The Elder Son

by Pam Watson

In Luke 15, Jesus tells a story of a certain man who had two sons. Why two sons? I believe it is because Papa God wants to bring to Himself all who are distant. While some are distant because of sin and self-centred living, this is not the only reason. It may be the one we focus on the most, but there are also those who are distant because they are labouring in the fields (v.25) trying to gain the acceptance and approval of the Father.

The ones in the fields are the older sons – the first born, the responsible ones who know that nothing comes without hard work and effort. They have refused the prodigal lifestyle and shun anything that would bring disrepute. While their lives look good, their hearts are in danger of becoming as distant as the Pharisees and scribes Jesus spoke this parable to.

These elder sons are the “good boys” – they are performance driven high achievers who expect to be rewarded for their diligent efforts and faithful lifestyle. They put in their time and they expect the reward. They do good and they get good and when they don’t, there are questions to ask and explanations required.

Father wants to connect with the prodigals. He also wants to connect with the performers. So how do you reach the heart of those who do everything well? Prodigals are easy. You just wait for lifestyle choices to catch up with them and their pain and need will bring them home. But what about the performers? They don’t need to come to their senses; but they do need to come to the end of themselves.

The only way out of performance is to discover that performance doesn’t work. It comes through the awareness of emptiness, lack of reward and many time, offense. In particular, the offenses of seeing the Lord bless those who don’t deserve it.

When the Father said to kill the fatted calf (v.23) he wasn’t just thinking of one son, he was thinking of both. Yes he wanted to celebrate the return of the son that had left, but he also wanted to expose the heart of the one that stayed. Through the offense of the situation Father revealed the lie that held the older son bound. The older son believed he would receive because of his works. His worth was therefore tied to his achievements rather than anchored in the Father’s love.

Alone, standing on the outside looking in, the elder son was confronted with the striving of his own heart. It was to this disillusioned, angry son that Papa came. He left the party to find his son. He listened to the hurt of unfulfilled expectations and the heart of judgment towards others and the criticism of himself. In the process the Father began the dialogue of friendship and openness that he had longed for.

His son was striving for what had been freely given. All the Father had was his (v.31), not just a goat or the fatted calf but all that was in the Father’s possession. Yet greater still was a reality that the son had failed to see. “Son, you are always with me”, speaks of a relationship that the son was totally unaware of. In striving to gain acceptance through his work and his obedience, he had lost sight of the heart that simply longed for him to be close.