Luke 15:25-32 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' 31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
Prodigal God (3): Big Brother
Luke 15:25-32 (message)
Psalm 63 (call to worship)
Luke 13:1-9 (children)
Most of the time, when we look at this story, the story traditionally known as "The Parable of the Prodigal Son", we concentrate on the account of the younger brother. He disgraces his father and family, squanders his inheritance in riotous living, and returns home to an incredible and unexpected welcome. One old preacher described his prodigal days with the phrases, "he rambled, he scrambled, he gambled". As Tim Keller, the writer of The Prodigal God, says, "Yes, there’s someone who is spiritually lost." It is easy to label that as sinful, and it is clear that his welcome home is an act of grace. But if we stop there, we miss out on the cost of that grace and totally ignore one character in the story, the "big brother".
"Big brother"? The phrase conjures up images of control and conformity – the perfect terms for the life and spirituality of the older brother! Keller tells us that the big brother, like the little brother, is spiritually lost. No, he hasn’t "acted out". No, he hasn’t sown any "wild oats". Instead of sin keeping him from God, it is his righteousness that becomes the barrier. In the context of most of our focus on this story – on the younger brother – this comes as a startling, and perhaps offensive, statement: The older brother in the story is lost. So, let’s take this question first, and then examine the implications for our own lives.
There are several elements of the story that reveal the lostness of the older son. First, the son, in his argument with dad, says, "For all these years I’ve been working like a slave for you" (Luke 15.29). In the theology and story of Israel, this is a reference to Exodus, to Israel delivered from slavery in Egypt. Years after the Exodus, the prophet Jeremiah declares, in question form, "Is Israel a slave?" (Jeremiah 2.14). We are, Jeremiah asserts, delivered and saved people. We shouldn’t go back to slavery, we shouldn’t give up on grace. Yet, big brother, who should have been enjoying the grace of the father, is living like a slave. He needs to be delivered, he needs to be saved.
Second, over and over in the Scripture and in Jesus’ teaching, salvation and life in the kingdom of God is described as a feast or party. The prophet Isaiah promises, "On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food" (Isaiah 25.6). When Jesus eats his last Passover meal (a celebration of the Exodus deliverance) with his disciples, he says, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:15-16). And, here in Luke 15, we are twice told of the "joy in heaven" over "one sinner who repents". What’s going on at the feast of the father? They are rejoicing over "one sinner who repents" . . . it’s an image of heaven! And the big brother is outside, refusing to go in, arguing with dad.
One of the great questions we were asking on Thursday night at our Lenten dinner discussion was, "Why was the big brother so unhappy that his brother had returned?" It is obvious to me that the folks who ask that question just aren’t big brothers, in the sense of this story, or, if they ever were big brothers, they got over it. Good for them. But when I hear this story, as often as I read it, I respond to the younger brother with indignation and disgust. He’s arrogant, rude, shameless, self-absorbed, out of control, stupid, lacking discipline. Good riddance! My heart doesn’t break for him, I don’t find myself moved with love or compassion. Dad is far too nice. I’d be saying, "Don’t let the door hit you on the way out."
In my imagination, the younger brother has made a habit of coming home in the wee hours hung over, with a girl or a friend – equally inebriated – in tow. In my imagination, he sleeps in, skips out on farm chores, shows up only to eat and sleep, then heads out to paint the town red. In my imagination, the first times this happened, dad was sleeping uneasily on the couch, jumping up when the kid got home, saying, "Where were you? Why didn’t you call?"
But that is not the dynamic this time. The father says, "This son of mine was dead and is alive again" (Luke 15.24). He expected to get a newspaper obituary in the mail – alcohol poisoning, bar fight, accident. No "Where were you?" Only, "He was lost and is found".
Now, my imagination of the younger brother before he leaves home is, quite simply, "not in the book". What we have, however, is a rejoicing father and an angry big brother. The big brother is angry because he’s never gotten this kind of treatment for all his years of compulsive goodness. Dad reminds him, "All I have is yours" (that is, since the little brother already got his inheritance, everything else goes to the big brother). We don’t know the big brother’s response – Jesus leaves the story unresolved – but the father’s statement raises one more objection. The lavish feast, a feast likely thrown for the entire community (how else do you eat a calf?), is at the expense of the big brother’s inheritance! And, what if the father has in mind to make this younger brother an heir once again? Would he go that far? Again, the story doesn’t take us there, but you can almost hear the adding machine in the big brother’s head. As Keller emphasizes, he wanted the father’s wealth, but not the father. His younger brother was not just a disgrace to the family but also an expense he did not want to bear . . . and he refuses to be in the same family with "this son of yours" (Luke 15.30).
The older brother is lost. He refuses to be in a family with a sinner, and God welcomes sinners. Keller says it this way: "The difference between a religious person and a true Christian is that the religious person obeys God to get control over God, and things from God, but the Christian obeys just to get God, just to love and please and draw closer to him. Some people are complete elder brothers. They go to church and obey the Bible– but out of expectation that then God owes them. They have never understood the Biblical gospel at all. But many Christians, who know the gospel, are nonetheless elder-brotherish. Despite the fact that they know the gospel of salvation by grace with their heads, their hearts go back to an elder-brotherish ‘default mode’ of self-salvation" (Keller, notes for pastors).
What are the characteristics of "big brother spirituality"?
Judgmental toward "younger brothers"
Superior ... and judgment creates a barrier
No assurance of God’s love – "you never threw me a party" (Keller)
Earning - deserving - meriting is not consistent with assurance that we are loved just so
Bitterness toward God when things don’t go "our way"
Story: Salesman ... good Christian but unsuccessful compared to unethical colleagues. God is not a vending machine – 10 prayers, a month of perfect church attendance, and tithing . . . and you get the outcome you desire.
Big brother is lost, only he doesn’t know it. And that makes his condition all the more dangerous for him. Nevertheless, the father goes out to plead with him. And Jesus ends the story with the invitation. It is his way of saying to us that the door remains open even if we are going to debate with him. It is his way of saying to the Pharisees, whose role in the story was played by the big brother, that their righteousness may be a barrier between them and God but that they were still invited into the kingdom.
Jesus challenges religion. When we’re lost, we need to be found – we don’t "find" ourselves. When we’re righteous, we still need God. Our good deeds don’t earn entrance to the kingdom of God. Jesus challenges religion because it puts control, false control, in our hand. And, religion killed Jesus. The religious experts and the political establishment, neither wishing to give up control, conspired together to arrest and execute him.
As he died, Jesus called out, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23.34). As Keller writes, "Knowing what he did for us must drain us of our self-righteousness and our insecurity. We were so sinful that he had to die for us. But we were so loved that he was glad to die for us. That takes away both the pride and the fear that makes us elder brothers" (notes for pastors).