Our true elder brother

The parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15:11-31 is arguably one of the most famous and well loved parables of Jesus. It is one of the clearest and most moving visions of God’s grace and forgiveness, in which Jesus presents us with a picture of the Father longing to be reconciled to those who have rejected him.

It has often been said of this parable that it is an example of forgiveness without atonement or cost. Some claim that Jesus clearly teaches that the younger son wanted to make restitution but the Father did not let him. Instead, they argue, the Father forgives his son without any kind of price being paid.

Cost of restoration

To claim this, however, is to misunderstand the parable. What is often missed is that in order for the younger son to be restored someone else had to bear the cost. The forgiveness of the younger son would indeed come at a price because being restored to a full relationship with the Father would mean that he would again be entitled to a share in the Father’s remaining estate. It would, therefore, fall to the lot of the older son to pay the price of his younger brother’s restoration as he would receive much less inheritance as a result. Indeed, one of the reasons the elder brother must have begrudged the younger coming back was because his brother’s return would come at great cost to himself.

The older brother in this parable begrudged the Father’s grace and didn’t want to pay the cost of restoration. We, however, have an altogether different type of elder brother.

The image of Christ as our elder brother is seen both in the writing of the Apostle Paul, who calls Jesus the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29), and in the letter to the Hebrews, in which the author says that Jesus had to be made like his brothers in everyway in order to save them (see Hebrews 2:14-18).

Jesus’ attitude towards his brothers was entirely different to that of the older brother in Luke 15. He makes it clear that he was not a reluctant participant in the grace of the Father but rather he laid down his life willingly in order to pay the penalty for our sin:

‘‘The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10:17-18)

We have the true elder brother who bore the cost of our forgiveness through his death on the cross. He paid the price that we could not pay in order that we would be reconciled to the Father. 1 Peter 2:23-25 says:

‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree…For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.’

In Jesus, the Father comes out to those who have rejected God and pays the ultimate price in order that their sins will not be counted against them and they can know the unconditional love of the Father:

‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.’ (2 Corinthians 5:19)

So lets thank God that we have such an elder brother who, unlike the older son of the parable, did not begrudge the grace of the Father but was willing to pay the price for us to be restored to the family of God.

(For further on the theme of atonement in The Parable of the Lost Son see ‘The Prodigal God’ by Timothy Keller.)


Reprinted with kind permission of “In Touch”, published in the UK by Grace Communion International.