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Sin in the Light of the Gospel: A Look at the Prodigal Son and His Older Brother

Updated: Jun 11

This article explores the sin of the prodigal son and his older brother in the light of the gospel. It teaches us that whether our behavior is good or bad, we all need the grace of God.


Have you ever felt like you’ve gone too far? Like you sinned one too many times? Have you felt like the next time you walk outside you should get struck by lightning?


We can all relate to sin and the feelings of guilt, shame, and dread it brings.


But there is a truth that is greater than any sin we could commit.


And that truth is the gospel. It’s the good news of Jesus Christ.


Timothy Keller said,


“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”[1]

This message is found in the parable of the prodigal son.



They say the longest way round is the shortest way home, and sometimes it takes a whole story to prove a simple point.


So let’s take the long way around and walk through this story verse by verse so we can get to the simple truth that God loves us more than we could ever imagine.


Verse eleven says,


“There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.”


This is a picture of the fall


The father in this story is God. The son is sinful mankind. The son is you and me.


When Adam sinned, he didn’t demand his inheritance, but he broke his relationship with his father.


The prodigal son’s sin is his demand for an early inheritance, which is something a person usually receives after their parents have passed.


But he’s impatient, and he’s proud, and he thinks he’s better off without his father.


He leaves immediately


He doesn’t want accountability. He goes off to a far away land.


And what does he do? He squanders everything immediately. Sin makes us foolish and prodigal.


Prodigal means: “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.”[2]

Naturally, he ran out of money quickly. Verse fourteen says,


And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.


What about this section of the story is not surprising?


It’s not surprising that his sin led him into deeper trouble than he planned on. He thought everything was fine. He thought his money would last and last.


It didn’t, and when he ran out, there was a famine.


Sin makes us take things for granted. We assume we’re invincible—until we’re not. We assume everything will stay the same and there won’t be any consequences.


There was a woman who embezzled money from her job. She stole $3,000, and after getting caught, she spent 8 years in prison.


I don’t think she was intending to pay that consequence.


The prodigal son didn’t think he would have to pay any consequences either. He had always lived a life of plenty with his father. He went out with bags of money, and everything was fine, but then suddenly, it wasn’t.


That’s how sin is. Everything is fine—until it isn’t.


Sin will always take you further than you ever intended to go and cost you more than you ever intended to pay.[3]


The prodigal son’s sin took him lower than he ever thought possible. He fed pigs

To the Jewish person, pigs are unclean, and feeding pigs made him unclean.


But if that’s not low enough, he wanted to eat the pig’s food. But he wasn’t even worthy to eat with the pigs.


Something had to give, and it finally did. Verse seventeen says,


“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’


This is the moment where the grace of God breaks in.


The person caught in sin doesn’t realize it. He is blind.


The prodigal son didn’t realize how far he had fallen until “He came to himself.”


Up until that point, he didn’t see his need for repentance. He didn’t see the foolish man that he had become.


Ephesians 4:17 says that sinners “walk…in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”


When we’re given over to sin, we create a path of destruction, and we don’t even know it.


Imagine this young man at that moment.


His clothes are torn. He’s on his knees in the mud, and he sticks his hand into rotten pig feed.


He’s about to put it in his mouth when God opens his eyes. It’s only then that he repents.


‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread,” he says, “but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’


This is a picture of repentance


He confesses his sin. He owns it.


He does not blame-shift.


He takes full responsibility.


He recognizes whom he has sinned against—


He has sinned against heaven, meaning he has sinned against God.


And he has sinned against his father.


He realizes what he deserves.

And he says, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me a servant.”


This is a picture of repentance.


Psalm 51:17 says, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

The Father’s Response


How would you respond if your prodigal son came home after wasting all your wealth? The father in this story responds with grace.


And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’


But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.


“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” [4]

It says that when the prodigal son came to his father, his father saw him from a long way off.


Likely, he was out on the front porch looking and waiting for him. He knew there was famine, and he was worried for his son.


And when he saw him, what was his immediate, automatic, and unplanned response? Compassion.


He could have had any other thoughts: disgust, anger, resentment, smugness.

The son had demanded his father’s inheritance before he even died, basically wishing his father were dead.


But that’s not the father’s heart. And that’s not our Heavenly Father’s heart.


We have spurned God. We have tried to run away. We have arrogantly assumed we can do it on our own without him.


We have no right in ourselves to go back to him, but our Heavenly Father tells us this very story to show us in no uncertain terms how he feels about a sinner returning home to him.


When the father saw his son from a long way off, he felt compassion, and in the most undignified manner, he hiked up his robe and ran to him, embraced him, and kissed him.


Before his son could even complete his confession, he called to his servants, ‘Bring the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.


The Bible says that God is love. It’s his nature. It’s his character.


If you poke God, he will leak love and grace and compassion. It’s his instinct.


“God loves to show mercy. Let me say it again. God loves to show mercy. He is not hesitant or indecisive or tentative in his desires to do good to his people. His anger must be released by a stiff safety lock, but his mercy has a hair trigger.”[5]

When the father saw him in the distance, he felt compassion.


That is the character of our Heavenly Father.


But what about the rest of the parable?


At this point in the story, it takes a turn and shows us a contrast between the father’s response and the older son’s response.


“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in.


His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’


And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:25-32)


When this parable is taught, this section is often taken out because we don’t know what to do with it.


The first part of the story is so nice and lovely, but then the older son gets angry, and the story is over.


What does it mean? What is Jesus teaching us by showing the eldest son’s reaction?


If the father in this story is God, and the prodigal son is sinful humanity, the eldest son is the spiritually proud person who has forgotten or never understood the grace of God.

This is the person who outwardly looks like a Christian. They do all the religious things. They go to church. They tithe. They teach Sunday school. They attend Bible study.


But they have no grace. They have no compassion. And they have no patience when it comes to other peoples’ sins.


Jesus talks about this kind of person often.


In Matthew 18, he’s the unforgiving servant who had owed 10,000 talents, who when he was forgiven, went out and choked the guy who owed him a few dollars.


He’s the pharisee in Luke 18 who looks down on the tax collector and thanks God he’s not a sinner like other people.


The eldest son in this story is the religiously proud person who has no grace, no compassion, and no patience for other peoples’ sins.


Now, you might think, “Thank God I’m not that guy!”


But we are that guy whenever we hold a grudge.


Or when we gossip about someone for doing something we disapprove of.

Or when we look down on someone whose sins seem greater than our own.


If we’re honest, we can all relate to the eldest son.

The twelve disciples acted like the eldest son when they said, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”


They were the eldest son when they wanted Jesus to call down fire on some people who weren’t teaching precisely what they were teaching.


They were the eldest son when they argued about who among them was the greatest.


They had something called spiritual pride.


Spiritual pride can sneak up on us, and the sin of the eldest son is just as bad as the sin of the prodigal son.


But the father’s response is the same to both.

The father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”


He loves both sons the same. He’s willing to give everything to both of them.


Remember, the father is full of grace and compassion.


He tells the elder son it is fitting that we celebrate when a sinner comes home, and we all agree.


We’re all on board with that as long as that sinner isn’t someone who offended us.


But that’s the problem. Jesus isn’t talking about our joy in hearing that someone we don’t know came to Jesus.


He’s talking about this man’s brother who took his father’s inheritance and wasted it on riotous living.


In a way, I understand the elder brother’s anger. I would be upset with my brother if he did that to our family.


He didn’t, by the way. This is not a story about my personal life.


But even if the elder brother has a good reason to be angry, he doesn’t have the right to be angry.

Here’s why—he’s a sinner, too.


The only one who has the right to be angry at our sin is our Father in heaven, but he chooses instead to be full of mercy and grace.


He runs to the prodigal son, and he entreats the older son.


He loves them both. He would forgive them both, but if the older brother doesn’t repent of his pride, he will remain outside the house, outside the family.


Jesus says in Matthew 6:14, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive other their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”


Even though the elder brother didn’t take his father’s inheritance and waste it all in sinful living, he may still be disqualified from the family if he refuses to forgive.


The eldest son must repent of his pride and forgive his prodigal brother.


He should rejoice that they have both received grace and mercy that they did not deserve.


This famous story is rich with drama and emotion, but what does it mean for us today?


A helpful way to pull applications from Scripture is to use 2 Timothy 3:16. It says,


All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.


Therefore, we can ask, what does this parable teach us? How does it reprove us? How does it correct us? How does it train us?


First, it teaches us that we are all sinners.


We need God’s grace, whether we are like the prodigal son or the proud elder brother.


I can relate to both. I’ve been in the mud, knee-deep in sin, and I’ve also looked down my nose at those whose sins I thought were worse than mine.


Second, it teaches us that our Heavenly Father is inclined toward grace and mercy.


He’s got a hair-trigger temperament, but his automatic response is compassion and grace.


How does this story reprove us?


The reproof is this. Don’t think you’re better than others.


Even if you have good reason to withhold grace, you don’t have the right.

We are all sinners in need of grace, so we must give others the same grace we have received.


How does this story correct us?


If there’s any way that we’ve been like the prodigal son, or if there’s any way that we’ve been like the elder brother, we need to take responsibility for it.


We must confess our sin and seek the grace of the Father.


We need to say, “I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”


Finally, how does this story train us in righteousness?


This story trains us to humble ourselves, confess our sins, and believe that we are forgiven, loved, and accepted.


Our Heavenly Father is full of mercy and grace and compassion, and when we turn to Him in repentance, he runs to us, embraces, and kisses us. He celebrates, and he rejoices.


Believe that he forgives you. Believe that he loves you and rejoice in the grace of God.


The story of the prodigal son teaches us about God’s grace. It reproves us for our sin and our pride. But it corrects us by turning us back around, back to our Heavenly Father.


It trains us in righteousness by giving us the courage to believe that we are forgiven,


And with that courage, we can keep going and keep walking in Him because He is our loving Heavenly Father.


The Prodigal Son is a picture of the gospel and a picture of what the gospel does.


“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”[6]



[1] Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 44.

[2] New Oxford American Dictionary.

[3] Hershael York, Lecture given at Southern Seminary.

[4]Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 44. [5] John Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2000), 185. [6] Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 44.

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