Not Understanding Older Brother Sins

x-hot-sins-cold-sinsIs the older brother a “bad” sinner? For over two decades, whenever I studied the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), I fully understood and resonated with the (disgusting immoral) sins of the younger son: selfishness, greed, lust, licentiousness, promiscuity, spendthrift, disrespectful, inconsideration, fatalism, hedonism and the like. But with the older son, I might say or think, “Oh yeah, he’s a sinner too, but he doesn’t seem that bad. He’s kinda rude to his dad. He didn’t like his younger brother moving back home. At least he kept going to church (stayed at home with his father) and he didn’t sleep around with prostitutes (which is a big deal!).” I did not understand “older brother sins,” as I did “younger brother sins.” Last year I tried to address The Sins of Older Christians, i.e. ME!

How gentle is our God. This past Sunday at West Loop UBF I preached on the theme of Gentleness. I spoke extemporaneously on our God who is so gentle and patient with us, even while we are sinning against Him continually, intentionally and with planned premeditation! I explained how our God is so gentle–like the father in the parable of the prodigal son. He was gentle when his younger son heartlessly demanded his share of the estate. He was also gentle toward his older son when he angrily refused to celebrate with his father who was overjoyed that his lost younger son had returned home.

Was the older brother “very” sinful? As I was preaching, it sort of dawned on me that the older brother is just as horrible and sinful as his younger brother, if not “more sinful.” Yes, he never left home (the church) like his younger brother. Yes, he always stayed at home with his father like a dutiful son and did not sleep with prostitutes. Yes, he “never disobeyed” his father’s orders (Lk 15:29). But this DOES NOT make him any less of a sinner. In fact, the way he behaved and responded to his gentle father exposes just how far removed he is from his father, who represents God.

Is the older brother “worse” than his younger brother? Angrily refusing to join in his father’s celebration speaks volumes about him. He obviously did not share in his father’s joy. His angry refusal to participate was a deliberate act of insulting, offending and humiliating his father (Lk 15:28a). Saying “Look!” (Lk 15:29) and “this son of yours” (Lk 15:30) expresses no love for his own brother and sheer disrespect for his father. It would be akin to cursing his father and spitting in his face.

Religious sinners are “worse” than immoral sinners. All sin is wrong and bad. But when the younger brother sinned by leaving home, his primary motivation was to selfishly enjoy his life without his father’s interference. On the other hand, the older brother’s sin was primarily directed against his father by questioning his very integrity and demeaning him directly. The four gospels bear this out in that the religious leaders were far worse sinners than the prostitutes and the profligates (Mt 21:31).

Despising sinners. By not understanding older brother sins, I despised (younger brother) “sinners.” In my heart, I rejected anyone who would not study the Bible or attend church, even if they were my own family and childhood friends. I was also very critical toward mega churches, liberal churches, charismatic churches, social justice churches and non-UBF churches in general! I never understood the gravity and seriousness of the older brother’s sins because I was him and I am him! Without the grace, mercy, patience and limitless gentleness of God, I will forever be the older brother who is just seething, disgruntled and angry at “sinners” for doing what sinners do, which is sin.

Any thoughts about older brother sins and sinners?


  1. forestsfailyou

    I have spoken with a few people and it seems like testimonies usually include a public confession of sins. In my experience (and the experience of others I have talked to). “Cold sins” are ok to confess but not “hot sins”. “Hot sins” become “sin problems”. A recounting of a pornography addiction or past anger towards a friend might get you labled with a “lust problem” or “anger problem”. But if your sin is something like “I don’t fish enough.” or “I am very proud of the fact I have raised so many disciples.” then that is ok.

    To be honest I don’t like the public confession of sins in testimonies. It is not something that is confortable. The Catholics have always understood the dangers in public confession. I agree that confession is good, just not publicly- and this includes privately, and then gossiped publicly.

    As for me and my brother, my brother is very much the “hot sinner”. He has been caught selling drugs, was suspended weekly for fighting during school. He is the sterotypical “bad person”. I on the other hand have a tendency towards pride and gossip. Which is better? I am not sure, but most theologians have considered pride the worst, including St. Augustine who was very much a “hot sinner” in his relations with women.

    • Very good points, ffy.

      The rule is actually that only public sins should be confessed publicy, i.e. if you somehow sinned against the whole community or sinned in your position as an elder or pastor. Private sins should be kept private if possible. Mt 18:15 says: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.”

      When public confession of sins becomes a ritual in high-pressure groups like UBF, this is not Biblical and problematic. Not for nothing it is also one of the points in Lifton’s famous “eight criteria for thought reform” – it is a typical practice of cults and mind control groups. It is also practiced in totalist regimes like Mao’s China and North Korea.

      This is because it creates and atmosphere of fear and feelings of unworthyness and indebtedness, while leaders have full control. Those who regularly confess start to feel that they are so sinful and unworthy that they never may criticize anybody else. While the leaders, who only take part in the confession ritual as listeners, exploit their knowledge of sins to subdue their followers. The fact that the leaders do not confess their sins while all the others do also sends the subliminal message that they are sinless servants of God that have to be copied and obeyed while all the others are imperfect.

      I can testify that my chapter leader never shared his own sogam during these weekly sessions, but always only listened to the sogams of the members. Also, I have never heared a confession of sins by other leaders like Samuel Lee. On some occasions, I heared confession of “cold sins” by leaders (like e.g. in a mission report), but even that was rare and usually only served to boast about their spiritual mindset.

  2. Charles Wilson
    Charles Wilson

    It’s interesting that there is a general difficulty to understand the older brother in this parable because it is given in response to the Pharisees and the teachers and the law who didn’t understand why Jesus was welcoming the “sinners” who were gathering to him. It follows the other lost and found (with joy) parables. When messages were given on this passage, it was usually with a call or persuasion for those the messenger thinks are of the younger brother’s ways and need to come to their senses and return. The older brother is a kind of after thought. And sometimes the message didn’t even cover the verses at the end with the older brother because it didn’t fit what the messenger wanted to communicate. The sins of the younger brother and the place he finally ended up where he came back to his senses are obviously greatly exaggerated for the purpose of bringing out the issue with the older brother who lacks joy at his brother’s return and doesn’t understand his father’s actions.

    At one conference we were tasked with making a play about this passage. We split it up into two plays, one for the younger brother and one for the older brother, each having their own story. The older brother’s story turned out to be much more interested and the younger brother’s story boring and played out. We tried to find ways to avoid the conventional party scenes that look ridiculous, and which attempt to get cheap laughs. We didn’t feel that it was honest or connected with people, especially to make them feel sorry for their sins and want to repent.