The parable known as the prodigal son, I think is a story we often get wrong as Christians…
we focus so much on the son who went away and the Father who welcomes him back but spend very little time thinking about the older brother, yet I believe the older brother is actually the key person in this story.
Anyway, I’m running away with myself… The older Brother features at the end of Jesus’ lost trilogy in Luke 15.
The story starts with the Pharisees moaning about Jesus hanging out with ‘undesirables’ which prompts Jesus to tell this story.
The first story, the Lost Sheep which features the Good Shepherd -A Jesus image- leaving the 99 to seek the one that was lost, can you imagine how his ears must have burned, I bet the 99 we fuming, probably writing strongly worded letters to the Bishop about the appalling lack of pastoral care they felt they were entitled too, this Shepherd (word inter-changable with Pastor) really should be at their event eating quiche not wasting his time on people who we never see in Church.
Jesus talks about rejoicing in heaven not at the standard of their catering or their full programme of events, but rather over the sinner who repents.
Interestingly, Jesus talks about “99 righteous people who need no repentance” is being provocative, the Jews knew that they weren’t righteous, even though they tried hard, Jesus is challenging their superior attitude here!
Then we move on in the lost narrative, with the lost coin, here the lost item is portayed as something incredibly valuable, a comparable image now-a-days is ‘imagine a woman lost the diamond from her engagement ring”. This is telling, why? because the people at that time would have no time for sinners and think they were worthless and a waste of time, here they are likened to the most precious of possessions.
Jesus is saying “those people who do not even feature on your radar are incredibly precious and valuable to God”. Again, re-emphasising the point, we hear of Angels rejoicing in heaven over sinners repenting, showing the difference between peoples warped perspective and God’s perfect perspective.
Then we end up at the story known as the prodigal son story. The older brother only features at the very end of the story, returning from the field grumpy because his younger brother has returned and been welcomed home.
what do we know of this young man? we know he is a grumbler (grumbling doesn’t go down well with God it caused the Israelites to wander the desert for 40 years) and his is ‘self-righteous’.
I would also suggest that this young man is actually the more lost of the two brothers, the one who although with the Father more actually knew him -and his heart- less.
The older brother thinks of the Fathers stuff as his own, “why are you killing the fatted calf?” How often in our Churches do we see the older brother type get possessive about things that don’t belong to them, but really belong to God? Sadly, too often in Churches people care more about things than people, and it is a tragedy that must make our Heavenly Father weep.
The Older Brother has been around grace and love all his life, and yet perverts this into some transactional deal “look at what I’ve done for you, I deserve…” Yet God’s love isn’t earned, or conditional on dutifully delivered work hours, actually the younger son clearly knew his dad better than his older brother.
The Older Brother refers to his brother as “your son” and which the Father corrects him and calls his “your brother”. The Older Brother’s way of thinking of “them and us” is at the heart of all division throughout the centuries.
The Older Brother says “This Son of yours has wasted all your money on prostitutes” which is interesting, no where in the text does it say he went with prostitutes, yet the older brother types are normally gossips who dishonestly embellish the truth. It is funny how we get so judgemental about sexual sin but gossip and slander is sadly much too common place within our Churches.
The Brother is smug, he doesn’t think he’s a sinner, he doesn’t realise that he has no rights to his Fathers money either, his dad can do what he likes with his money, including leaving it to the “Cats protection league”. we somehow think we have a right to Salvation and God’s goodness, yet we don’t, although God is gracious, merciful and give us not what we deserve, but actually what we don’t deserve.
The writer Brennan Manning talks in his wonderful book “The Ragamuffin Gospel” about the choice we have at Easter time, “the choice is not between Jesus or Barabbas, no one would choose a bandit over Jesus, but rather it is between Jesus and Caiaphas (the High Priest).”
The choice between grace and law.
The choice between being admitting your a sinner and being smug.
The choice between religion and life in the spirit. (Religion is as helpful as throwing a drowning man both ends of the rope).
The choice between love or judgement.
The choice between risk or the status quo.
The choice between heaven and hell.
Jesus is challenging the people to see their own lostness, bursting the fake comfort of arrogance and self-righteousness to embrace truth and grace which enable us to experience the Fathers Embrace.
The older brother syndrome I believe has been there through out scripture of people thinking they know better than God and point scoring by running other people down, and here Jesus tackles it head on. Here those who think they are the ‘goodies’ in the story end up as ‘the bad guys’.
what of us, which brother are we? whichever it is, run to the Fathers embrace with humility and real not pseudo-repentance.
Here is what william Booth said about the fear of the Older Brother Syndrome getting a grip on our Churches, over a 100 years old, but scarily prophetic.
“The chief danger of the 20th century will be religion without the Holy Spirit, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, and heaven without hell.”
― William Booth