Although the elder son is dutiful, he obeys out of obligation rather than love. Because of this internal dynamic, the return of the younger brother is a catalyst that stirs up jealousy and resentment rather than joy. The character of the elder son reflects the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees.
And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man receives sinners and eats with them.” – v 2
If the younger son represents the humble soul who places himself at the father’s mercy,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no
longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired
laborers.” – vv 18-19
… the elder son is the proudful soul who boasts of his own good deeds and expects to be rewarded, and who struggles to understand God’s generosity towards those they deem as undeserving (cf Mt 20:15).
“Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never
neglected a command of yours; and yet you never gave me a young goat,
so that I might celebrate with my friends” – v 29
There is more than one way to interpret the characters and symbolism in this story. If the elder son represents the scribes and the Pharisees, the younger son could be a representation of Christ, he who died yet is alive again (v32, cf 1 Cor 15:3-4). Though he was unlike the prodigal son in that he knew no sin, yet he was made to be sin for our sake (2 Cor 5:21). The younger son could also represent all who follow Christ and have been reconciled to God through him (cf Rom 3:21-28).
“This brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost
and has been found.” – v 32
The characters of the elder and younger son could represent specific types of individuals, or they could represent different aspects that exist within each person. We are like the younger son when we acknowledge and repent of our sins. We are like the elder son when, under the temptation of pride, we boast of our own deeds and righteousness. The only person who remains ever constant is the character of the father. The parable thus serves as a reminder that it is God who alone is good (cf Lk 18:19).
Jesus' parables use earthly concepts that reflect but cannot equate the spiritual truths they are meant to convey. In this story, the father’s wealth is divided between his sons, but God’s wealth is not comparable to any human estate. In reality, his riches are beyond measure and cannot be exhausted no matter how much he bestows upon his children. “All that is mine is yours” (v 31). Expressing God’s boundless love and mercy, I believe the words of the father to the elder son are addressed to every one of us as well.