Home » Why Did the Older Brother Become So Angry? (The Prodigal Son)

Why Did the Older Brother Become So Angry? (The Prodigal Son)

by Dr. Eitan Bar
9 minutes read

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’”

(Luke 15:28-29)

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father took his belt out, whipped him, and had the servants escort him to his room, kicking and screaming.” This might have been how verse 28 was read if the father was not a loving Jewish father from the 1st century but a gentile, hyper-conservative, legalistic father from the 21st century Bible Belt. However, with much irony, it’s not the father who is the self-righteous legalist who is upset with sinners, but the goody-two-shoes older brother. Let that sink for a moment.

This verse reveals yet another pivotal emotional moment in the narrative of the Prodigal Son, emphasizing the stark contrast between the joyous father and the resentful elder brother. Remember, the societal structure of first-century Judea places a high premium on familial respect and the hierarchies therein. The firstborn son, traditionally, was not just the heir but also the future patriarch of the family. Everyone respected the elder son because they knew how much power and authority he would soon have. His duty was to uphold the honor of the household and its traditions. The public celebration, thrown by the father for the younger son, would traditionally be seen as an event where the elder brother’s participation was almost mandatory. His abstention from it, therefore, was not a mere personal choice but a significant and public statement- the father is willing to break all norms and traditions for the sake of sinners. The father’s celebration and acceptance of sinners is a new precedent and tradition the father set in place in his family’s legacy.

Unpacking the Elder Son’s Emotional Complexity

The elder brother’s anger is multifaceted. On the surface, it might seem like mere jealousy towards the younger sibling. However, digging deeper, it is actually his father he is angry with the most. It’s a complex mix of feelings the elder son feels, and he could not have prepared. Of course, there’s an apparent sense of injustice. He had stayed, worked, and upheld family honor, and yet there was no calf killed for him. Instead, there is a calf killed for the one person who did the exact opposite: brought shame, pain, and financial loss to the family. But beyond the materialistic perspective, there’s a deeper emotional wound. The celebration for the prodigal might have made the elder son feel as if his years of loyalty meant less to the father than the younger son’s mere return. The elder son thinks his value is weighted by his works. He didn’t understand the father loved his wicked young brother just as much and that his love meant a grand celebration, not punishment! That’s the father’s forgiveness, and it wasn’t due to something the young son did; it was due to who he was- a beloved child of the father!

In the cultural context, the patriarch’s role was not to chase after disgruntled family members or servants. They came to him. However, the father, breaking yet another societal norm, goes out to his elder son just as he ran to his younger brother earlier. In both cases, before they have even repentance. The father’s act was not about quickly resolving a family dispute in quiet; it’s an expression of love, showcasing that the elder son’s feelings and presence matter to the father, even if it’s because of things his son is simply yet to understand. We oftentimes don’t understand God, so we storm out angry. But that doesn’t mean the father will burn us in fire if we don’t get our act back together. That’s something only an unequipped fool parent would have done, not a good and loving parent. This action, juxtaposed with the grand feast inside, shows that while the father is joyous about the return of the prodigal son, he is equally concerned about the feelings and well-being of his elder son.

The Father as a Reflection of Divine Love

The character of the father in this parable continues to serve as a profound reflection of God’s nature. God’s love is not just for the sinners but also for the self-righteous legalists who feel left out. In both cases, it’s because they have yet to learn an important life lesson and don’t fully understand the father’s heart. The elder son’s feelings of being overlooked or undervalued can resonate with many who feel their constant service to God goes unnoticed. This verse reminds us that God sees, values, and reaches out to all – those who have strayed and those who have stayed.

God, represented by the father, doesn’t dismiss the elder son’s feelings or chastise him for his resentment. Instead, God acknowledges those feelings, giving them space and addressing them directly. It’s a portrayal of a God who is deeply relational, one who engages with our emotions, our logic, our doubts, and our frustrations. God is not the parent who screams at his child, “How dare you ask me questions!? How dare you speak to me this way?!” Instead, he is able to contain all of our emotions as well as our wrong beliefs. These do not threaten Him.

The father’s act of reaching out to the elder son, much like his embrace of the prodigal, serves as a testament to a love that knows no bounds and engages with us in our most profound moments of doubt, ensuring that we never feel left out. God is love, and “there is no fear in love” (1 John 4:18).

In ancient Jewish society, the family was a microcosm of societal norms, hierarchies, and values. You already know that the elder son traditionally held a unique position, being the primary heir and custodian of the family’s legacy. The father’s decision to allocate part of the inheritance to the younger son and subsequently to host a grand celebration upon his return would’ve certainly upset the established norms. The elder son’s reference to never having received a young goat indicates not just an absence of material reward but a lack of public recognition for his loyalty and obedience. But here, we also get to see the true legalistic heart of the son, who believes his father enslaved him.

There’s a profound depth of emotion in the elder son’s words. “All these years I’ve been slaving for you,” conveys more than just loyalty; it hints at a relationship that felt more obligatory than affectionate. His use of the term “slaving” shows a perception of servitude rather than sonship, duty rather than delight, and legalistic fear rather than grace. This sense of servitude is compounded by his assertion of his own righteousness: “I never disobeyed your orders.” Evidently, he viewed life only in black and white, in good and evil, in exclusivity. He views his relationship with his father as more transactional than relational. It’s about what he does, not who he is. That’s how many of the Pharisees saw God and how many Christians see him today.

Yet, the crux of his anguish is expressed in the latter part of the verse. It’s not just about the calf being killed for his prodigal brother; it’s about the father never providing a goat for a personal celebration with his friends. Interestingly, the elder son said nothing about celebrating with his father or family but with his friends. The elder son’s grievance is rooted in selfish feelings. Apparently, he is no different than his younger brother, seeking his own good.

The elder brother couldn’t fathom the idea that his father would bless sinners; he wanted to see justice being served! The father understood something his son didn’t. Both his children are not perfect; they are finite, limited, and imperfect. They are still in the process of learning life’s lessons, and just because they have not yet learned a lesson or two doesn’t mean their father hates them or wishes to burn them in fire.

While the verse doesn’t directly elaborate on the father’s immediate response, the fact that the elder son feels comfortable voicing his resentment, “Look!” indicates a level of transparency in their relationship. The father never enforced his respect on anyone, which is evident by the way his son allows himself to speak to him. However, that’s because the father wants his sons’ respect to be based on love, not fear. It’s a testament to the father’s character, making him approachable even in moments of disagreement.

This verse mirrors many who might feel like the elder son in their relationship with God. It addresses the sentiments of those who’ve been consistently righteous, obeying commandments, and yet feeling like their loyalty goes unnoticed, especially when juxtaposed against God’s abundant grace towards those who err.

Moreover, the elder son is a sinner in the eyes of God, much like his younger brother, because his sentiment echoes feelings of pride and entitlement, which we know God hates (Proverbs 11:2; James 4:6). This perspective often creeps into religion. There’s a subtle message here: Being in God’s house doing God’s ministry doesn’t necessarily mean one understands God’s heart. In fact, very few people do. It’s possible to be physically close, with all the right seminary titles and degrees, yet emotionally and spiritually distant.

Theological Dilemmas and God’s Unconditional Love

The elder son’s grievances bring forth a crucial theological dilemma: Is God’s love and reward transactional, based on our deeds, or is it inherent and unconditional? The son’s sentiment showcases how, often, humans perceive their relationship with God – based on merit. They see blessings as rewards and adversities as either tests or punishments. When we come in touch with sin, we suffer. Sometimes, that suffering causes us to hurt others as well. But all that doesn’t change a thing about God’s heart for us.

This verse is a gentle reminder of something we should all know, yet we rarely understand the depth of what it means: God’s love is not merit-based. Like the father in the parable, sin doesn’t diminish God’s grace. In fact, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). God’s love is always willing to feast with both sinners and the self-righteous equally.

But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

(Verse 30)

The verse in focus here specifically expresses the elder son’s frustration, hurt, and perhaps even jealousy over the celebratory response his father has towards the return of the prodigal younger son.

In the ancient Jewish cultural setting, the return of a lost family member would undoubtedly be a cause for joy. Yet, it’s essential to understand the societal implications of the younger son’s actions. He not only asked for his inheritance prematurely, which in itself was a significant affront, but he also squandered it in “wild living,” which the elder son explicitly identifies as spending on prostitutes (which he obviously can’t know for sure). Such behavior was deeply taboo and would bring shame not only upon the individual but the entire family. Hence, the elder son’s reference to the prostitutes wasn’t just an accusatory statement toward his brother but also highlighted the magnitude of shame he believed his younger brother brought upon the family.

By saying, “This son of yours,” he distances himself from his brother, almost disowning him. The elder brother’s years of loyalty, obedience, and hard work seem to him to go unrewarded, making the celebration for the wayward brother feel like a slap in the face.

This is the second time the older brother mentions the meal. However, he had wealth and could afford to celebrate with his friends. So, who was stopping him? His younger brother, on the other hand, couldn’t afford it. In this case, if the older brother’s heart had been in the right place, he would have offered to help his father cover some of the expenses, thereby expressing his love for both his father and younger brother. Clearly, he was very upset with how gracefully his younger brother was being treated. The older son wanted his younger brother to suffer, be humiliated, and be treated like an enemy.

How would most of us respond in this situation? Would we become the elder brother, responding with more self-righteous anger, finally putting him in his place? Or like the father, who is willing to endure societal judgment, familial discord, and personal heartbreak for the sake of love. The celebration isn’t just about the return of a son; it’s a public declaration of forgiveness and restoration.

While the verse doesn’t directly address the prodigal son’s feelings at this moment, one can imagine that having just returned from a place of deep despair, hearing such accusations—especially during a celebration in his honor—must have felt like salt being poured on fresh wounds. This situation parallels that of some Christians who, instead of protecting a sinner’s honor as Joseph did when he thought Mary had committed adultery and chose to divorce her in secret, opt to gossip and loudly proclaim the sinner’s faults in an attempt to humiliate, ridicule, shame, and cancel them.

The elder son, in many ways, represents the legalistic approach to religion — the belief that salvation is to be earned and kept by good deeds, loyalty, and unwavering dedication. His resentment stems from the perception that he’s been righteous and done everything by the book, yet the return home of a sinner his father chooses to celebrate reveals his true colors.

The father’s actions reflect God’s nature — boundless, forgiving, and celebratory at the return of the lost. It underscores the idea that God’s love isn’t something to be earned but freely given, especially to those who need it the most. The killing of the fattened calf is a symbolic reminder, not of a father pouring his wrath in anger on the poor animal, but of the great lengths God goes to show His love and celebrate it.

The parable serves as a powerful reminder that God’s ways are not our own. While humans operate in a realm of transactions, merits, and rewards, God operates in a realm of grace, love, and forgiveness. It emphasizes that no one is beyond redemption and that everyone can partake in the divine feast if they genuinely seek it, no matter their past. God always wants to party with us; it is us who often don’t.

This article was a copy-paste from my new upcoming micro-book: “God as Father: Unveiling God’s Love for the Oppressed, Sinners, and Outcasts Through the Prodigal Son”

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist