I am the older brother

andrew2Recently I’ve heard the story from Luke 15 about the lost son and the faithful father many times.   This is a wonderful story that reveals the character of God and his kingdom in such a powerful way.   Sometimes though I realize that I am disturbingly like the older brother in the story.

Here is the short passage that reveals to us the reaction of the older brother (the good son):

28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’

It’s easy for us to dump on the older brother in this story – as he’s not fitting in with the story.  Everyone else is happy – full of joy and celebration.  The older brother is furious – with his brother and with his father.  He can’t understand the father’s reaction – as it just doesn’t make any worldly sense.  We can feel superior to him -much like we do with the Pharisees.

In fairness to the older brother though I think we need to see what happened through his eyes (and that of the culture they lived in).  If you’re like me you’ve read these stories many times – so the depth of the story is often lost through repetition.  However the cultural context of this story changes the depth of the story (not the meaning) – the profound and revolutionary revelation of God’s kingdom.

As the older brother you grew up on the farm (probably a very large one) with your younger brother – playing with him, working with him, learning the scriptures with him.  Someday (you hope not too soon) your father will die and you will split the farm with your brother – 2/3 to you and 1/3 to him (Deut 21:17).  You have deep respect for your father and faithfully serve him as a loyal and faithful son (you hope he is proud of you).  You revere the traditions of your people, their respect for God and for a well ordered society.
 
One day something shocking happens – your brother asks for his inheritance now.  You are stunned – as it’s as if he wishes your father was dead and buried.  You know you would never do something like this – as you find it shameful and rebellious.  You expect your father to strongly discipline your brother for even asking such a thing – as other sons have been stoned for such behavior (see Deut 21:21).  Then something more shocking occurs – your Father agrees to give him his money.
 
It’s as if you’re whole world turned upside down – that this couldn’t be happening. You wonder what shame will now be associated with your family forever – whether you will be rejected by your neighbors.  You just don’t understand what your father is doing – as he’s not following in the traditions of your people.
 
Your brother doesn’t want to split part of the farm – but wants cash now.  So your father sells of a large portion of what he owns – things you probably expected might be part of your inheritance.  Then your brother – the person you grew up with and expected to be with all your life – leaves.  He has rejected your father, your family, your tradition – rejected you.  You have always tried to do the right thing – to work hard and faithfully.  He now wants out of responsibility and relationships – to go do his own thing far away from you.
 
After a few weeks you’ve had to accept that the brother you once loved and lived with is gone.  You don’t know if he is dead or alive – but you never expect to see him again.  You continue to be faithful – doing all your father asks you to do – the faithful son.  You have washed your hands of your brother – if he has abandoned you then you no longer want anything to do with him.
 
Your father is different – continuing to act in ways that don’t make sense to you.  Instead of publicly disowning your brother he says nothing – silently accepting the shame of his son’s actions.   He hasn’t given up on your brother – but keeps looking for him.  Every day you see him standing at edge of your land – looking down the road as if he expects your brother to show up.  Every time you see this you shake your head – wondering what is going on with your Father – why he is acting so strange.
 
One day, after a long day of work, you return to the house and hear what sounds like a party coming from you house.  You ask one of your servants what is going on.  The servant excitedly says that your brother is back and that we’re celebrating his safe return. Your father has ordered that a fattened calf be slaughtered – so we can have a feast.
 
Once again you are stunned – nothing is making sense again.  Your brother – the one you had given up for lost – the guy who rejected everything – choosing prostitutes over you and your family – is back.  Your father again is behaving so strangely – what is he thinking?  He should have hauled your brother in front of the elders to face his crimes.  Regardless it makes no sense to celebrate what he did – as he rejected everything you valued – everything that mattered.  It would be an extreme act of mercy just to give him some food – to put him to work.
 

Do you see the older brother in a different light now?  Can you understand him better now?  Do you relate to him more now?  Is he more human now – more like a real person (it’s so much easier to malign people when they’re an abstract concept – not a real person).

Where I see myself and others often is actually revealed at the very end of this story:

28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’
31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”

There is a clear difference of what’s valuable to the Father vs. the son.  The son is talking about what he does – his behavior – the choices he makes.  He’s saying look at what I’ve done vs. what your other son has done.  The father is talking about something else completely: a relationship.  He values that they are together – and that now his brother is back with them.   He isn’t valuing behavior – but presence.

That’s how I see myself as the older brother – as my instinct is to focus on behavior – what you and I have done.  Our Father focuses on presence – on relationship – not on behavior.  Not that behavior – obedience – is unimportant – but it is not the focus.  Those of us who have claimed Jesus as our savior know that our salvation – our righteousness – comes from Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross.  Nothing we can do can save us – it all pales in comparison to what he has done.  But unfortunately we don’t often live like that – as we forget what God has done and think about what we’re doing (and what others are not).

This story tells us the values of our Father – what matters to him.  Presence, relationship, forgiveness, mercy, faithfulness – these are the things he values.  He doesn’t give up on the imperfect, the lost or the rejected – but looks for them.  He wants you – not your attempts at perfection – that’s what he died for.

 

 
 

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