, save only me?” Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas