The Real Older Brother

Luke 15

1Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3Then Jesus told them this parable: 4″Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

8″Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

11Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13″Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17″When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21″The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22″But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25″Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27’Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28″The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31″ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”

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Last year when I took Doctrine of Grace, we were required to read a book by David A Semands called Healing Grace. I’m sure I have quoted from it before, and I have actually given away a couple of copies to people. He states his case early on as to what one of our major problems is in the church:

I am convinced that the basic cause of some of the most disturbing emotional/spiritual problems which trouble evangelical Christians is the failure to receive and live out God’s unconditional grace, and the corresponding failure to offer that grace to others. I encounter this problem in the counseling room more than any other single hangup. (14)

I read the sermon of a friend this week. The sermon was about being a minister in the church. He wrote that it is about grace:

Indeed, here is grace’s way – of Israel’s birth through a barren womb. Here is grace’s way – of the champion from Gath killed by Jesse’s youngest son. Here is grace’s way – of the Word taking on fallen flesh and stubbornly refusing to be fallen in it. Here is grace’s way – of ostracised women being commissioned as proclaimers of God’s good news. Here is grace’s way – that the deepest revelations of God are not given to the wise and understanding but to infants. Here is grace’s way – that God has a deliberate policy of positive discrimination towards nobodies, that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and that the earth will be inherited by the meek. Here is grace’s way – love your enemies and bless those who make life hell for you. Here is grace’s way – of God making foolish and weak the wisdom and power of the world. Here is grace’s way – of God putting his treasure into jars of clay in order to show that God’s all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. Here is grace’s way – that only in humiliation do we find God exalting us, only in dying do we find God making us alive, only in throwing our lives away do we find God giving life back to us. Here is grace’s way – of power being brought to an end in weakness. Here is grace’s way – that we might actually be more use to God with our thorns than without them. Only when I am weak, am I strong.

These are beautiful words, grace words.

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Jesus told four stories that day.

He told these four stories to a particular group of people: “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'”

They were concerned because Jesus was doing, in their eyes, the wrong thing. Jesus was paying attention to the weak, the poor, the less than famous, the less than righteous. They were concerned because Jesus wasn’t paying enough attention to those who kept the rules, did all the right things, and demonstrated their exclusive righteousness before the world. Jesus actually went to the sick people, the weak people, the unrighteous people and this offended those who were well, who were strong, who were righteous. So Jesus told these three stories to those who grumbled.

Eugene Peterson notes for us in his book Tell it Slant that Luke is the only author in the New Testament to use this word ‘grumble’ or ‘mutter.’ It is a word similar to words used in Exodus 15:24 and 16:2 to describe the manner in which the Israelites were expressing their frustration with Moses and Aaron. Luke also uses it again in 19:7: “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘he has gone to be the guest of a sinner.'” This after Jesus went to the house of Zacheus for dinner.

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This, then, is the context. And Jesus tells four parables.

In the first, there are 100 sheep. One is lost. So the good shepherd goes out to look for the one sheep. He eventually finds it and brings it home. And what happens? He calls his neighbors together and they rejoice in the Lord over the one lost sheep that was found.

In the second, there are ten coins. One of them is lost. So the woman sweeps and cleans and turns over the cushions and tears up the planks and digs through the garbage until she finds it. Eventually, she finds it. What does she do when she finds it? Well, she spends it on a lavish party and invites all her friends to come over and celebrate the one lost coin that was found.

In the third, there are two sons. One of them is lost. So the father stays at home and does nothing. He waits and waits and waits and waits. No one goes to look for the younger son. Not the father. Not the older brother. The father waits. The older brother goes about on his own…why? Well, frankly, because he has his share of the inheritance. Why should he expose himself, his inheritance, what is rightfully his to go out and look for the younger brother who has squandered everything? Tim Keller in his book The Prodigal God writes:

In the first two parables someone ‘goes out’ and searches for that which is lost. The searchers let nothing distract them or stand in the way. By the time we get to the third story, and we hear about the plight of the lost son, we are fully prepared to expect that someone will set out to search for him. No one does. It is startling, and Jesus meant it to be so. By placing these three parables so closely together, he is inviting thoughtful listeners to ask: ‘Well, who should have gone out and searched for the lost son?’ Jesus knew the Bible thoroughly, and he knew that at its very beginning it tells another story of an elder and younger brother-Cain and Abel. In that story, God tells the resentful and proud older brother, ‘You are your brother’s keeper.’ (81)

And Keller’s point is that it should have been the older brother who went out to look for the younger brother. And he also points out that to bring the younger brother back would have cost the older brother considerably. Remember, the property had already been divided. Jesus said in verse 12, “So he divided the property between them.” Keller notes that “every penny that remained of the family estate belongs to the elder brother. Every robe, every ring, every fatted calf is his by right” (82). This is why the father says at the end of the parable, “…everything I have is yours.”

Yet the father takes a ring, a robe, and a fatted calf from the older brother and gave them to the younger brother. To bring the younger brother back in involved a cost to the older brother.

Thus there is a fourth parable. In this parable there is one lost son. He is the older brother who had remained behind and done everything right. In his own words, “‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” Jesus certainly doesn’t argue with him. The father doesn’t argue with him. But that doesn’t mean, at any level, that the older brother isn’t lost. Jesus is ‘redefining lostness.’ He was pointing out to those who grumbled that the Son of Man came to seek and save what is lost and that the lost included them as well.

Keller goes on in his book to point out several characteristics of what he calls ‘elder-brother-lostness.’ I won’t list them all for you, but hear this one particular quote:

If such people [as the younger brother] wrong them, elder brothers feel their spotless record gives them the right to be highly offended and to perpetually remind the wrongdoer of his or her failure. […] When the younger brother comes out of his denial, and the father welcomes him, the elder brother realizes that the pattern is being broken, and his fury is white-hot. […] If the elder brother had known his own heart, he would have said, ‘I am just as self-centered and a grief to my father in my own way as my younger brother is in his. I have no right to feel superior.’ Then he would have had the freedom to give his brother the same forgiveness that his father did. But elder brothers do not see themselves this way. Their anger is a prison of their own making. (57)

It must be remembered to whom Jesus told this parable: It was to the Pharisees and those who grumbled that Jesus would dare go and look for the younger brother. They were angry because they knew Jesus was doing what they should have been doing-being their brother’s keeper, looking for the lost and the wayward. Jesus was the older brother. That’s why they were angry. They were angry that the father was so extravagant, gracious, and generous and forgiving. Keller nails it again:

The younger brother knew he was alienated from the father, but the elder brother did not. That’s why older-brother lostness is so dangerous. Elder brothers don’t go to God and beg for healing from their condition. They see nothing wrong with their condition, and that can be fatal. If you know you are sick you may go to a doctor; if you don’t know you are sick you won’t-you’ll just die. (66)

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And this brings us back to the point of the sermon which is God’s grace. And I suppose it is fair to ask this question: If your life has not been changed, radically altered at the core, do you understand grace? Or, let me state it negatively: If your life has ‘remained unchanged by God’s grace’ can you really say you understand the costliness of that grace?

Can you say you even understand the Gospel? Keller states, such people “have a general idea of God’s universal love, but not a real grasp of the seriousness of sin and the meaning of Christ’s work on our behalf. […] If we say ‘I believe in Jesus’ but it doesn’t affect the way we live, the answer is not that now we need to add hard work to our faith so much as that we haven’t truly understood or believed in Jesus at all.” (123, 124)

That statement really made me step back, examine myself, and evaluate just exactly what I believe. That is a hard statement to accept. But the good news is that if the Father waited and waited for the younger brother to return, he went looking for the older brother, begging and pleading for him to come inside. In other words, he is not at all content that the older brother stay outside, missing the party. If the father made a fool of himself for running to the younger brother and robbing the older brother to welcome him home, he also made a fool of himself by begging and pleading for the older brother to come in.

The problem is that Luke 15, like the book of Jonah, does not have an ending. We don’t know if the older brother received the same grace from the father the younger received and went into the party. Did he go in and party and rejoice that the younger came home? Or did he stay outside unhappy and, frankly, unsaved?

Because those who are saved join the party. Those who have received God’s grace, join the party. Those who are join the party, are glad that the younger brother has come home.

Every single one of us, every single day, need to evaluate and re-evaluate and immerse and re-immerse ourselves in God’s grace. That God goes out of his way to search and welcome everyone home is an startling indication of the prodigal, spendthrift nature of God: he gives his grace away radically, freely, to everyone: To younger wayward brothers; to older self-sufficient brothers.

We are invited to examine ourselves. Three of the stories had happy endings. What of the fourth? How will the fourth story end? Did the Pharisees Jesus spoke to that day, the ones who grumbled and muttered, join the party? Did they go inside and rejoice and celebrate?

We are invited to stop and look at ourselves and ask a very important question: Which brother am I? And we are invited, before we too quickly associate ourselves with the younger brother, to stop and see if perhaps, just perhaps, we are the older brother.

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