Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 12B. The Older Brother
Luke 15:25-32: “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “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!’ “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Purpose & Context: So we have a continuation of that most famous parable about the ‘prodigal son’ but there is this addition to it that goes beyond the younger son and picks up the negative attitude of the older son of the family. Remember we noted that the starting point of these three ‘lost’ parables was, “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (v.2) In the three previous parables Jesus makes the point that God is concerned for the lost and there is great rejoicing in heaven when that which was lost is found. That sought to show the value God placed on reaching out to these lost ones in their society, but that still left the Pharisees and teachers of the law with a bad attitude towards all this, and it is towards that attitude that Jesus now directs this story.
- the older son, working in the fields, comes in and sees what is going on (see previous parable).
- this upsets him and so his father goes out to him and pleads with him to come in and join in the celebrations.
- the older son pours out his feelings: he has always worked hard for his father, always obeying him, yet he had never received any reward, and yet when this wastrel comes back he gets this amazing reception – it is unfair!
- the father defends what had happened: the older son always had what was the father’s and it had been as if the younger son had died but was now alive again. Wasn’t that worth celebrating?
Two Applications: There are two things to be observed here, first our attitude to ‘wastrels’ repenting and then, second, our attitudes towards our relationship with God. I use the word ‘our’ here several times because surely the older son represents the established Christian community. Having said that we perhaps need to see a further two applications of this: first the older brother representing the Pharisees etc. and then, as I have said, how he represents us, the established Christian community. Both the former two issues apply to both of the applications.
Jesus and the Pharisees: First the attitudes towards the ‘wastrels’ as I have called them. Jesus showed concern for the tax-collectors and sinners. Later Jesus was to declare, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk 19:10) Matthew records, “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mt 9:10-13)
The other side of this particular coin is that the Pharisees clearly were not concerned about the ‘sinners’, in fact they felt hostile towards them. I have used the word ‘wastrel’ several times to describe sinners because I believe that is often how we think of such people, they are profligate, spendthrifts, wasteful – all of which describe the younger son away from home. The Pharisees saw them as the ‘opposition’ to God’s kingdom, Jesus saw them as potential citizens of the kingdom, potential children of God.
The other aspect is that of their attitude in respect of their relationship with God. They saw themselves as ‘good people’, people who would surely be approved of by God and they were not getting any praise from Jesus for being like that. In fact he was constantly finding fault with them. Their relationship in respect of God was hard and legalistic, based on law-keeping. Love did not come into it, only duty. It was a relationship that fell far short of that which was on Gods heart.
Jesus and Us: In this day when boundaries are falling and there are early signs of society crumbling, it is easy for us who are Christians to feel very negative towards those who are around us. I keep hearing stories of young people misbehaving on the streets and ‘the flesh’ in me wants to rise up and organise vigilantes to do what the police are obviously not up to doing with their shortage of numbers. But as I do that I recognize the ‘older brother attitude’. Yes, this behaviour is wrong but why are they acting like this (dysfunctional families where love is absent) and how can we help them? The first step is to stop being defensive and where there is hostility, get the grace of God, smile and say, “How can I help?” That needs a lot more thinking about but this is not the place for that.
But how do we feel about the ‘low life’ of our towns and cities? Older brother attitude or Jesus’ attitude? And when they turn to the Lord and the Christian world celebrates and makes heroes of them (which does them no good in the long run) do we feel gritty from our righteous high ground – after all I have sought to be a righteous child of God for the last forty years! What is all the fuss about? The fuss is about one who was lost but now is found, one who was dead but is now alive. That IS worth celebrating!