Part 3 The return of the Elder Brother
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Luke Chapter 15, English Standard Version*
“. . . and the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'”
*The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Part 3 – The return of the Elder Brother © Parva Press
Do keep in mind the key verse: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’ . . .”
Was the elder brother’s anger a passing anger of surprise and horror?
Full of the joy of his son restored, the father said, ‘Let us eat and celebrate, for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ Everyone joins celebration and shares the father’s joy –everyone, that is, except the elder brother. Will he come in? Will he join such a celebration? Will he stand alongside his father to rejoice and welcome the son who ‘was lost and is found’? He, most certainly, will not! His anger is red hot. Coming in from the field, he discovers that, without a word to him, his father has very publicly forgiven and reinstated his dreadful brother. Even now as he approaches home, the celebration is in full swing with friends, neighbours and the wider family all there. He is absolutely furious and has no intention of celebrating such a homecoming.
Was the elder son’s anger just an instant, and understandable, flaring up of horror that a brother who had brought such dishonour and damage to the family could be so easily reinstated? Suddenly and unexpectedly he had a lot to come to terms with. His anger may have been a passing expression of his instant inner turmoil; a blend of frustration, envy, resentment and a total inability to accept his brother’s return and forgiveness, let alone this great celebration.
It is not hard for us to identify with the elder brother’s heated anger and indignation. He has good reason: He has remained steadfast, working on the family estate. He has not strayed. He has not wasted the family wealth. He has not brought shame and dishonour on the family and on his father. In fact, in his view, he has been a thoroughly good and devoted son . . . . Exactly as the scribes and Pharisees saw themselves before God, as they refused to rejoice over the rescue of these dreadful and dishonourable tax-gatherers and sinners.
Or was his anger the settled anger of perceived injustice?
The father’s relationship with his younger son was so very different from the brother’s. Even at great cost, the father longs for the well-being of each of his sons in a way that the elder brother simply cannot imagine. The elder brother sees his younger brother’s plight as his just reward; he was reaping what he had sown, so let him stay in his far country, ‘stew in his own juice’. The father’s longing was for the best for his son, and so strict justice was laid aside and the son treated with kindness and mercy.
The thinking of the father and that of the elder brother were very far apart. In no sense did the elder brother share the father’s joy over the safe return of his younger brother, and so he would certainly not join the feast. Neither was his fury easily overcome. In anger and frustration, he recognises that his father’s actions have over-ridden the exclusion from the family which iron-fisted justice demanded. He could no longer justly drive away and permanently exclude his rotten, wretched, returning brother. Grace had triumphed over justice! But it was so hard to accept, as, in the elder brother’s eyes, the younger son was rotten because of the great damage he had done to the prosperity of the family. He was wretched because he returned as a beggar to live the rest of his life at the family’s, and what would ultimately be the elder brother’s, expense.
Or was his anger the ugly anger of self-righteousness?
In refusing to join the celebration, stand by his father and welcome home his younger brother, the elder brother, in his turn, publicly dishonoured his father and brought shame on him before the wider family and their friends and neighbours.
His father left the feast to come and speak with him, not to compel, but to entreat him to come in. But his kindness is met by an outpouring of the elder brother’s anger and resentment together with an unjust accusation. ‘This son of yours,’ words suggesting that, at the very least, his brother should, justly, have been banished, and that to forgive and restore him to the full status of a son was showing blatant favouritism toward him. He was, the elder brother implies, ‘a son who could do no wrong’ – his father’s favourite; a theme the elder brother continues as he compares the killing of the fattened calf with his own lack of any reward; even a young goat. The younger brother had undoubtedly squandered the family wealth, but nobody had accused him of wasting it on prostitutes until the elder brother did; dredging the accusation, as we can so easily do, from the dark cavern of his own imagination. And as for the calf, kept and fattened for a quite exceptional occasion, in the elder son’s opinion, to kill that to celebrate the sneaking return of such a dishonourable wretch was absolutely outrageous.
As the elder brother pours out his heart and mind, it becomes painfully clear that he is in no sense a loving son working in close communion with his father and one at heart with him, but a dutiful, self-righteous slave. Had they spoken together of the possibility of the younger son’s return? Had there been a very long-standing difference of opinion, with the elder brother determined ‘to see justice done’? Even the father’s running to meet his younger son suggests that there was not a common mind concerning his possible return and that the elder brother had a settled rejection of him . . . just as the scribes and Pharisees had for these tax gatherers and sinners, their fallen but fellow sons and daughters of God’s Israel.
Not one but two estranged sons
Do note: The elder brother’s vainly imagined superiority, ‘he would never do such a thing.’ His assumption that he was just fine; ‘the ideal son.’ His assumption that he deserved better treatment than he was being given; ‘a young goat’. His technical correctness, years of service and obedience, and yet his cold and distant relationship with his father and his distain and total lack of family affection, grace or humanity toward his fallen, but now rescued, brother. The younger son may have displayed obvious, self-indulgent failures; the older brother’s sin was hidden. It was spiritual and mental and yet here it begins to show itself in attitudes of pride and arrogance, and of distain . . . attitudes that so closely mirrored those of the scribes and Pharisees.
It appears that, although the elder son was dutiful, his relationship with his father was distant and now completely broken over this issue of the younger son’s welcomed return. He is painfully aware that anything spent on the younger son, now or in the future, was ‘at his expense’. So, even the cost of this feast, and in particular the killing of the fattened calf, left him just that much less to inherit. Although unspoken, are we not forced to conclude that, just as much as the younger brother, he longed for the day when he could inherit the estate, do as he will and celebrate with his friends as and when he pleased?
Although the father shows his appreciation for his elder son’s steadiness and support, ‘you are always with me’, and assures him that the total remaining estate would fall to him, ‘all that is mine is yours’ – it is becoming painfully clear that father has not one, but two lost sons. The younger one ‘cut free’ and went far from him. The older one remained physically close, but in heart and mind was at least as distant from him.
This picture of the elder brother strikingly illustrates the Lord’s quotation, on an earlier occasion, regarding the scribes and Pharisees, ‘ . . . this people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me . . . ’
A challenge to the scribes and Pharisees then . . . and to ourselves today
Did the elder brother come in and join the feast? Did he stand alongside his father and rejoice with him in the restoration of his brother? We are not told. The question and the invitation is left with the scribes and Pharisees . . . . and with those in every generation who feel that they are more respectable, more religious, more dutiful and more devoted than others and so assume that the Lord God ought to favour them.
With the mind-set of the elder brother, how easy it is to despise those who have stumbled and fallen. How easy it is to resent the mercy, generosity and grace the Lord God shows toward such people. We have not sunk to such depths, and so, like the scribes and Pharisees before us, count ourselves above them; without need of such forgiveness, ‘without need of repentance’ – but, proud self-righteousness before the Almighty and All-Holy God is the most deep-rooted of offences and the greatest of barriers to entering the kingdom of heaven.
The scribes and Pharisees were seeking to earn God’s favour by keeping every detail of the Law. Like the elder brother, as they compared themselves with the fallen tax-gatherers and sinners, they were essentially proud that they had not fallen. It is somewhat humbling to ask, as we compare ourselves with those who have stumbled, are we?
The old proverb has it that we should not judge a man until we have walked a few miles in his shoes; actively recognising and reminding ourselves that ’there, but for the grace of God, go I’. Why? – Because, sadly, as the Bible teaches, in the thinking of those at ease there is contempt for those who have stumbled; contempt for those ‘whose feet have slipped’ or who have been overtaken by misfortune. Matthew Henry so helpfully points out that, confronted with other people’s tumbles, rather than allowing ourselves to be inflated with pride, we should be humbly grateful before the Lord God: Humbly grateful that we have been spared the genetic inclination or overwhelming desire that has caused a fellow sinner to fall. Humbly grateful for the more helpful or more godly environment in which we have grown up. Humbly grateful that the worldly or fleshly people, with whom we have mixed, have not dragged or enticed us into their ways. Humbly grateful that desperate shortage of money or other dire circumstances have not driven us to such depths.
The scribes and Pharisees had just such a helpful environment around them. They were a well-bred, religious ‘middle class,’ set aside to study godly ways. They were surrounded by men with the same aim, and so they were greatly helped not to stray or fall by both the company they kept and by the nature of what they were studying. They were also spared from the poverty to which the common people were subjected and had both social status and honour heaped on them. They really had no excuse for pride and arrogance; only for humble gratitude. However, that is not the way fallen human nature takes us!
Exploring and Applying the Parables, © Parva Press
The parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son and his Elder Brother
Part 3 The return of the Elder Brother – continued
The great benefit, and yet the great danger of the Christian church
Sadly, those attempting to earn God’s favour are found in every generation of the church. In fact, it is the great danger of those who have grown up in the church. Surrounded by the people of God and the things of God we naturally assume that we are truly part of God’s household. After all, we share the same rituals, talk the same language and adopt the same habits and customs. We are the true ‘sons of the church’ . . . just like the scribes and Pharisees. We have the praises of God on our lips and play a full part in the activities of the church and yet . . . what of our everyday living; our family life, our handling of money, our relationships with those around us, our language, and, perhaps most revealing of all, our time spent personally before the Lord? In truth before God, we may find that, despite the things we say and sing on Sundays, we actually have hearts that are very far from him . . . just like the scribes and Pharisees.
From such a position, can you see, again, how easy it is for us to step into the elder brother’s shoes? To find ourselves looking in judgement on others and feeling that, taking into account all our decent and law-abiding living, all our religious service and devotion, somehow the Lord God owes us a favour; ought to acknowledge our faithfulness in some way. At the very least we’ve earned the equivalent of, ‘a young goat to celebrate with our friends’.
Although we may feel this way at any stage of life, it can particularly happen when some calamity strikes or when old age and the associated limitations and sicknesses come home to our doorstep. We feel that somehow the Lord God, ‘owes us something better than this’. In midlife, we slip on the ice and break an arm, ’Why should this happen to me, when I’m so busy!’ Or in old age, ‘Why did you let this happen to me after all I’ve done for you?’ Years of outwardly obedient service and yet embittered by the sufferings and difficulties that come with old age – to godly and ungodly folk alike.
It is not easy for us to see that even years of dutiful and devoted service do not ‘earn’ us God’s favour. They are only, as Isaiah so strikingly puts it, ‘as filthy rags’. It is just as hard for us as it was for the Pharisees, who whole-heartedly devoted their lives to religious observance; aiming to fully keep every detail of the Law. It is a hard lesson to learn that, before God, all we ever have, or ever hope for, is always and only by grace; by His unmerited favour. It is never, ever, because the Lord God owes us a favour or is in some way indebted to us.
Perhaps some of the most solemn words in the New Testament fell from the Lord’s lips as he warned that many on the last day will say to him, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not preached in your name . . . and done many mighty things in your name’ and he responds with frightening finality, ‘I never knew you, depart from me . . .’ To how many busy and esteemed church leaders and church members will our Lord have to say those words – some of the most terrifying words in the New Testament – ‘I never knew you . . .’?
A dutiful servant or a grateful, forgiven child of God?
If we grasp the Lord’s great lesson taught in this parable, we will come to our heavenly Father as empty-handed as the returning prodigal son. Like him, none of us actually has anything to offer, indeed, justice demands our instant banishment. When we see this we will come to him pleading for mercy and forgiveness and subsequently asking, each day, for fresh forgiveness. Such a constant, ‘younger son’ frame of mind will stir us to live a life of grateful thanks for his daily mercy toward us and to long to respond in practical, joyful and freely-given service. This younger son way of thinking is the God-given tonic that can fortify us against the creeping ‘elder-brother’ mindset which is the constant temptation of the religious, be they scribes and Pharisees or modern Christians. And with it, unlike the elder brother, we will share the joy of heaven over each, fellow sinner who repents; each person rescued and brought home to our heavenly Father.
Sadly, like the scribes and Pharisees, we can too easily slip into the elder brother’s shoes and find ourselves secretly or openly satisfied when natural justice takes its course and ungodly ways lead to a fall. However, it is not the will of God our heavenly Father that any of his children perish but that each should come to repentance. The challenge of the Lord’s parable to the scribes and Pharisees and to us in our day is to reject our natural self-righteous and competitive spirit and to share his heart ‘in bringing many sons to glory’; to raise the fallen and do all we can to bring them home to the Father.
May I ask, like the elder brother, are you living a life of obedient service? Does the Lord God owe you a place in his heaven, a favour, at the very least ‘a goat to celebrate with your friends’? Or have you discovered the joy of serving him as a son or daughter out of grateful love for his amazing goodness and mercy toward you?
One ‘Elder Brother’ Pharisee whose heart was totally changed
This whole series of parables clearly reflects how much God our heavenly Father and his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, care about wayward and stumbling humanity. How they seek and search and spare no pains for the rescue and recovery of spiritually lost and straying people; how our heavenly Father watches, waits and welcomes. But, and this is so amazing, the final section of this series displays how our heavenly Father also cares deeply about religiously-inclined people who are, mistakenly, convinced of their own, self-made righteousness. The self-righteousness that leads us, like the scribes and Pharisees before us, to despise people who, of their own doing, have got into a desperate muddle; to resent the mercy shown to them and to imagine that we ourselves would never make such errors; ‘need no repentance’. The picture of the return of the elder brother shows how our heavenly Father goes out to entreat folk like this to come in. In these parables we have set before us, as in a mirror, ‘The joy of heaven over one sinner who repents’ – be he wayward youth or outwardly impressive, religious person.
‘Not by deeds of righteousness which we have done,’ writes the apostle Paul, ‘but according to his mercy he saved us . . .’ True repentance begins when we see, with horror, where we really stand before Almighty God, turn from own ways and run to him for mercy. With overwhelming grace and forgiveness, he comes to meet us where we are, either ‘to bring us home’, as with the younger son; or ‘to bring us in’, as with the elder son.
‘This is a true saying and worthy of acceptance by everyone, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom’, writes that former Pharisee, the apostle Paul, ‘I am the chief.’
Over the arch of the doorway of a little church – through which minister, church officers and people must pass – is written, ‘This man receiveth sinners.’ I, for one, have cause to praise God that he did and still does, do you?
By the pulpit in another ancient church is a memorial tablet of the local, nineteenth-century Squire. It has his name, dates and then three short texts, clearly of his own choosing, to the effect: ‘God have mercy on me a sinner.’ ‘The Lord Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, the truth and the life no man comes to the Father but by me”. ’ ‘I know whom I have believed.’ Could such words be put on your memorial stone? Has the Son of God found and rescued you; brought you home or brought you in? For Squire, Parson and people there was, and still is, only one way . . . just as there was for tax-collectors and sinners, scribes and Pharisees.
Heavenly Father, have mercy upon us, show us with great clarity where we really stand before you. Enable us to turn our back on all our deep-seated ways of trying to earn your favour, and bow our knee to you, recognising that our only hope lies in your unmerited, undeserved mercy.
This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts . . . ’, Isaiah 29:13, Matthew 15:8, Mark 7:6
Contempt for those who have stumbled, Job 12:5&6
As filthy rags, Isaiah 64:6
I never knew you, Matthew 7:21-23
The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost, Luke 19:10
Not the will of God that any should perish, 2 Peter 3:9
Not by deeds of righteousness, Titus 3:5
Of whom, I am the chief, 1 Timothy 1:15
Questions for reflection or discussion
- Who might correspond in our society to the tax-gatherers and sinners; could you rejoice over their rescue and restoration; first to God and then to mainstream society?
- How easily do we ‘step into the elder brother’s shoes’ as we look in judgement on others and make assumptions for ourselves?
- To what extent do we wrestle with the teaching of this parable that all we ever hope for from the Lord God is always by his goodness and grace and never because we have earned his favour?
- How easy is it for church and chapel folk to be correct and dutiful yet loveless and joyless in the things of God? What might underlie this?
- Had the apostle Paul discovered something wonderful? What was it?