Parenting the Older Brother

We all know the parable of the Prodigal Son. Two brothers, vastly different in temperament and behavior, who share the same father. One brother is notoriously bad and dominates the plot line, while the other is but a shadow in the background, unremarkably obedient until the climactic ending. Tim Keller has said that this story is really the parable of Two Brothers. Henri Nouwen called it the parable of Two Lost Brothers. I think they’re right.

The tension between the two brothers, and their very different relationships with the father, is a primordial theme. The audience who listened to the parable of the Two Brothers from Jesus himself consisted of two opposing groups, sure to identify with one brother and not the other. Luke 15:1 – 2 tells us that in that crowd were “tax collectors and sinners” and “the Pharisees and the Scribes.” For a reader 2000 years later, the parable still elicits an identification, a connection of the soul, with one brother juxtaposed against the other.

Growing up in my extended family, one of my aunt and uncle’s two children was a misbehaving train wreck about to happen, while the other one was the typical “older brother:” well behaved, dependable, good in school, and no cause for concern. As these siblings got older and the stakes grew more dangerous for the impending train wreck, the family lore became: “Thank God for Laura. At least we don’t have to worry about her.” I now understand the fallacy of this family dynamic.

Under my own roof as a parent of teenagers, the younger brother role shifted between our first two children depending on the year or the immediate situation, and our third child assumed permanently the older brother role. It was shades and degrees, not the clear extreme of Jesus’ story, but I confess that the child making the most noise, causing the most hand wringing and sleepless nights, got the bulk of our parental attention. I was fixated on my teenagers’ behavior, and not so much on their hearts.

For many years, I heard this parable as good news for the sinners and the tax collectors, and a big correction for the Pharisees and the Scribes. That is not, I think, Jesus’ whole message.

This parable reveals the sin of the older brother and the way our heavenly father loves him, too. Hear the resentment and self-righteousness in the older brother’s words when his father comes out to him in the field: “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!” (Luke 15: 29 – 30)

The father leaves the noise of the younger brother’s homecoming celebration and meets the older brother in the quiet and the steadfastness of the field. He seeks out this son, who cannot even rejoice over his brother’s homecoming, and lovingly invites him in.

The older brother’s obedience is his source of pride and self-righteousness. His steadfast life at home is his attempt to save himself, to justify himself. Rather than bring him into unity with his father and his brother, his sense of duty leaves him simmering with resentment outside the celebration. In his sin, he cannot rejoice that his own brother is home. The older brother needs a divine savior who will bring him back into the fold, which is exactly what his younger brother needed too.

The father’s response to his older son’s self-justification is our template as human parents. Rather than explain the lack of a goat, he promises that all that he has is for both his sons, and he has been, and will be, with the older brother forever. He gently explains his joy by saying, “It is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” So, too, the older brother is being given an opportunity by the father to return and be restored to the family. His identity is not in his obedience; his identity is in his relationship with his father and with his brother.

We best love our “obedient” children by being attentive to their behavior and fixated on their hearts as they relate to Jesus Christ and to one another. We tell them that the fattened calf is theirs for the taking – forget the sinewy goat. We point them to the only real source of approval, and we tell them that through the saving grace of Jesus, already achieved, they don’t have to justify themselves. Their heavenly father wants them with him at the banquet. Most importantly, we tell them we know these things because they are true for us also.

The parable of the Two Lost Brothers is the first chapter and the last chapter of Christian parenting. We give our children all that we have, we wait for them in faith and hope, and we are always looking out the window for them. We run to greet our children when they come home, be it home from a foreign wasteland or the daily toil of the field. Their need for The Perfect Father is the same as our own need, and our commission is to give them that freeing news over and over again.

Carolyn Lankford lives in Birmingham, Alabama and has three grown children with her late husband, Frank. Formerly a co-director of Christian Education at the Church of the Advent, Carolyn served as the Advancement Officer at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University before transitioning back to the Advent to work as Interim Director of Women's Ministry from 2021-2022.

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