Sinful Envy: Reframing Our Role as the Older Brother of the Prodigal Son

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most popular stories in the New Testament. In fact, I have written about it in this space before. The narrative of the young man who takes his inheritance and wastes it is a standard part of the collective Christian conscience. We love to hear about the grace of the father as he welcomes home his wayward child. When I first wrote for Spectrum about the Prodigal Son, it was to remind Christians that, in addition to embodying the wayward son, we can also represent the older brother in that story. Because of this, we should look at it as a cautionary tale about how to treat our brothers and sisters who come home after spending their resources in “riotous living.”

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

This gets to the heart of the matter. Are the “faithful” being faithful for the payback…

It reminds me of a church study group discussing “righteousness by faith, not by works”, where an old-timer, somewhat upset, said, “So did I keep the Sabbath all these years, for nothing?” And the answer is…?

Envy is not the older brother’s problem. It’s much deeper. Was he yearning to go out onto the world and live-it-up, but was kept back by fear - lack of opportunity - tradition. Was he actually being faithful by gritting his teeth and “soldiering on”… What does true faith actually look like…

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I got this one.




A+ :star:

That’s what I thought - but not for the same reason as you.

I have really enjoyed Keller’s sermon on the Prodigal Son, although his sermon is entitled the “Prodigal Sons”. I’ve listened several times over the years. It’s only 38 mins.


So what’s the right reason to skip church?

(And I still get an A on my “permanent record”, right.!?!)


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In my class you grade yourself.

“every person’s walk is their own. Everyone has their own story and there is value in that story for the community.”

This was my take-away from this column. The Holy Spirit works with us individually, separately and in community. I expect that in heaven many people will say “What is so & so doing here.” and “I never would have guessed that was true.”

In the meantime, we do well to respect each other’s journey.

“I think there are two things for us “older brothers” to remember. First, remember that the younger brother went through a lot to come home… Second, older brothers should remember that every person’s walk is their own. Everyone has their own story and there is value in that story for the community.”

Thank you, Jason! My favorite thing the father says to the elder brother is in verse 31: “[Child,] you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” The elder brother has experienced his time in the family home as enslavement. Meanwhile, his father has reveled in his elder son’s company, experiencing each day as a feast with his elder son as the featured guest: “While you were feeling so deprived, I’ve enjoyed every moment we’ve spent together.”

God’s experience of His relationship with his prickly but obedient children is apparently vastly different from ours. (Compare Hebrews 11 with Genesis and Exodus: Sarah conceived through her faith; Moses was not afraid of Pharaoh, etc.)

Sadly, in a sense yes, if that was presented and then practiced as necessary to belong to the “one true remnant people of God.” It is simply a distortion and ultimately is not:

“One person observes a day, another regards everyday alike…let each one be convinced in his own mind…do not divide over debatable matters.”

Adventism has majored in making ancillary matters of holy time and food and drink central for belonging and for end time salvation. This older member was likely laboring under this distortion of the gospel and the church.



Yes, and I never returned to discuss anything further. It was obvious the man was in pain at the thought, or at least confused.

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This parable was framed in Luke’s gospel by the complaint from the Pharisees and their rabbis:

“This man eats with sinners.”

This not only was an affront to their personal good behavior. It was seen as a known rabbi actually violating purity codes, by having table fellowship with the unclean, wrong people. Such behavior would pollute the nation, and actually stop YHWH from working to intervene and liberate them from foreign oppression…i.e. Rome. Such disregard for the Law is what got Israel into trouble and exile previously. This type of behavior by a known religious figure just couldn’t be tolerated again. There was a very collective sense in which this was understood…beyond individual reward or individual, transactional salvation.

Luke also seemed to have in mind the equal inclusion of Gentiles, also seen as an affront not only by Jews but Jewish Christians, who saw it again as a nullifying of the Torah and what it meant to be righteous before God…full members of the covenant people. Godless Gentiles could not be welcomed into equal fellowship unless they became fully Jewish and adopted some form of visible Torah observance. The grace of God that welcomed them home as they were, and accepted them fully with all privilege in equal fashion in the messiah was incomprehensible for those who lived their entire lives and found their identity through the Torah and its observance. It angered them to the point of hounding and persecuting the apostle Paul in his mission to Gentiles.

The most controversial figure in the story wasn’t either son. It was the foolish running father. A violation of all their ideas about God and who he favored and on what basis.

Any group today that looks upon God in this way, and upon others as not worthy of belonging because they don’t measure up to their established ideas and/or religious practices (think sabbath observance and food laws), denouncing them as Babylon and less than Christians, is behaving like the older son, and has a distorted view of God and the gospel.



Yes, his confusion may have found its root in a denomination that taught him a distortion all his life. It still does, sadly.


His book, “The Prodigal God” is one of my favorites.

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