The Elder Brother

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Luke 15:25-32

Jesus wants us to read this story as if we are looking in the mirror: he wants us to see ourselves here. The truth is, most of us aren’t prodigal sons; we’re more like the elder brother.

My wife says it’s because I don’t look very carefully. I’ll do a quick scan of the contents of a drawer, and then I start yelling for her: “Honey, where’s the [whatever it is I’m looking for at that moment]?” The truth is, I’m always losing things, and I’m not very good at finding them. But thankfully, God isn’t like me.

God the Seeker

There is a whole chapter in the middle of the Gospel of Luke that talks about finding valuable lost things. It contains three stories Jesus told. Have you heard the one about the shepherd who counted his 100-sheep flock one night and only got to 99? Or the one about the old woman who turned her house upside down looking for her last silver coin?

Then there’s this third story about a father and his two boys. We call it “the parable of The Prodigal Son” only it’s not really about the prodigal son. We like to lift the part about the lost son out of the story because it’s so dramatic with wild living and then a tremendous conversion.

But the prodigal son is not really the main character. As we saw in considering his story last week, it’s really more about the father than the son. The father goes out to meet his boy coming home and sweeps up his son in his arms even before the boy can get his carefully-rehearsed repentance speech out. The parable is even more about the heavenly Father who opens the boy’s eyes while he’s sitting there in the slop so that he can see how great his misery is and recognize what he must do to go home again.

Who’s Who

So let’s just focus on the central things here in these stories, the shepherd and the sheep, the woman and the coins, the father and his boys. It’s very easy to identify who is who. Luke introduces the stories this way: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable. . .”

Do you get it? All three of these stories are Jesus’ response to his critics. His critics were all the self-righteous people who objected to the quality of the folks whom Jesus’ ministry was attracting. There wasn’t any great mystery about it. Jesus himself was always very open in stating what he was about.

A little later in the Gospel of Luke we find him not just receiving tax collectors and other notorious types, but actually visiting one in his own home a tax collector named Zacchaeus and sharing a meal with him. “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus said by way of explanation; “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

So the Seeking Shepherd and the Searching Woman and the Waiting Father all represent God, or Jesus himself. And the lost sheep, lost coin and lost boy stand for all the “tax collectors and sinners,” meaning in Luke’s phrase all the outcasts, losers and guilt-ridden folks who were responding to the love and grace they met in Jesus Christ. They were lost, but he was finding them.

“Lost” is a word we don’t use the way we once did. We always used to say that people who didn’t know Jesus Christ were lost. But today such language has come to seem almost crude and embarrassing. A lot of people, even in the church, don’t really believe anymore that those who do not have a living faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are lost. Many certainly have no sense of themselves ever having been lost and found. It seems everybody’s favorite hymn is Amazing Grace. They love to hear it played, especially on the bagpipes, but who ever pays real attention to the words?

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Yet even as the word lost becomes more rare, the condition becomes ever more obvious in our society. People all around us are exhibiting the marks of lostness, of having lost their way. Modern men and women have forgotten God. The results are clear: moral confusion, violent societies, personal unhappiness, lack of a sense of meaning or purpose in life, emptiness and despair, and always, always, an impossible yet unacknowledged weight of sin and guilt.

But Jesus’ emphasis here in these stories isn’t even on the lostness of people. It’s more on the One who goes out to find them. God is the main character of all the stories. In the end, I think we’re going to discover that God is the hero of every story. We will never claim to have found God on our own, not if we really know what we are talking about. We will rather glory in the fact that God finds us.

Who Are You?

So God is the hero here he’s the Seeking Shepherd, the Searching Woman and the Welcoming Father. And sinners are the lost objects of his loving pursuit. But there is one more character who needs to be considered. When I talked about the parable of the prodigal son in our last program, I didn’t really tell the whole story, or give it the final application Jesus intended. For that, we have to read it all the way to the finish. Here is the end of the story as Jesus told it.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”

Luke 15:25-32

So it turns out that the father had two sons, and the final point of Jesus’ story has to do with the reaction of the prodigal’s elder brother. He was a stay-at-home child, and when he saw the party thrown for his wayward sibling, his nose got out of joint. Why did Jesus put this other son in his story? Wouldn’t the parable have been much simpler and more compelling if it just ended with the prodigal’s return and welcome? But then it wouldn’t speak to all the scribes and Pharisees of the world.

The whole story is a parable of grace, as we have already seen, but it’s not just about the fact that God is gracious or that his grace seeks out and finds the lost. It’s also about how we respond to this graciousness of God, particularly when we see his grace extended to others. The climax of each of these three stories in Luke 11 is the celebration of God’s grace in seeking, finding and saving lost men and women.

“I tell you,” says Jesus, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine righteous persons who need no repentance. . . . I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (vv. 7, 10).

The celebrating and rejoicing “in heaven” and “in the presence of the angels” that Jesus talks about must mean ultimately the celebrating and rejoicing of God himself. This isn’t just the angels whooping it up! God himself experiences great joy whenever a sinner repents, whenever one of his lost sons or daughters is found.

The point Jesus really wants to make here at the end of the chapter comes in the contrast between God’s attitude and that of Jesus’ critics, the scribes and the Pharisees who were so upset about his hanging out with moral failures and social outcasts. If there is so much joy in heaven when sinners repent and are saved, why is there so much muttering and complaining about it on earth?

I think Jesus wants us to read this story as if we are looking in the mirror. He wants us to see ourselves here. The truth is, as you and I well know, most of us aren’t prodigal sons; we’re much more like the elder brother. We’ve never “left home” or squandered our spiritual capital in wildly sinful living. No, we’ve stayed pretty close to our Father’s house.

We are the modern counterparts of those respectable, religious folks, the scribes and the Pharisees. But could it be that we are like them in other ways too? Are we narrow and judgmental towards obvious “sinners”? Do we resent grace when it’s freely given to those who don’t deserve it? Do we think they should have to prove themselves, or show themselves to be worthy, or be put on probation for a while before they’re welcomed wholeheartedly into the church? Are we in fact hypocrites, outwardly righteous but inwardly cold-hearted and joyless and loveless? If so, we might be the ones who are actually lost, who need to be found and touched by the Father’s grace.