A good friend of mine asked me to post a written transcript of my teaching about the elder brother today. Here it is. Follow the jump if you want the whole thing.
Good morning everyone and welcome to Cedarcreek church. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Jason, one of the deacons here at the church. For the last few months, we have been taking a close look at the story of Jesus through the eyes of Luke. As you have heard us say repeatedly, Luke was a smart guy who set out to write a careful account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and we have looked at a lot of what he had to say. Today is our last day in this series on Luke and we are going to talk about one of his best known stories—the parable of the prodigal son. This is one of the passages that is really fun to teach about. Typically, when we hear this story, we hear about the returning lost son or the lavish love of God, but today our focus is going to be more on the older brother, who is probably the one who we don’t think about as much. Actually, today we will talk about more than just the elder brother, but we will reintroduce these others as well as we take somewhat of a broader view.
If you have your Bibles, you may want to grab them and turn with me to Luke 15. Over the course of the morning, we will be covering the whole chapter.
When you read stories in the Bible, they are always in the storyline of the whole Bible. When Jesus spoke, his words were always set in the context of God’s larger plan. The same thing is true of these three parables or stories in Luke 15. I believe Jesus shared them when and how he did for very specific purposes.
So first, we have to see who his audience was. The first two verses tell us that Jesus was hanging out with sinners. Again. It seems he was always hanging out with the outcasts, the people church folks didn’t approve of. Verse two tells us that the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling about Jesus “receiving and eating” with these people. (Here’s a spoiler—today’s topic is responding to the elder brother, the Pharisees are the elder brothers)
As a reminder, or if you don’t know who the Pharisees were, they were kind of the religious elite of the day. They were strongly committed to pursuing holiness according to the commandments given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai. Pharisee means “separated one” and most people assume that the term comes from their zealously separating themselves from those who were unclean and upholding a high standard regarding God’s law. They would commit themselves to strict fasting, tithing, Sabbath observance, and prayer. They prided themselves on doing this to perfection.
So it was no surprise that they were upset that Jesus was eating with sinners. If he was actually a teacher of the law, or rabbi, surely he would know that he was breaking convention by not separating himself from unclean people. These Pharisees were not grumbling because they were just mean spirited; they were grumbling because they believed this guy Jesus was doing serious harm to the reputation of God by whom he associated with. They truly desired to see the honor of God upheld and didn’t believe he was doing it right.
Jesus, knowing their hearts, presented these three parables to his listeners, which included not only the tax collectors and sinners who were eating with him, but also the scribes and Pharisees who were grumbling about him. In fact, it seems to me that it was the Pharisees who were the primary audience for these stories.
Jesus was so wise with his words. These weren’t three randomly chosen stories; Jesus picked them carefully. The first story is the parable of the lost sheep. (Luke 15:3-7). You can picture Jesus looking around at the men and addressing them directly. He gives them ownership of what is going on. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of the, does not leave the 99 in the open country and go looking for the one that is lost until he finds it?” What man of you? He wanted them to think about what they would do if they experienced the loss of something valuable. I don’t know how many of the Pharisees were Shepherds, I wouldn’t think a lot of them, but I guess I don’t know. They weren’t religious professionals like priests or scribes, so its possible they were just religiously zealous shepherds. Regardless, they would have understood the loss of something valuable and the need to go looking for it. They would have identified with his words. They would know what it is to feel joy over finding something lost. I suspect their brains were spinning, thinking “I think I agree with him, I would rejoice over finding a lost sheep, but what trick is he playing?”
Then Jesus says to them “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who have no need of repentance.” When Jesus said this, it kept them off balance. The Scriptures make it repeatedly clear that the scribes and Pharisees did not approve of sinners, but I bet they were drawn to the idea of repentance. “If these sinners would just be more like us, then we could accept them.” But Jesus also included that pesky “over 99 who have no need of repentance.” They would have identified with that. Remember, they prided themselves upon their perfection, their ability to follow the law, their separatedness. They believed they had no need for repentance and Jesus was using that reality to get them thinking.
Then Jesus told a second story about a woman who lost a coin. (Luke 15:8-10). She lost one of the 10 coins she had. Ten percent. This silver coin was about 2 week’s wages. If you were to lose your paycheck, there is a pretty good chance you would rip your house apart looking for it. Anyone here ever lose something of value? I did. Last year, as a good Financial Peace University graduate, I brought my “dining out” envelope on a trip and I lost it. It had 77 dollars in it. I walked the full length of the Minneapolis Airport looking for that silly envelope. For 77 dollars.
In the same way that his listeners would have understood the value of the sheep, they would have understood the loss of money. It seems that the woman in the story was a little bit frantic. His hearers would have understood that sense of loss. They also would have understood the joy of finding it again. Jesus told his listeners that she called together her friends and they rejoiced together over finding the coin.
Before moving on to the story of the prodigal son, I want to highlight a couple of common themes between the first two stories. In both stories, something of significant value was lost. Whether it is a wandering sheep, or a misplaced coin, or a lost homework assignment, or a runaway dog—nearly everyone has experienced loss. I would venture to guess that everyone one of us in this room has experienced the anxiety over something missing.
The second common point between these first two stories is that when the lost thing was found, there was significant rejoicing. I never did find my envelope with 77 dollars, but I have found things I have lost that have been at least as valuable. A couple of years ago, I was coming back from a conference on a Sunday and I was sitting in an airport when Heather called me. She was weeping and frantic. She had gone to church with the kids and she had a meeting afterward. When she came out of the meeting, she could not find our daughter Grace anywhere. Some of you probably remember that day. They looked all over the church and grounds and they could not find her. There were rapidly assembling a search team, the police had been called, and she had called to me to break the news that our daughter was missing.
As soon as I was able to make sense of my wife’s understandable frenzy, I cut her off because I knew something she didn’t. Grace had gone for a walk in the woods down the hill and was down by the river. She couldn’t hear anyone calling to her over the moving water. BUT, amazingly, she had grabbed Heather’s cell phone before she went out for her walk and 3 minutes before Heather called me, Grace had called me just to visit. I was able to say to Heather, “I just talked to Grace. She’s fine.”
Do you know the sense of relief I am talking about? Have you ever experienced that type of worry over something lost? Have you ever searched frantically for something so important to you? Have you ever experienced the sense of relief, of joy, over something found? The profound sense of relief? Jesus was using these stories, these parables, to help them connect with that emotion.
So there was a search for something lost and joy over something found, but I also want you to see this third component because I think it is important to where Jesus was headed. If you look carefully, in both stories, the person called together their friends and neighbors to share. There is a shared rejoicing. Jesus is very clear that this is not an isolated rejoicing, but a community rejoicing. Jesus is about relating, about celebrating in community. Jesus tells them that this rejoicing—this community rejoicing—will take place around God’s throne every time someone repents from their sins.
With these first two stories, Jesus set the stage. He was speaking through these parables to these grumbling Pharisees. In each case, he used the story to connect with his hearers. They all would have understood a sense of loss. They all would have understood a sense of relief and joy over finding that which was loss and the desire to share that with others. But then he moved on to the story of the two sons—the longest and probably best known parable in all of the gospels. Although the first two parables could stand on their own, I think they merely served to point spotlights on this final parable. (Luke 15:11-32).
Now, because I want to focus more on the response to the elder brother, I don’t want to spend a ton of time on the first parts of the story, but I think we need to set the stage.
Right off the bat, we learn that the younger brother was unbelievably brash and self-centered. He went to his father and said, “Give me the share of my property that is coming to me.” He doesn’t ask his father. He doesn’t provide any reasonable rationale, he just says, “dad, give me the money.” It is hard to overstate how much of an insult this request would have been. It was essentially as if he said, “Dad, you are as good as dead to me. I want nothing more to do with you, but I do want my share of the money that I’ll get when you are dead.”
The Father showed no sense of anger, no bargaining. It simply says that he “divided his property between them.” This would have been a significant sacrifice for the Father, but he does it. The younger son went off and lived a reckless life. He squandered all of his inheritance so that he had no money left.
If Jesus would have told this story to church people today, he would have told of a son who took his father’s money, left home, and spent it on a party lifestyle of sex and drugs ending up bruised and battered in a gutter with a needle in his arm smelling of puke and sweat. This was a hopeless kid.
When all hope seemed to be gone, the younger son began to wonder what it would be like to go back home, to see if he could work on as a hired hand for his father. He made the long journey home, rehearsing his apology again and again to get his wording just right. How does a son who has basically said, “you are as good as dead to me” begin to make amends?
He never made it to the rehearsed speech. The Father, who apparently had been keeping an eye out for his son spotted him while he was still a long way off and ran to him. The Father ran to his son. This would have been an undignified thing for a father of any stature to do. But the Father had compassion on his son and could not wait to reunite with him. They embrace and the father calls upon the servants to bring the best of what he has. His best clothes. His best jewels. His best shoes. And then he throws a party. His drug-addled, emaciated, malodorous son has come home and he can think of nothing better than to throw a celebration. He orders the fatted calf to be killed and cooked—a sign of a major celebration. This was not just a small gathering, this would have been a major deal.
Then, we come to the elder brother. In the previous two parables, there was no elder brother. Jesus did not say that one of the sheep was really mad when the lost sheep was found. It would have been absurd to say that one of the coins was upset that the other was rediscovered. But not in this story. In this story, we finally meet the elder brother.
Apparently after the party has begun, the older son came in from the field. He had been working hard. He always worked hard because that’s the kind of person he was. But as he drew near, he heard music and dancing so he called a servant and said, “Hey, what’s going on?” The servant said, “Your brother’s back! Your dad is throwing a party.” But the older brother was angry. So angry in fact that he refused to go into the party. So the Father came out to him. Just like with the younger brother, the father came out to him. He is the one who seeks. He is the one who pursues his kids. Unlike the younger brother though, the elder brother won’t come in. He’s mad. He’s angry that his loser brother has come home and dad has welcomed him back without any consequences.
When his younger brother broke dad’s heart, he was the one who had to stay behind. He was the one who had to work extra hard to make sure dad didn’t fall apart. He was the one who never disobeyed, never strayed, never did anything wrong. In fact, he said to his dad, “look, these many years I have served you and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends.” And now he’s mad because he got the short end of the stick. All of his good behavior counted for nothing.
The always loving, always gracious father said to the elder brother, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” Just as the Father could have been angry with the younger son, he could have been with the elder son as well, yet rather, he reminded him of who he was. He told him—“you have always been my son. Everything I have belongs to you. That has never changed. There is nothing that can change that. I love you. You’re mine.”
But Jesus left the story hanging. We never hear whether the elder brother went into the party. We don’t know if he reconciled with his brother, or with his father. Jesus left that to the imaginations of his hearers. I think the reason he left it to their imaginations was that these parables were directed to the Pharisees who we read had been grumbling at the beginning of this story. He wanted to put it into their heads that they would have to decide, do I come into the celebration with my loving father, or do I stay outside with my self-righteousness.
This is one of those glorious stories that we could spend months, even years, pondering. As I said earlier, Jesus was a master with his words. In this series of stories, he carefully built his case as to why he was consorting with the sinners. He started by creating a way for them to see the benefit of seeking the lost, then he switched to a story about an actual lost person, and finally left it to them to make the decision for themselves. It is no wonder that this remains one of the most popular stories in the Bible.
So we’ve taken a look at what Jesus is saying in Luke 15. Now where do we go with it? Let me suggest a few observations. Before I get to those however, studying the Pharisees is a slippery slope. I have often said I would like to write a book about journeying from Pharisaism to freedom in Christ. I say that because the Pharisees were not just an isolated sect of Hebrews during Roman times. I suspect the majority, if not all of us, if we truly search our hearts will see that we are all susceptible to being elder brothers. We all can wonder how God can show grace to someone that we don’t think is deserving. We can all come to God with a certain demandingness saying with the elder brother, “Look these many years have I served you…” So this is not just an interesting historical lesson, this is for each of us.
Earlier, I suggested that the first two stories were joined by common themes. First, something of value was lost. Second, that valuable thing was sought and found which led to significant rejoicing. Third, the rejoicing takes place in community. And this is a picture of heaven. The third story has these themes as well.
We already talked about the younger son. When you read the story of his life, it isn’t hard to recognize that he was lost. That makes sense to us. When we think of Jesus seeking and saving the lost, he’s the kind of person we have in mind—someone leading a blatantly sinful life doing all of the things that make rated R movies restricted. That makes sense to us.
What’s harder to see is that the older brother is also lost. It is hard to see that self-righteousness is just as effective at keeping people from God as sex, violence, or drugs. In fact, self-righteousness is one of the greatest barriers to grace that any of us face. The elder brother in the story said, “I never disobeyed your command.” And here’s the thing—I suspect he believed it! I bet the Pharisees really and truly believed they were pulling it off that they were actually obeying God’s commands.
In fact, for those of us who struggle with being Pharisees, it becomes real easy to look at our own works as justification for being a child of the Father. In our prideful moments, when we think about our behavior, we think I’m actually pulling this off. I’ve never murdered anybody. I don’t swear. I don’t look at porn. I’ve never stolen anything. I go to church every Sunday. I would never watch Harry Potter. I would never get divorced from my husband. Fill in your own blank. If you’re honest, you have things like this that you think you are doing pretty well.
Luke 18 is also deals with this self-righteousness. Beginning at verse 18, there is the story of the rich young ruler who told Jesus that he had kept all the commands. He believed he had done it and then Jesus said, okay, go sell everything you have and give it away and the man was sad. Jesus went after the heart.
Beginning at verse 10, there was a Pharisee praying loudly in the temple that he is glad he isn’t a sinner like the tax collector and went on to lay out his good behavior. The tax collector cried for mercy. He was the one justified.
I think Christian perfectionism is a dangerous idea. I have talked with people who believe that it is possible to be perfect as a Christian—the right prayer, the right quiet times, the right church attendance—and eventually you can be perfect. Last fall, in a teaching I did on joy, Jesus used the Sermon on the Mount to show us how unattainable the law truly is. It is not simply a matter of behaving in a certain way—we have to love God and love others perfectly all the time with the right thoughts, right emotions, right motivations—forever, or we fail. The only reason elder brothers can say “I never disobeyed your command” is because they haven’t been crushed by the weight of the law.
The elder brother was also joyless. There was no joy in his relationship with his father. He put so much emphasis on his following the father’s rule that he forgot to enjoy the Father. The Father reminded him that everything was already his, but he was so busy trying to keep working for the father’s favor that he didn’t realize who he was.
When you spend so much of your time focusing on managing your life and improving your behavior, you forget to enjoy God. When you spend so much time analyzing and judging the behaviors of others, you forget to enjoy them. There is no celebration.
Several months ago, a good friend of mine said to me, “you’ve really been on this grace kick for a long time huh?” I don’t know whether I said it out loud or not, but I pray to God that I would never treat his amazing grace as a fad or a kick. The younger brother in the story was able to come in and celebrate because he understood the depths of his sin and the heights of his father’s grace. The older brother could not understand grace. He lived out of a “yes grace, but…” mindset. Yes, dad, I understand why you want to be gracious, but he really messed up badly. He treated you like you were dead.
I hear this all the time from Christians. Yes grace, but. Don’t get too crazy with this grace stuff or people will thumb their noses at God and do whatever they want. Don’t show your kids too much grace or they will be out of control. Make sure to remind people that they were saved by grace but they gotta work hard now to stay in a state of grace.
How joyless! When you live under the constant fear of the other shoe dropping you are going to be reluctant to celebrate. All you can hope is that you hold it together long enough to make it to heaven. Where is the joy in that? We have a savior who came to seek and save the lost lost because we absolutely could not do it on our own. That’s a cause for joy.
Finally, in the first two stories, the finder celebrated together with his friends and neighbors. In this last story, the elder brother refused to go in and celebrate. In his self-centeredness, in his self-righteousness, he was willing to miss the party of a lifetime.
One of the truths of understanding the Trinity, is that God is an eternal celebration of three persons—father, son, and spirit—in one. God is a holy party. Our God is a deeply relational God and I think one of the most important things Jesus was driving home with this story was that the Father is deeply relational and that he longs to celebrate together with all who would come to him. Perhaps one of the most important reasons God celebrates over finding just one who was lost is because of restored relationship.
So the final message to our inner elder brothers is that we need to ask are we fostering relationships with people? Are we seeking to love others with an other centeredness or are we seeking to only prop ourselves up and look out for our own needs. In John 13:34, Jesus tells his disciples, “a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, so you are to love one another.” God sent his son to earth to reconcile relationships, with himself and with one another. When he came to seek and save the lost, he came to bring straying sheep back into the fold, to celebrate with his younger brother, to restore relationship.
So whether you are a younger brother or an elder brother, God is seeking after your heart. He sent his son to seek and save those who are lost, both rebels and Pharisees. Jesus tells us that there will be much joy in heaven over just one sinner who repents, who decides to risk it and enter God’s party. He’s inviting you. Will you come?