Jesus and the elder brother
The parable of the prodigal son is so rich in meaning that a true believer can never grow tired of hearing it. But as I get older, my focus has changed from contemplating the father as an image of the Father, and the son as the image of us as repentant sinners. In recent years, my focus has changed that of the elder brother, who is also an image of fallen mankind, and we can see ourselves in that brother at times in our lives. But my focus is not on the elder brother is such, but on the Elder Brother who is narrating the parable. Indeed, I don’t think we can fully appreciate this parable unless we focus in the end on the way the narrator fits into the parable.
It’s hard to identify Jesus with anyone but the elder brother. One really can identify him with the prodigal except in some mystical way, that is, from the way Jesus identified with us and took our sins upon Himself. But he is like the elder brother in one sense, that he always did the will of the father, though even here the comparison doesn’t quite fit, for Jesus always did the will of the father with perfect love and not with the servile obedience of the elder brother in the parable. Indeed, one can only identify Jesus with the elder brother by contrast not by any real likeness.
For instance, we can hardly imagine Jesus being saddened by the return of the prodigal or angry with His Father for being generous in His compassion. Jesus not only would be totally sharing the Father’s joy at the return of his sinful son, but he would rejoice in his own sacrifice the fruits of which made that whole conversion process possible in the first place. His parable of the Good Shepherd makes this abundantly clear. How greatly are elder brother rejoices when he sees the fruits of his great sacrifice on our behalf.
And one final reflection. One gets the notion that the elder brother was not ready in any sense to share his inheritance with a brother who had wasted his own inheritance. And of course that would be perfectly consistent with human justice, and the father assures him that he is not going to redistribute his property, which all now belongs to the elder son. However, Jesus does exactly the opposite out of his infinite charity. Although we sinful creatures have also wasted our inheritance, perhaps many times over, in the course of our lives, Jesus actually shares his inheritance with us when we return to His Father, and our Father by adoption. Remember his own words in the Gospels, that everything that belongs to the father belongs to Him, and that includes the wealth of his Kingdom. Out of his great love Jesus chooses not to make us eternal slaves in our Father’s house, but to make us coheirs to his Kingdom.
We will never understand such love in this world. It’s only when we see the face of God that we will even begin to comprehend it. Our elder brother is as different from the elder brother in the parable then God is from sinful man.