Try to picture the scene: Jesus has told the first part of the story of the Prodigal Son, and the Pharisees are shaking their heads over the lost son’s rebellious ways. They are already thinking of ways he should be punished for his profligacy. The nerve of asking for your share! The nerve of squandering it so recklessly! Surely he will receive the full measure of punishment he deserves! But, as Jesus told the story, suddenly he shifted gears on his audience, and changed the focus from the younger son’s foolishness to the older brother’s bitterness. THIS is a part of the story most often over-looked by churchgoers, but perhaps applies to them much more directly than the well-known Prodigal son’s wild adventures.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:25-30)
Two Audiences, Two Applications
Picture the scene: the feasting in Matthew’s house has paused while Jesus continues his parable about the two sons… As He tells this story, his audience leans in, shaking their heads at the foolishness of the younger son, and also at the permissiveness of the Father. The tax-collector/sinners, reflecting on their lives, wonder quietly if they could go actually choose to go back to God having wandered so far from home.
The lifelong church member/Pharisees in the group now have to put themselves in the shoes of the older son. They keep the law. They’ve done their duty. The Pharisees imagine walking up the driveway only to hear the sounds of feasting from the house. What the heck is going on here!? Has the world gone mad? They share the older son’s indignation over his brother’s return. They can easily relate to the bitterness expressed by the Prodigal’s big brother. They barely hide their disgust at the Father’s wimpy attitude, and they look around the room feeling somewhat superior.
Then Jesus explains more about the older son, and there is as much about him in what Jesus DIDN’T say as there is in what he said. He points out that while the older son has stayed home and done his duty, he doesn’t love the Father any more than the younger brother did. He is more concerned with the waste of resources (technically, now, HIS resources, by the way) than he is about his brother’s safe return. In fact, he is harboring bitterness against the Father that bubbles to the surface in quiet rebellion over this welcome home party.
It’s not just wild partying and blatant sin that separates us from the Father. Proud, self-sufficient superiority and bitterness can be just as destructive. Jesus’ parable illustrates that “doing your duty”, being right, and self-sufficiency are no substitute for love, forgiveness, and vulnerability. The Father loves both sons, and both are invited to celebrate. Let’s not be those Christians who stay in a holy huddle away from the party, finding community mainly in the rules they DON’T break together. If you think about it, we are all sons, and we are all sinners. Let’s find joy at the Father’s party with son and sinner alike.
The Bitterness of Being Right
The younger son returned to see them kill the fatted calf;
This younger son was happy–but not so, his other half.
The older brother sulked and of this party wanted none:
His bitterness remained long after feasting had begun.
Ask yourself, when sinners prosper and you hear the news,
Could you judge those sinners? Do you think that’s what you’d choose?
Are you ever standing in the older brother’s shoes,
Critical of your Father’s grace, and anxious to accuse?
Be careful that your judgment doesn’t circle back to you…
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