According to Tim Keller in The Prodigal God, the elder brother in the prodigal son parable seeks happiness through moral rectitude rather than by the way of self-discovery like his younger brother. The problem isn’t that he seeks to act rightly, but that he expects his righteous behavior to pay off for his benefit. While the younger brother defies his father by acting according to his own desires outside of his father’s direction, the elder brother rejects the father by failing to honor him. He does not address him with respect, but treats him with scorn. Why does he do this? Consider the inheritance. The younger brother squandered his inheritance. What remains? Only that which is designated for the older brother. He has served his father faithfully and views the fatted calf as belonging to him. Does it?
What do we claim is righfully ours because we have served faithfully? Health? Security? Children who bless us?
It’s also interesting that the parable doesn’t have a neat ending. The younger brother comes in to the celebration, but the elder brother remains outside. He rejects both the father and the repentant sinner who has returned home. I would add that he also rejects all the others who have come to celebrate with them. Let’s make sure we don’t do that.