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The Prodigal Son Parable: Why Is The Brother That Stayed Called Unsaved?

Posted by Job on July 8, 2008

Consider the prodigal son parable, Luke 15:11-32. Why is it that the second brother, the one who left, considered to be unsaved? 

We agree that the father in the parable represents God, and that being with the father in his house represents being in God’s presence i.e. being saved, being in fellowship with the church, being in right standing with God, etc. So, in my opinion, the natural interpretation of the story is that when the son leaves, it represents a believer that temporarily backslides, and when he returns to his father’s house, it is restoration. The key point of that interpretation is that Jesus Christ said that the fellow “came to himself”, or came to his senses and recognized the direness of his plight, and recognized that his life could be saved only by returning to his father’s house, even if he returned to a lower position than he was before, a servant instead of a son. (Better to be an angel, which is the equivalent of a hired servant when compared to a born again human in the image of God, than in the lake of fire.) To me, that is an example of the perseverance of the saints, the Holy Spirit bringing a born again person who has sinned greatly to repentance. Now when the other brother gets angry at his father’s accepting the repentance of the sinning son, then it represents a believer that needs to be instructed against pride and self – righteousness and towards the meaning of forgiveness and grace. 

But in so many interpretations, including by preachers and theologians that I respect, it is presented as a salvation narrative. When the prodigal son is convicted of his sin and goes to his father’s house, he represents a sinner coming to God. That would be fine had the prodigal son started out in Babylon, which according to the doctrine of original sin he should have. But to suggest that he started out saved, in God’s house, and then departed upon sinning is Pelagianism!

And then there is the brother. If being with the father – with God – is associated with salvation, how can he be a sinner? Especially when you consider that even after he sinned by refusing to forgive his brother and by challenging the righteousness, holiness, justice, and will of his father (who again represents God!) rather than being cast into outer darkness, he receives only a mild rebuke! Indeed, rather than crushing this knave and grounding him to powder, God comforts, consoles, and reassures the other brother in the very midst of the other brother’s insolence! Not only that, he tells the other brother “everything that I have his yours!” 

Now I have heard some assert that God gave benefits to the other brother through common grace, the rain coming on the good as well as the evil. Not so. The other brother begins on equal footing in the presence of God with the prodigal brother, and that is where he remains after the prodigal brother repents and returns. And there is a difference between common grace and “all that I have always had is thine.” The size of it is sinners are not in God’s house, have no position to demand or expect things from God (as the other son was angry over God never honoring him by throwing him a party), and will never be in God’s presence except the day that they are judged and cast into the lake of fire.

Now some have claimed that the prodigal son represented the Christian accepting salvation through faith and grace where the other son represented the Jew who was trying to earn salvation through works and religion outside of Jesus Christ. Now to be honest, I believe that this notion originated with the extreme anti – Semitism of the early church, who after the apostles passed from the scene ejected the Jewish Christians from fellowship so that they would be unencumbered with going whoring after Greek and Roman pagan abominations that built until it became what we now call Roman Catholicism. Those people, especially the Alexandrian allegorists, claimed that every good character in the Bible represented the church and every bad character represented the Jews. So since they did this with Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, etc. it would have been no small thing to claim the same for the prodigal son and the other son. But Christians, freed from the influence of the allegorists, should have been able to read verse 31, where the father (representing God) says to the other son “And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” How does “son thou art ever with me” become “sinner headed for eternal damnation” in the eyes of anyone other than the raving anti – Semite hunting down reasons to reject the Jewish Yahwistic worldview under the basis that everything pertaining to the Jews – including Jewish religious thought – is evil and rejecting it in favor of Greek pagan worldview?

Does the prodigal son, then represent someone who lost his salvation? Can’t be. Hebrews 6:1-8 says that it is impossible. Also, please note that even when he was in Babylon, he was still a “son!” Both sons were born in God’s house. Meaning that they were both predestined, both of the elect, both partakers of the limited atonement and of particular grace.  And both sinned and needed to be forgiven. Whose sin was greater? Who cares? I have encountered many scathing condemnations of the elder brother, even among those who are constrained by “son thou art ever with me” in verse 31. Even when accounting for the fact that this is a parable, which means that the elder brother’s behavior in the story has real theological implications, PUT YOURSELF IN HIS SHOES!!! Even if the sin of the elder brother was great, his heart was wrong, and (since he represents people in the church) his understanding of Christianity was all wrong, so what? Who among US has that not been at some point in our Christian lives? Bottom line: the elder brother was just someone in need of rebuke, just like the APOSTLE Peter did concerning his first refusal to accept Gentiles as Christians, and his second refusal to accept Gentile Christians as being equal to Jewish Christians. The first rebuke from God came to Peter came directly in a vision, the second rebuke from God to Peter came through the Word of God as revealed to Peter by Paul. As Paul stated that there were serious consequences to Peter’s actions – he even led Barnabas astray along with many others, meaning that Peter not only sinned himself but suborned sin in this matter – the elder brother was no worse than Peter, and we are no greater than he!

That is something that we should think about as we consider the elder brother in the prodigal son story: at some point our lives we have all been him: hurt, wounded, disappointed, feeling forgotten or undervalued by God, puffed up in our own importance, proud of our own works, feeling that God or the people in our local church favor someone else above us unfairly, or sometimes just wrongheaded in our understanding of doctrine that causes us to live wrong and to butt our heads against the wall in futile frustration. But when that happens to us we should remember: we are still God’s sons, we are still in God’s house, all that is in God’s house is ours, AND WE WILL EVER BE WITH HIM. Why? Because of the unearned grace and love of God. Glory hallelujah and amen. 

If you wish to be in God’s house and be ever with Him, please follow The Three Step Salvation Plan!

7 Responses to “The Prodigal Son Parable: Why Is The Brother That Stayed Called Unsaved?”

  1. Ev. Duane Williams said

    “Now to be honest, I believe that this notion originated with the extreme anti – Semitism of the early church, who after the apostles passed from the scene ejected the Jewish Christians from fellowship so that they would be unencumbered with going whoring after Greek and Roman pagan abominations that built until it became what we now call Roman Catholicism.”

    Wow, you said a mouthful there! Like casting aside Jewish absolute Monotheism in order to be unencumbered to take hold of pagan tritheism, perhaps? Have you finally seen the Light, Job?

  2. Paul and Luann said

    Then please explain where the Father says, he was ‘dead’ but now he’s alive again. I have never had a straight answer on it yet. Thanks.

  3. Les Haskell said

    This is a not a parable about predestination or free-will, it is a parable about a free gift and anger, jealousy, and resentment from one who felt that only they deserved it because they had earned it.

    Parables are illustrations for the points they are illustrating and should not be expected to illustrate points that they do not address. It is dangerous to try to support a doctrine on a parable, especially when that parable is about something else.

    Even though God inspired the text and it is his word, he chose for human beings to write it. The only way you can understand what He intends is to be able to read it as the human writer intended and not to read anything extra into it.

  4. Susan Pajkowski said

    When I was a new believer, every time someone recited the Sinner’s Prayer, I would kneel (figuratively and literally), and pray it. When I sinned, I always felt that my relationship with God would have to be built back up from the very foundations. Then the Lord led me to this parable, but we halted as he gently guided me into the shoes of the “other” brother. I had to laugh out loud when I saw those exact same words in your article! This led me to a strong sense of security in my relationship with the Father. I don’t always have to be weeping, and He doesn’t always have to throw me a WELCOME HOME! party. The Prodigal wasn’t so sure about his place in the family anymore, but even if I have a bad attitude sometimes, my Father does not hesitate to recognize me as an established member of His family. This indeed is the Peace that passeth all understanding.

  5. Jeanne M. said

    Dear Job and Susan P., Thanks be to God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for pointing me to your website, as I’ve wondered for “years” about “the other brother”, and why he gets such terrible ‘feedback’ from the Christian community. The LORD would not have had him written about without a special message He wanted us to be aware of, and something tells me that you, and Susan P. have hit the nail squarely on the head. The ‘elder brother’s’ storyline always seems to be one of apathy, distane, and deep anger amongst Christians (as far as ‘intrepretation’ and ‘understanding’), when I get the feeling that they’re going in the ‘wrong direction’ instead. Thanks for letting the Lord use you to clear up a wide-spread misconception.

  6. muzacmercer said

    I recently wrote a song about the Prodigal Son. This is my testimony of God’s amazing grace in my life. If you have a sec here it is. Thanks for listening

  7. James Dillner said

    I got into a discussion on this topic last weekend, and in my opinion, the words of the father to the older brother are words that the critics of the older brother ought to review. There is nothing in the parable to indicate that the older brother was a hypocrite or “equally bad” to the younger brother. If you read the whole chapter and note that there are parables of lost sheep, and lost coin, you read that the focus of the chapter is on what was lost, and that which was not lost was not the problem. The father did not rebuke the older brother for being angry either. He simply needed to help him understand that in the Father’s eyes, the younger brother was DEAD. The older brother never saw him as dead, but only as wasteful and foolish. So I believe that the older brother was righteous, and his obedience was indeed PLEASING to the father. After all, Jesus spoke very plainly about religious hypocrisy in many places, so if we ADD that into this story, are we not in danger of ADDING to the word of God and invoking a curse upon ourselves?

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