The Elder Son Syndrome

One thing I don’t remember hearing in church as a child was a sermon on the Elder Son, who appears to be something of a peripheral character in the Prodigal Son story. In fact, I was probably in my 30’s when I heard my first “elder son” sermon. This is odd when you think of it, especially considering that the elder son is a very distinct reference to those in the crown to whom Jesus was directing this series of stories.

Let’s back up to the beginning of Luke chapter 15:

The tax collectors and sinners all came to listen to Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to complain: “Look, this man welcomes sinners and even eats with them (Luke 15:1,2 NCV).”

It was at this point that Jesus launched into this trio of stories, The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and what we know as The Prodigal Son. I think Jesus had three goals in mind, especially with the 3rd story: One, he was emphasizing to those who may have become disenfranchised by the attitude of the Pharisees and teachers how much they were valued by Jesus. He was also explaining something about the mindset of God and God’s economy. Three, he wanted to reveal to the Pharisees and teachers something about themselves.

It’s easy for most of us to identify with the foolish son. It’s also very easy for us to judge those we have identified with the Elder Son Syndrome — those who would judge us for being somewhat less than perfect and for occasionally requiring a little “extra” grace.

Over the years, I’ve found how easy it is to shift from younger son to elder son.

It happens in the blink of an eye. One minute we are humbled by the grace of God, the next we are judging the person next to us for lighting up a cigarette or displaying multiple piercings and tattoos, never mind the fact that we are engaged in and enjoying our own freedoms (for which we are being judged by the gossiping fundamentalist over in the corner).  It’s all relative, isn’t it?  We know the grace we have received, and so can rest in our own brand of personal freedoms (“according to our faith”). However, we aren’t quite so sure about anyone else, and besides, we don’t do those particular things.

The thing with the elder brother was that he had made up his own set of rules in which to operate. In his virtual reality, he worked hard, protected his father’s assets (was stingy), and assumed one didn’t kill the fatted calf on a whim. Celebrations of that nature were extravagant; the money could have gone to the temple, or to feed the poor. And, you at least waited until your father was dead to squander your inheritance.

The elder son didn’t understand his father’s economy at all. He must have thought his father weak-minded or deceived to have already given away 1/3 of his assets, especially to someone he knew to be wasteful and wanton. But to welcome the lazy bum back, and then give him the family checkbook? Was his father crazy?

I think most of us can relate to the Elder Son, and we might respond the same way given these circumstances — as least I think I would. Not only did my stupid, foolish brother get a chunk of cash, but I was left doing all of the chores (not that he actually did them, anyway). For years I’ve consoled myself with the thought that everything I was working for was mine; but now, he’s cut back in for another share, and has access to the family bank accounts!

Those of us who work hard at being good Christians — who faithfully attend church, serve in various ways, live responsible lives, and struggle daily with making ends meet — can have a very hard time with those Christians who sometimes don’t act like they understand the price of grace at all. You all know who I mean; you probably have someone in mind right now. These folks come and go as they please, spend their Sundays with their jet skis, take marvelous vacations, and seemingly live the high life, and still have the nerve to call themselves Christians. They live their lives in debt, both spiritually and physically, but there always seems to be more and more grace for them. What’s up with that? As Jeremiah complained, “Why do the wicked prosper” (Jer. 12:1)?

Even I, who has experienced so much grace throughout my life, can very easily slip into the Elder Son Syndrome and start to judge those around me. The first time I was made aware of my inner Elder Son, it literally stopped me in my tracks. I was shocked to discover that I was so quick to apply grace to myself, but so hesitant to apply it to others. I realized that I didn’t understand grace quite so much as I had imagined.

One of the benefits of growing up Lutheran is that in the liturgy every Sunday, we were all reminded of the grace we have received, and why we needed it in the first place. Regardless of how rich or poor we were, the liturgy was the great equalizer. Within the first few minutes of church each Sunday, we would say this:

Almighty God, our Maker and Redeemer, we poor sinners confess unto thee, that we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against thee by thought, word and deed. Wherefore we flee for refuge to thine infinite mercy, seeking and imploring thy grace, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.

O most merciful God, who has given thine only-begotten Son to die for us, have mercy upon us and for his sake grant us remission of all our sins: and by thy Holy Spirit increase in us true knowledge of thee and of thy will, and true obedience to they Word, that by thy grace we may come to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, hath had mercy upon us, and hath given his only Son to die for us, and for his sake forgiveth us all our sins. To them that believe on his Name, he giveth power to become the sons of God, and bestoweth upon them his Holy Spirit. He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved. Grant this, O Lord, unto us all.

Amen. (1958 Service Book & Hymnal)

We have memories like sieves, and we must be reminded — often — that we are in desperate need of grace, and that there is never any grace shortage, either for us or for others. God’s grace is always sufficient, wherever we happen fall on the younger son–elder son continuum.


  1. Which son do you tend to see yourself as the most?
  2. Do you have any “foolish brothers” that test your understanding of grace?
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One Response to The Elder Son Syndrome

  1. Steve Martin says:

    Great post, Alden.

    I am both. Probably pretty equally. The elder brother syndrome is the one that is worse (IMO).

    Thanks be to God for His law, which convicts me and kills me off…and thanks be to God for calling me back to life through His love and forgiveness.


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