LOst and Found # 6: The Bitter Brother
Can you imagine the joy of the prodigal son and his father as they gathered for the homecoming feast?
We come now to one sour note in this otherwise beautiful ending to a sad story; the negative response of the older brother. The prodigal’s older brother was missing from the festivities. He was still working out in the fields, fuming at all the love and attention that was being showered on his worthless younger brother and disgusted by his father whom he perceived to be an unfair, sentimental, forgiving “old man”.
First, let’s contrast those two brothers. The younger brother, known as the Prodigal Son, was self-willed, insisting on his freedom from all authority. He wasted his substance and his life and his search for freedom led him to the pig pen of despair. The older brother’s thought was, “He made his bed. Let him lie in it.”
The older brother was an obedient, hard working young man; but now he was ruining things for his father and others by his selfish, bitter, peevish, legalistic spirit. He had no compassion whatsoever for his prodigal brother. He felt only disgust and envy for all the attention his father was showering on his younger brother. To show his disgust he stayed out in the field working, attempting to impress his father with his faithfulness as a worker. Surely his attitude was dampening the joy of the celebration.
I remind you that Jesus has been teaching with his parables what it means to receive sinners and eat with them. That was what the Pharisees were murmuring about. So Jesus answered them with three stories: the joy of a shepherd finding his lost sheep, the joy of a woman finding a lost coin and now the joy of father finding and restoring his lost wayward son. All of these stories show God’s love for repentant sinners.
Now in this third story Jesus shows the hearts of these wicked, proud, self-righteous Pharisees who refused to rejoice with the restoration of lost sinners. The elder brother pictures the Pharisees who stood by suspiciously and angrily while Jesus ate with sinners.
As we proceed in our study of this story we are going to better understand the heart of Christianity. Is it a master/servant relationship or is it a father/son relationship? The older brother, like the Pharisees, had it wrong. Listen to the older brother. “For all these years I’ve been serving you.” “I’ve never neglected a command of yours.” He talked as one who had no comprehension of the father/son relationship. He represents one who perceives Christianity to be a master/servant relationship.
It’s true that every Christian ought to surrender his life to Christ and serve Him faithfully all his life; but that surrender and service should spring from a heart filled with love and gratefulness for our relationship with God as our Heavenly Father. Otherwise, our service originates from a sense of legalism and becomes drudgery. The motto of Columbia Bible College in Columbia, S.C. (now Columbia International University) is “To know Him and to make Him known.” That is the best and most complete motto and mission statement for a Christian that I have ever known. When I found my wife there over 53 years ago, I adopted that motto as my own. It set my purpose and direction as a preacher. If my concentration is on knowing Christ, my glad service will flow from that relationship. That takes all the legalism out of it. It’s a service of love. To emphasize only the service for Christ with Christians and ignore their relationship with Christ tends to produce self-righteous, legalistic Christians.
Let’s look a little closer at this older legalistic son. As the younger son could very well represent a backslidden Christian who has thrown off all restraints and is living as a heathen, so the older son could also represent a backslidden Christian who has no fellowship with his father because of his self-righteous, legalistic attitude.
I tend to believe that both boys represent Christians, rather than lost people, in that they are both sons. The only way one can become a son is to be born a son or adopted as a son. The only way you and I can become sons and daughters of God is to be born again through faith in Christ. So looking at this older son as a legalistic, self-righteous Christian, let’s describe him.
1 He fails to care about sinners or fallen Christians and tends to ignore them.
2. He is suspicious of new converts who have been saved or of backslidden Christians who have returned back to God and he is resentful of the attention given to them. He refuses to rejoice in their conversion and restoration because he feels he is being overlooked and is not being shown the appreciation he thinks he deserves for his faithful service.
3. He has no vital relationship with his Father God, nor with his family of believers. Notice in verse 30 how he refers to his brother as “When this son of yours came” instead of “When my brother came”. That statement shows a disdain for his brother. Because he is relating to his father in a servant/master relationship, rather than a father/son relationship, all his other relationships are ruined. Because he is so focused on LAW; he cannot grasp the concept of GRACE, nor show it in his relationships.
Note finally how the father deals in grace with his legalistic son. Verse 28 tells us that the father came out to the son. When he heard that his eldest son was angry and refused to join them at the feast, he did not send a servant out to persuade him. He did not shout from a distance. He did not command him. Rather he himself came out to his bitter son and dealt with him in grace just as he dealt with his prodigal son in grace. So Jesus came to save self-righteous, legalistic hypocrites as well as flagrant prodigals.
Notice in verse 28 and 29 that though the older son complained that his father had commanded him, the father is not commanding him, but entreating him. The father is not angry with his eldest son who is ruining the party; rather he is broken-hearted for his cold-heartedness. He entreats him just as the Apostle Paul entreats his brother Philemon concerning his dealing with his slave, Onesimus, in Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. The father addresses his bitter son as “son”. The son complained that his father had never given him a party when, in reality, all that he owned was his. The father reminded his eldest son, ” You are always with me.”
Why do we sometimes complain that we do not get all the rewards and glory that we think we deserve for our faithful service? It’s because we get our eyes off God’s grace and His glory and concentrate our gaze on ourselves. Many preachers or Christian workers have gone this route and in the closing years of their ministry ruined a life time of otherwise faithful service.
Jesus is entreating the Pharisees as he entreats us, whether prodigals or Pharisees,
“Come in from the far country, bankrupt, broken and ruined by sin.”
“Come in from your field of service, exhausted, burned-out and miserable because you don’t feel you have received what you believe you deserve” In the Father’s house is a banquet and in the words of Peter, there awaits for us “An inheritance, incorruptible and undefiled, that fades not away. reserved in Heaven” for all who live by faith in God’s grace and not by attempting to gain merit through our own works.
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