Big Brother: Prodigal God (3)

. 8 min read
Christ Church, Mountain Top
Psalm 63
John 4
Luke 15.25-32
Most of the time, when we look at this story, the story traditionally
known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”, we concentrate on the account of
the younger brother.  He disgraces his
father and family, squanders his inheritance in riotous living, and returns
home to an incredible and unexpected welcome. 
One old preacher described those wild days in the far country with the
phrase, “he rambled, he scrambled, he gambled”. 
It is easy to label that as sinful, and it is clear that his welcome
home is an act of grace.  But if we stop
there, we miss out on two things: the cost of that grace (next week) and the other
character in the story, the “big brother”.
“Big brother”?  The phrase conjures up images of control and
conformity – the perfect terms for the life and spirituality of the older
brother!  Like the little brother, he is
“lost”.  No, he hasn’t “acted out”.  No, he hasn’t sown any “wild oats”.  Yes, he’s really, really good.  No, he’s not much fun to be around.  Instead of sin keeping him from the father
and from God, it is his righteousness that becomes the barrier.
of the time when we read this story, our focus is on the younger brother.  It is a beautiful and sentimental story that,
in the mouth of a lesser story teller than Jesus, would end with the catch
phrase: “And they all lived happily ever after.”
      We all know that real life isn’t quite as
clean cut, easy, or understandable.  Life
is good, and there’s always “something.” 
Big brother is plainly unhappy at the welcome of the father, just as the
scribes and Pharisees are unhappy at Jesus’ welcome of the tax collectors and
sinners.  And, he has every right to
be!  What the father is doing in the
story is unheard of!  In an honor-shame
society, when you have dishonored the family you are banished, if not
dead.  “We are dead to you.”  Even the possibility of taking him back as a
hired hand would be a huge stretch after the younger brother had basically
wished his father dead: “Give me my share of the inheritance – now.”
      We like the “happily ever after” ending,
but it simply does not fit with the story. 
The father welcomes back the younger son – something reckless and
extravagant, certainly not a gesture that could be described with our
small-minded virtue of “being nice”.  No,
this is over-the-top.  And, it has a huge
impact on big brother, who looks at his inheritance and imagines it diminishing
by the father’s extravagance.  No wonder
he wants nothing to do with the party. 
He doesn’t want to be in the same family with “this son of yours” (Luke 15.30).

But when I pay attention to the younger brother, to what he does and
says, indignation and disgust rise within me. 
He’s arrogant, rude, shameless, self-absorbed, out of control, stupid,
lacking discipline.  Good riddance!  My heart doesn’t break for him, I don’t find
myself moved with love or compassion. 
Dad is far too nice.  Have you
ever heard of tough love?  I’d be saying,
“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
            In my imagination, the
younger brother, before he left home, makes a habit of coming home in the wee
hours hung over, with a girl or a friend – equally inebriated – in tow.  In my imagination, he sleeps in, skips out on
farm chores, shows up only to eat and sleep, then heads out to paint the town
red.  In my imagination, the first times
this happened, dad was sleeping uneasily on the couch, jumping up when the kid
got home, saying, “Where were you?  Why
didn’t you call?”
            But that is not the
dynamic this time.  As long as the son
has been gone, the father expected to get an obituary by mail or phone –
alcohol poisoning, bar fight, drug overdose, DUI accident.  The father says, “This son of mine was dead
and is alive again” (Luke 15.24).  No
“Where were you?”  Only, “He was lost and
is found”. 
Now, my imagination of the younger brother before he leaves home is,
quite simply, “not in the book”.  What we
have, in the book, is a rejoicing father and an angry big brother.  The big brother is angry because he’s never
gotten this kind of treatment for all his years of compulsive goodness.  Dad reminds him, “All I have is yours” (that
is, since the little brother already got his inheritance, everything else goes
to the big brother).  We don’t know the
big brother’s response – Jesus leaves the story unresolved – but the father’s
statement raises one more objection.  The
lavish feast, a feast likely thrown for the entire community (how else do you
eat a calf?), is at the expense of the big brother’s inheritance!  And, what if the father has in mind to make
this younger brother an heir once again? 
Would he go that far?  Again, the
story doesn’t take us there, but you can almost hear the adding machine in the
big brother’s head.  As Tim Keller
emphasizes, “He wanted the father’s wealth, but not the father.”  His younger brother was not just a disgrace
to the family but also an expense he did not want to bear.
            The older brother is
lost.  He refuses to be in a family with
a sinner, and God welcomes sinners. 
Keller says it this way: “The difference between a religious person and
a true 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.  Some
people are complete elder brothers.  They
go to church and obey the Bible– but out of expectation that then God owes
them.  They have never understood the
Biblical gospel at all.  But many
Christians, who know the gospel, are nonetheless elder-brotherish.  Despite the fact that they know the gospel of
salvation by grace with their heads, their hearts go back to an
elder-brotherish ‘default mode’ of self-salvation” (Keller, notes for pastors).
In the context of our traditional focus on the younger brother, this
comes as a startling, and perhaps offensive, statement: The older brother in
the story is lost.  There are two main elements
of the story that reveal the lostness of the older son.
the son, in his argument with dad, says, “For all these years I’ve been working
like a slave for you” (Luke 15.29).  In
the theology and story of Israel, this is a reference to Exodus, to Israel
delivered from slavery in Egypt.  Years
after the Exodus, the prophet Jeremiah declares, in question form, “Is Israel a
slave?” (Jeremiah 2.14).  We are,
Jeremiah asserts, delivered and saved people. 
We shouldn’t go back to slavery, we shouldn’t give up on grace.  As the apostle Paul writes, “It is for
freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand
firm then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery”
(Galatians 5.1).  Yet, big brother, who
should have been enjoying the grace of the father, is living like a slave.  He needs to be delivered, he needs to be
            Second, over and over
in the Scripture and in Jesus’ teaching, salvation and life in the kingdom of
God is described as a feast or party. 
The prophet Isaiah promises, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will
make for all peoples a feast of rich food” (Isaiah 25.6).  When Jesus eats his last Passover meal (a
celebration of the Exodus deliverance) with his disciples, he says, “I have
eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for I tell you I
will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22.15-16).  And, here in Luke 15, we are twice told of
the “joy in heaven” over “one sinner who repents”.  What’s going on at the feast of the father?  They are rejoicing over “one sinner who
repents.”  It’s an image of heaven!  And the big brother is outside, refusing to
go in, arguing with dad.
This story has huge implications for our mission as well.  We talk about our mission as to “make
disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.  That is a primary way that the Scriptures
phrase the mission of God’s people. 
There are other ways the Scriptures describe it, among them to
participate in Jesus’ mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you”
(John 20.21).  And, in Luke’s gospel,
Jesus describes his mission as “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19.10).  Big brothers have no interest in lost
people.  They are only interested in good
people.  No wonder Christians and
churches have a reputation of being judgmental – we’ve got a lot of big brother
going on.  We give lip service to grace,
but we work to earn our way.  We give lip
service to reaching new people, but we really just want people like us.  Changing for the sake of our mission?  Going beyond the four walls to truly “seek”
others?  Remembering that it is all about
Jesus, and not at all about me?  So tough
for the older brother in us.
The story is told of a heated argument at a church board meeting.  Finally, an exasperated board member slams
his fist on the table and declares, “I just want what I deserve”.  At which point, one of his colleagues told
him exactly where to go.  Not kind, but
theologically accurate, and therein lies the humor.  No matter how good we are, we cannot earn or
deserve our salvation.
Big brother is lost, only he doesn’t know
it.  And that makes his condition all the
more dangerous for him.  Nevertheless,
the father goes out to plead with him. 
And Jesus ends the story with the invitation.  It is his way of saying to us that the door
remains open even if we are going to debate with him exactly who does and who
does not deserve his favor.  It is his
way of saying to the Pharisees, whose role in the story is played by the big
brother, that their righteousness is a barrier between them and God and that
they are still invited into the kingdom.
            Jesus challenges
religion.  When we’re lost, we need to be
found – we don’t “find” ourselves.  When
we’re righteous, we still need God.  Our
good deeds don’t earn entrance to the kingdom of God.  Jesus challenges religion because it puts
control, false control, in our hand.
            And, religion killed
Jesus.  The religious experts and the
political establishment, neither wishing to give up control, conspired together
to arrest and execute him.
As he died, Jesus called out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not
know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34). 
As Keller writes, “Knowing what he did for us must drain us of our
self-righteousness and our insecurity. 
We were so sinful that he had to die for us.  But we were so loved that he was glad
to die for us.  That takes away both the
pride and the fear that makes us elder brothers” (notes for pastors).

Keller, The Prodigal God, and notes
for pastors