In Luke 15, Jesus tells a series of “lost” parables to an audience consisting of sinners/tax collectors and Pharisees/scribes. First comes the parable of the lost sheep, where a man loses a sheep out in the wilderness and rejoices when it is found. Next comes the parable of the lost coin, where a woman loses a coin in her home and rejoices when it is found.
Then we come to a parable about a man with two sons. The younger son wants his inheritance, so the father divides up his assets, giving one-third to the younger son and two-thirds to the older son. The younger son takes off and squanders his inheritance with riotous living. When an unexpected famine strikes, the younger son becomes destitute and shamefully returns home, offering to become his father’s servant because he is not worthy of his father’s love. However, in a completely unexpected turn of events, the father runs out to meet him, falls on his neck, and kisses him. The father then throws a party for his returned son, for “he was lost and now is found.”
We all know this story. A man with a lost son out in the wilderness, who rejoices when he is found. What we often overlook is the end of the story, which focuses on the other lost son—the lost son who never left home.
The older brother is working in the field when his younger brother returns home. Instead of rejoicing with his father at the return of his brother, he throws a giant fit. He refuses to celebrate. He refuses to even call him his brother. And he thinks the worst of his brother, exclaiming without evidence that his brother had wasted the money on whores.
With all this in mind, let’s consider what a first century Jew would’ve thought when hearing this parable. Consider a few elements from the tale: a father with two sons, brothers squabbling over an inheritance, the younger brother leaving town with his blessing, the older brother working out in the field.
In the mind of a Jewish listener, this story would immediately call to mind the story of Esau and Jacob. The younger Jacob stole his older brother Esau’s inheritance while Esau was out working in the field, and then left town. In fact, there are many parallels throughout these two stories:
|Isaac has two sons||Father has two sons|
|Jacob steals Esau’s inheritance||Younger brother receives his inheritance|
|Jacob goes to Padan Aram||Younger brother goes to a far country|
|There is a famine after Jacob tricks Esau||There is a famine after younger brother leaves|
|Jacob meets Esau and offers to be his servant||Younger brother offers to be his father’s servant|
|Jacob tells God “I’m not worthy of your mercies”||Younger brother tells father “I am no longer worthy to be called your son”|
|Esau runs, falls on neck, and kisses Jacob||Father runs, falls on neck, and kisses younger brother|
|Jacob had stolen inheritance while Esau was in the field||Younger brother returns home while older brother is in the field|
Any person familiar with the biblical text would notice the similarities between the two narratives. But they also would notice a few key differences:
For one, the younger brother in the parable didn’t steal his brother’s inheritance; rather he prematurely requested his own inheritance. Notice that when the younger brother received his one-third inheritance, the older brother also received his two-thirds inheritance (Luke 15:12). The younger brother didn’t actually steal anything from his older brother.
Also, notice that in the Esau-Jacob narrative, it is Esau who lovingly welcomes home his brother. He is no longer bitter; instead he is happy to receive his brother home, and doesn’t require any of the gifts Jacob had sent to appease him. Compare that to the lost older brother, who—despite having twice as much as his sibling—refuses to welcome him home.
The message to Jesus’ first century audience was clear: Those who behave like the older brother are worse than Esau. Those lost coins who have remained in their master’s home but are still nevertheless lost, those Pharisees/scribes who rejected the lost sheep rather than welcomed them—they are like those who despised their birthright, who rejected their inheritance, who turned their backs on their God and Father.
In fact, the behavior of the older brother might call to mind another older brother: Cain, who led his younger sibling out into a field where he murdered him, then disinherited him (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”).
At the time Jesus spoke these words, a man named Herod was reigning as the King of the Jews. And yet, he wasn’t Jewish. He was Idumean—an Edomite, a descendant of Esau—appointed by the oppressive Roman Empire to rule over the Jews. To the Jews, Herod was Esau-Incarnate—an imposter king who had despised the inheritance of the Jews and yet wanted to wield it over the Jews. And according to Jesus, the religious elite were just as bad as he was. And by the end of the gospels, those same religious leaders would be working with this imposter king to rid their nation of the true King of the Jews, the Heir of Jacob and the Finder of Sheep and Coins and Sons.
The resounding message, to those who heard this in the first century and those of us who read it in the twenty-first century, is clear. Those of us in the LORD’s house should partner with our Father to find the lost sheep without and the lost coins within. We should rejoice when the lost sheep are found. We should rejoice when the lost coins are found. And if our hearts want to throw a fit while the angels are throwing a party, we may not be as found as we think.
“It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:32)
Special thanks to the lectures of Peter J. Williams, whose series “The Genius of Jesus’ Teachings” brought to light many of these parallels. If you appreciated this article, you should definitely watch his teachings on this parable.