Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Prodigal Brother

The spotlight has always been on the prodigal son, but I find his brother even more interesting!

One commentator calls the prodigal brother the narrow-minded saint. We Christians may be more inclined to be the older brother, for we are spared the gross sins of life. Also, the older brother may have felt that he was the only one who really had the family's (God's) interests at heart. Elijah thought he was the only person left in the world to do God's bidding but God informed him there were 7000 others out there who hadn't bent to knee to Baal. We are so foolish at times.

"The elder brother is very unpopular in the parable. He is not unpopular in society, and he has many descendants. He is sometimes an officer in the church, a leader in reform groups, a `key citizen.' He thinks, or wills to think, that all other races are `inferior.' A man out of work is simply unemployable: `I was always able to find work, and always worked hard.' A prodigal like the younger son is just a wastrel: `Actually you can do nothing with them,' he says. He has `no patience with people who squander time and money,' especially money. Any neighbor of progressive mind is to him `a dangerous element in the community.' When disaster falls on the righteous, he doubts if `it pays to be good,' for he is sure that goodness ought to `pay.' Friedrich W. Krummacher has an honest and penetrating comment. A questioner asked his opinion of the identity of the elder brother. He replied: "I learned it only yesterday ... myself.'" (Anonymous.)

"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'" (Luke 15:25-27). "The older brother became angry and refused to go in" (Luke 15:28). He wouldn't go in! How often we stay out of the Father's house because we are angry. We may have children who have left home for a time because they are so upset with us. They're going to show us. But they get cold and hungry and come home. We return to the Father's house, too, when we are cold from the world's indifference and we are hungry for spiritual warmth. Some of us are petulant enough to stay out of the Father's house because someone said something nasty to us in church. Many a pastor laments church squabbles over petty things said and done to and at each other. Or we won't go to the Father's house because the pastor doesn't come often enough to see us. We can conjure up legions of reasons for not going into our Father's house.

"So his father went out and pleaded with him" (Luke 15:28b). The elder brother here represents the Pharisees in their moral correctness and exclusiveness. The father wanted to win over the elder son and, in telling this parable, Jesus wanted to win over the misdirected Pharisees. "Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles, too? Yes, of Gentiles, too ... " (Romans 3:29). "No true saint will look coldly on a poor sinner who staggers to the mercy seat" (W.G. Pascoe).

Jesus did not approve of the Pharisees' excessive devotion to the letter of the Divine Law and to the proud traditions of their race and to their misplaced patriotism. Even so, he treated them with a gentle love. The father is kind with this self-righteous, stern and unloving son, also. This son may be in greater need for his sin is less discernible. He is consumed with jealousy, feeling that the fatted calf for his brother made this sinful brother not just his equal but his superior.

This elder son no doubt believed that the father really loved the prodigal more than he did the son who stayed home. The son who remained with the father didn't seem to realize that there never was extraordinary cause for joy; all these years it had been a quiet, stable relationship. In the long run of life, this is the better way. The elder brother couldn't grasp that there is no deprivation to the virtuous in consequence of kindness shown to sinners. Relating this to family life, one child will need more help during a period of his or her life. This does not diminish the love for another child. That child, too, will receive help in his or her time of need. But it is so difficult to convince the child who feels left out that his or her turn is coming.

"But he answered his father, `Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders ... '" (Luke 15:29). "`All these I have kept,' the young man said. `What do I still lack?'" (Matthew 19:20); "The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: `God, I thank you that I am not like other men -- robbers, evildoers, adulterers -- or even like this tax collector" (Luke 18:11). It is well to remember that Jesus chose a tax collector, Matthew, for one of his disciples! The brother was in his own far country of anger, jealousy, condemnation, pride, gross ingratitude and petulance. We have here the attitude of the self-righteous toward the unrighteous. Those who think highly of themselves think hardly of others. These folk are hung up on the quid pro quos of life; there's no giving or forgiving; we get what we deserve, both good and bad. He did not have the same sins, but big brother had sins, too, and, in the long run of life, they may have been worse sins.

Here is the self-righteous person who has long served God and been kept from the gross sins of life. For this reason, he or she has no understanding of the "younger brothers" in life, those who have fallen and are trying to arise and get back to the Father. It is the Righteous Ones who sometimes get in the way of the sinners and who keep them from arising. If anything, it is these very ones, the Righteous Ones, who should have the most humility and gratitude, because they have been kept people. They did not break through the hedge God so lovingly placed around them. Within this verse, also, is the concept of servant/friend. This older brother was not his father's friend for he so stated, "All these years I have been serving you ... " Apparently he did not stay out of any devotion he felt toward his father. Here is yet another outrage against the father who didn't merit this ruthless treatment. The younger son is beginning to look like a saint.

" ... And yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends." V.29. There's no please or thank you recorded here, either, for the many years of living in his father's house and having access to all the good things. This elder brother is also saying to his father, "You owe me." He, too, lays a debt on the Father. The younger brother said, "Give me ... " The older brother said, "You never gave me ... " The one demands and the other accuses, so both have sinned. This poor father got it with both barrels. And this older brother wanted to make merry with his friends, not his family.

"But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!" (Luke 15:30). This bitter brother won't acknowledge his younger brother. He is disrespectful to his father as he scornfully says to him, "This son of yours... " Big Brother doesn't hesitate to point out that his little brother has been cavorting with prostitutes, too. He is intent on rubbing the dirt in the father's face. After all, he stayed home all these years and he has been a good boy! At this time he can't realize the hostility that is gnawing away his own substance. To mention the transgressions of his brother's life at such a time as this is very bad taste, let alone a total lack of generosity and humility. "That love is great to cover faults, and to develop the most unpromising germs of goodness. It is not expended in the single effort of forgiveness, but has reserves of force to transform, purify, and elevate" (Anonymous).

The father quietly replies: "My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours" (Luke 15:31). There are no restrictions or exclusions here; the older brother has always had access to the father's gifts (we forget these are gifts and not something that is due us). It is love that says, “All I have is yours”; it is law that says, “You owe me”. We are all older brothers and sisters in great need of unconditional love for each other, a love that is definitive and infinite. It is agape love that says, "No matter what you do or say, I will love you never-the-less." God had His neverthelesses, too: "Nevertheless, I will bring health and healing to it; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security" (Jeremiah 33:6).

"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" (Luke 15:31). The elder brother contemptuously told his father, "This son of yours," so the father reminded his elder son that this was also his brother. "Am I my brother's keeper?" we can almost hear this puritanical, confused and rude young man say. There is something about this older brother that makes the younger brother less lost and more appealing. This poor older brother is a non-conductor in society; the power of love doesn't pass through him to others who so need encouragement and the nourishment of mercy. Perhaps the brother, whose faithful though grudging life had been quiet, was resentful of his younger brother's sudden joy; after all, he had stayed with his father and he had lived a quite commendable life, or so he thought. Then this upstart sinner comes home and all the excitement revolves around him.

How many of us have worked hard and faithfully, only to have the glory go to someone else. An elderly minister has worked for years with his deaf and seemingly dumb flock, and an assistant comes in who reaps their affection; the pastor works quietly and patiently with an unbeliever for years, and he is converted at a revival meeting; a friend's child is devout while ours, in spite of all our prayers and love, goes on his merry way; an employee works hard and is loyal, and when he or she retires, the new employee starts out with a higher salary and more benefits; the list is endless of the seeming inequities of life.

"What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow" (1 Corinthians 3:5,6). Jealousies and partisanships don't belong in a Christian's life. We can rise above these hurts and grow into another task God has for us. It also helps to remember, "Not to us, O Lord, not us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness" (Psalm 115:1). This should weed out the unnecessary pride we feel in our work and, therefore, any hurt we may feel over another's success. "You did not choose me, but I chose you to go and bear fruit" (John 15:16). We are to bear our own fruit; we are not to worry about what fruit another bears. If we want to waste God's time considering the injustices of life, then let us "Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that [we] will not grow weary and lose heart" (Hebrews 12:3).

And let us celebrate and be glad, for we were dead and now we are alive again; we were lost and now we are found!

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