In the parable of the prodigal son, we are given an image of a patient and loving father who is waiting for his youngest son to come to his senses and return home.
If we are not careful, we may miss another important figure in the story with an equally powerful message.
Any Christian parent that has an adult child who is making bad life decisions and detaching themselves from their relationship with God can appreciate Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. Fervent prayers have seemingly gone unanswered, another email or text is unreturned, and the ongoing processing of parental guilt invade all the thoughts and feelings of parents with prodigal children.
They can fully appreciate the celebratory feast when the father welcomes his prodigal son home. In Jesus’ parable, pure love necessitated a grand feast. From pure grace the son was restored.
But lurking in the shadows there is another son who isn’t thrilled at all by what is going on inside. He is keeping his distance. Out of respect for his father, he doesn’t make a public confrontation, yet his stony silence speaks volumes.
The older brother is not a picture of love or grace, but of anger and judgment.
And it’s not pretty.
In his book, “The Prodigal God” by Timothy Keller, he talks to the redeemed by highlighting the older brother’s response to his brother’s return.
Instead of rejoicing, the older brother sulked in the courtyard.
Instead of grace, he wanted a probationary period.
A message from this parable is like the one Jesus’ told about the workers who complained about unfair wages. Grace isn’t meant to be fair. God’s approval is not based on performance.
Jesus loves all sinners and seems to reserve his strongest words for those who are puffed up in their own religion. They may believe they are being God-pleasing, but instead, they are practicing a religion that us unfamiliar to God. Their heart and actions do not measure up.
In fact, they are not even close. To be told of their unfaithfulness caused such great offense, that those who sincerely believed they were following God were the ones who sent Jesus to the cross.
Elder brothers mean well. Caught up in a religious culture or ritual, the reality of their faith is lived out in the outward rather than the inward.
The religious need Jesus too. And Jesus uses woes and parables to wake them up.
Christians can use a good sting now. The parable of the prodigal son does a good job of that.
Do we tend to disassociate ourselves from the younger brothers in life? Do we we find ourselves wagging our finger at the younger brothers of the world?
What about the older brother’s response? Do we wag our finger at him because he separated himself from the family’s celebration? Or, do we confess inwardly that we identify with him and how he responded to his father.
The father stayed home to patiently wait for the prodigal son, but what about the older son?
Instead of being the loyal son working hard at home, what could he have done that was most pleasing to his father?
A picture of corresponding love and grace would be the older brother searching for the lost younger brother to tell him the good news. All is forgiven! Our father’s grace – and my forgiveness – is yours to receive!
That would have been the perfect ending, but Jesus wanted to drive home a very important point.
Forgiveness always comes at a great cost to the one granting the forgiveness.
For the older brother in Jesus’ parable, the cost was too much.
He felt that he deserved his father’s favor. That celebration for his brother’s return ought to be for him. He deserved his father’s admiration and acknowledgement for his faithfulness, hard work, and loyalty.
Deserved grace is the disease of the religious-minded and it can be infectious.
It can take many forms.
Here are some of the symptoms:
“Those who are lost deserve what they get. I mean, look at me!”
“Heaven is for winners and hell is for losers. It’s their fault that they picked the wrong team.”
“Those who reject Jesus are rejecting me, so I don’t need to bother myself with them.”
Lack of empathy. Selfishness. Complacency.
I know. We don’t outwardly reveal these thoughts to others, but they do exist. It tends to come out in our actions.
Seasoned, faithful Christians who mean well can be drawn to do things for God that we like to do, rather than hard things that God desires for us to do.
Seasoned, faithful Christians who mean well can be drawn to serve God in things that we are comfortable doing, rather than what is uncomfortable to do.
It’s comfortable to pray on Sunday morning that lost souls receive the message of the gospel, but it’s uncomfortable to pray, “Here am I. Send me!”
It’s comfortable to write checks to support church work and missions – which is important, but uncomfortable to go and do it.
I know. Because this is me.
I am a recovering older brother who constantly needs to repent and ask God’s forgiveness.
Forgiveness of my sins came at a cost.
I ask the Lord to help me be moved by the sight of what it cost and wants what God desires most, not what I desire.
How can that be possible?
- Acknowledge that God is God and I am not.
If I were the Almighty Dave, I think there would have been thirty-six great floods already. I probably would have rebooted the world out of frustration, because I felt the world deserved it. Thankfully, God is God and I am not. So, stop trying to figure out grace and instead live in it.
- Rest in God’s promises.
Stop trying to be somebody I am not and be who God created me to be. I do not do things to receive God’s acceptance or approval but do so out of love and appreciation for the grace God extends towards me. Guilt has no place in my life in Christ, nor will it inspire me to proclaim the gospel.
- Be in awe of God and what he has already done for me.
As the mountains draw awe of God’s handiwork, I can have the same awe of God’s handiwork on my behalf. Jesus has done it all. I can stand in awe at the cross and be drawn in to the message – a message for those who need to hear what Jesus has done for me and the entire world.
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If you want to be challenged in your faith life, then I would highly recommend this book. Read pages 89-100. These are probably the most profound pages I have read in any book.