Sermon, Prodigal God
Week 4 The Elder Brother
Sunday August 19, 2012.
He refused to go in
Luke 15:25-32 (TNIV)
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So 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. 29 But 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. 30 But 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. 32 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.’”
Friends, if you Google the parable of the prodigal son you will see that almost everyone focuses almost entirely on the younger son. But, as we are hearing, half of this parable of Jesus is actually about the older son.
This parable is in the first instance a response to self-righteousness and as we shall see, self-righteousness is common among us, harder to pick that younger brother kind of “lostness’ and even more deadly to faith and community.
Let’s learn from the text: 1) a startling new understanding of lostness, 2) what the signs of it are (so we can recognize it in ourselves), and 3) what we can do about this condition.
1. A startling new understanding of lostness—verse 28.
Jesus is saying to his listeners, and to us, the older son is lost.
The father represents God himself, and the meal is the feast of salvation. In the end, then, the younger son, the immoral man, comes in and is saved, but the older son, the good son, refuses to go in and is lost.
And what is it that is keeping the elder brother out? It’s because:
“All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed…” (v.29).
The good son is not lost in spite of his good behavior, but because of his good behavior. So it is not his sin keeping him out, but his righteousness – reliance and trust in his own righteousness.
So “lostness” is close to home, not “out there among the unchurched. It is in the heart and it is to do with trusting in our goodness rather than God’s goodness.
But there is another part of lostness. It is wanting control of our life, rather than relying on God for everyday of our life and the day of our death too.
It becomes evident by the end that the elder brother also wanted selfish control of the father’s wealth. He was very unhappy with the father’s use of the possessions—the robe, the ring, the calf. He felt that now he has the right to tell the father what to do with his possessions because he had obeyed him perfectly.
If I can be so good that God has to answer my prayer, give me a good life, and take me to heaven, then in all I do I may be looking to Jesus to be my helper and my rewarder—but he isn’t my Savior. I am then my own Saviour.
The difference between a religious person (in this self-righteous sense) and a gospel shaped person (a Christian) is that the religious person obeys God to get control over God, and things from God, but the Christian obeys just to get God, just to love and please and draw closer to him.
2. What the signs of this lostness are—verses 29-30.
Some people are complete elder brothers. We may all be at times. You may know some and if you are game, you may know yourself….
Here’s what the elder-brotherish attitude looks like.
- A deep anger (v.28—“became angry”). Elder brothers believe that God owes them a comfortable and good life if they try hard and live up to standards—and they have! So they say: “my life ought to be going really well!” and when it doesn’t they get angry.
- A joyless and mechanical obedience (v.29—“I’ve been slaving for you”).
- Elder brothers obey God as a means to an end—as a way to get the things they really love. Of course, obedience to God is sometimes extremely hard. But elder brothers find obedience virtually always a joyless, mechanical, slavish thing as a result.
- A coldness to younger brother-types (v.30—“this son of yours”). The older son will not even “own” his brother. Elder brothers are too disdainful of others unlike themselves to be effective in evangelism. Elder brothers, who pride themselves on their doctrinal and moral purity, unavoidably feel superior to those who do not have these things.
- A lack of assurance of the father’s love (v.29—you never threw me a party). As long as you are trying to earn your salvation by controlling God through your goodness, you will never be sure you have been good enough. What are the signs of this? Every time something goes wrong in your life you wonder if it’s a punishment.
- · Another sign is irresolvable guilt. You can’t be sure you’ve repented deeply enough, so you beat yourself up over what you did. Lastly, there is a lack of any sense of intimacy with God in your prayer life. You may pray a lot of prayers asking for things, but not sense his love.
- An unforgiving, judgmental spirit . The elder brother does not want the father to forgive the younger brother. It is impossible to forgive someone if you feel “I would never do anything that bad!” You have to be something of an elder brother to refuse to forgive.
3. What we can do about this spiritual condition.
First, NOTHING! We cannot fix this “elder brother” character with our own intellect, strength, understanding, character, learning and etc…. Anyone who tells you that you can overcome your older brother character by more intellect, self-help, self-discovery, better behavior, moral uprightness, more prayer, more worship, trying harder to resist it is lying – probably unknowlingly.
Only God can fix our “elder brother” anger, joylessness, lack of assurance in God as our loving heavenly Father, and our unresolved guilt.
In this parable, Jesus is inviting elder brothers to receive him and his good news of forgiveness. That is quite amazing when you think about it. These are the people that when pushed will get nasty. Their anger, unresolved guilt, joyless slavish moral conformity will explode into plotting a murder and Jesus will be the one murdered!
And yet, for the worst, self-righteous and lost elder brother there is not condemnation and pay-back, but invitation and welcome into the feat of life with the Father and all the other lost children of the Father.
Friend, you don’t need to keep trying to keep your anger from God. He knows and he loves. You don’t need to hide your guilt from God. He knows and he loves. You don’t need to maintain that grudge against younger brothers who you feel are taking your spot in the church or in your family or in favour with God. He knows and he loves. You don’t need to keep trying to fix yourself or find yourself or make yourself strong or hide your lack of assurance of God being your Abba Father – your kind and loving Father.
You just need to go into the party. No questions asked. No condemnation received from the Father – just invitation and welcome from him to you… We all are that older brother and the Father is inviting us into the community of joy – a community of people who know they did not find themselves but were found by Jesus.
Second:, here we simply bear witness to the self-sacrificing love of Jesus.
“I was lost. He found me. He’s searching for you and has found you. Will you come home to Him?”
Isn’t this the essence of our conversations with each other and those still disconnected from the community of gospel joy?
Knowing that Jesus gave up his own life for the very people who were enemies to him by their elder brother self righteousness who would eventually snuff out his life (so they thought) is a wonderful thing.
Whether I am younger brother lost in pleasure, addiction, bouncing from one sensual experience to the next, each one satisfying me less – heading to self destruction, or just a person who has turned their back on what I once believed to be true and good in the pursuit of wealth, status and all the other things of the Father’s love, but never wanting Him in my life, or whether I am person struggling with self-righteousness and anger at God and others people, especially those who have a freedom and a love I don’t have because of my pain and my anger and my doubt, I can receive the good news that he is giving up his life for me today – willingly, lovingly…. He is out of his safe heavenly banquet inviting me to come in to the community of joy he is forming everyday. He knows and he loves – even me….
What he does for us surely drains us of our self-righteousness and our insecurity.
We were so utterly lost in idol making and trying to be God that he had to die for us.
But we are so loved that he is glad to die for us and lives to love us and stay with us now.
Friend, receive him who says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) and who “while we were his enemies, [Christ] died for us (Rom 5:10).
From the great banquet feast simple bear witness to your lostness and your foundness and invite them in as you have been invited in.