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The True Elder Brother: Prodigal God (4)

. 7 min read


2014/03/29
Christ Church, Mountain Top
Prayer,
Psalm 130
Children,
John 9
Message,
Luke 15.1-6, 25-32
We’ve
been using the resources of Tim Keller’s book and video The Prodigal God
and looking at the story traditionally known as the “Parable of the Prodigal
Son” and we have emphasized that it is a story about two sons, one is “very
very bad” and the other is “very very good”. 
Most of the time when we look at the story, we fixate on the sinful younger
brother and his welcome home in repentance. 
But we forget about the “very very good” big brother, furious with the
father for welcoming the younger brother home. 
Last week we made the point that he is lost – outside the salvation
feast – because his goodness, his righteousness, is a barrier to the father’s
grace.
      Last week, we said that if we look only at
the younger brother, we ignore a major character in the story AND we ignore the
cost involved in bringing the younger brother back into the family.
Today,
we start off with that cost.  When the
younger brother comes home, he prepares one of those rehearsed speeches of
repentance.  His planned speech: “Father,
I am no longer worthy to be called your son. 
Let me be like one of your hired hands.”  That is, let me earn my way back, let me prove
my worth, let me foot the bill, let me make restitution.  But, the father cuts him off mid-speech,
denying him even the opportunity to offer restitution.  He declares, “Quick!  Bring the best robe and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his
feet.”  (The ring was equivalent to an
ancient signature, conferring legal access to the family inheritance.)
      What does it all cost?  It cost the younger son nothing.  And if all we look at in the story is the
interaction between the younger son and the father, we’d assume the father
foots the bill himself.  After all, he
seems to be the man in charge.  But
that’s why we must not miss what happens with the older brother, whom the
father reminds, “Everything I have is yours”. 
In the ancient Palestinian tradition, if the father divided the estate
before he died, he still retained the rights to use it and profit from it, even
though the son held the title.  So, whose
money was dear old dad giving away?  Whose
robe?  Whose checking account?  Big brother’s.  Big brother is paying the bill.  It cost him a lot to bring his younger
brother back into the family, and he wants nothing of it.
So,
note this: Forgiveness is free – to the younger son, but it is very expensive –
to the older brother.  Grace is free – to
the younger son, but it is very costly – to the older brother.  In recent years we’ve been reminded that
“freedom isn’t free”.  We know what that
means: Freedom is free for most of us, but it is not something to be
trivialized because it has been paid for, generation after generation, with the
greatest of sacrifice.  In the same way,
and even more so, the grace of God is free, but not trivial, not to be presumed
upon, not to be cheapened by ignoring the cost that was paid.

But
back to the older brother in the story. 
He had no interest in bearing this expense.  He wanted nothing to do with the younger
brother.  He had no desire to be reunited
with him at the feast.  One of the
questions we discussed in our small groups was, “How would the attitude of the
elder brother make it harder for the younger brother to come home?” (Keller,
study guide).  It is this kind of
question that points out the power to this story.  Because there is pain in every family story.  Will we reconcile or remain apart?  Can the “older brother” of the family get
beyond himself to truly love, to reunite?
      The Biblical story begins with the original
couple and their first two sons, brothers. 
The older brother, Cain, is jealous of his younger brother, Abel.  God comes to him, but Cain does not
listen.  After Cain kills Abel, the LORD
confronts him and Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The answer, of course, is “Yes”.  But Cain, like the elder brother in the
story, was more focused on his anger than on being family.
      I met Ron when he was an older man.  He shared a story of his family dynamics from
younger days.  A brother, was the “lost
sheep” of the family.  He lived on and
off the streets, disconnected from the rest of the family, in a town an hour
away.  None of the other siblings wanted
anything to do with him.  But, when their
father was in his final illness, he asked Ron, the elder brother, to find his
younger brother and bring him home for a final reunion.  It took Ron several days, but he found his
brother and persuaded him to come home and see Dad one more time.
      There is pain in every family story.  Will we reconcile or remain apart?  Can the “older brother” of the family get
beyond himself to truly love, to reunite?
Remember
the first two stories Jesus tells?  The
lost sheep is sought by a shepherd, the lost coin is sought by a woman.  In each story, someone goes out to seek and
save the lost.  But not in this
story.  Yes, the father does run to greet
the son when he sees him coming from far off, but no one goes out into the far
country to seek him.
      So, as Jesus tells this third story, the
story of the lost sons, folks notice the missing seeker and they know who
should be seeking – the older brother. 
His role is to maintain and protect the family honor, to function as the
goel, the redeemer, in the Jewish family system.  One of the most important roles of the goel, the eldest brother, is to buy back
family members (like his younger brother) from slavery.  (Bruce Malina, Windows on the World of
Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea,
Window 2, “Father, Son, and Daughter”,
1993, Westminster/John Knox Press.)
      In this story, we have a “very very good”
older brother, but one who shows no concern for the heart of the father, for the
family honor, for the redemption of his brother.  He makes us long for a true older brother,
one who is willing, in the words of Tim Keller, to “seek us and bring us back
at any risk and any cost to himself” (notes for pastors).
      The younger brother in the story has a
self-righteous, superior older brother who does not seek and save.  We have Jesus, who describes himself as one
who “came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19.10).  (See also Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel
According to Luke X-XXIV,
p 1086, Doubleday 1985.)
      Our “true elder brother” makes all of us
family: Hebrews 2.11, “Both the one who makes [us] holy and those who are made
holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers [and
sisters].”  And, Romans 8.29, “For those
God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son,
that he [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers [and sisters].”
One
of the earliest hymns of the church is recorded for us in Philippians 2.  The lyrics read, in part,
      though he was in the form of God,
      he did not regard equality with God
      as something to be exploited,
      but emptied himself,
      taking the form of a slave,
      being born in human likeness.
      And being found in human form,
      he humbled himself
      and became obedient to the point of death
      even death on a cross.
            Philippians 2.6-8
“Everything
I have is yours,” the father says to the older son.  And, Jesus doesn’t grasp for it, doesn’t
treasure it, doesn’t hoard it.  He
empties himself, he goes looking for us in the far country, he finds us and
brings us back from our slavery.  “For
you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich,
yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become
rich” (2 Corinthians 8.9).
I
love the lines in the ancient hymn, attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux:
      What thou, my Lord, has suffered
      Was all for sinners’ gain:
      Mine, mine was the transgression,
      But thine the deadly pain.
      Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
      ‘Tis I deserve thy place;
      Look on my with thy favor,
      Vouchsafe to me thy grace.
            “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”
So,
note this: Forgiveness is free – to the younger son, but it is very expensive –
to the older brother.  Grace is free – to
the younger son, but it is very costly – to the older brother.  And our older brother pays the price with
joy.
      What is there for us to do?  It is free, after all.  Worship. 
Bind ourselves in love to this brother who seeks and finds us.  And, as Columbo says, “One more thing.”  Jesus emptied himself to make room for us in
the house of God.  “I go to prepare a
place for you,” he tells his disciples as he prepares for his death (John
14.1-6).  We are called to share in his
mission, to empty ourselves to make room for others in the family.
Resources:
Timothy
Keller, Prodigal God and notes for
pastors
Joseph
Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, p 1086, Doubleday 1985

Bruce
Malina, Windows on the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea,
Window 2, “Father, Son, and Daughter”, 1993, Westminster/John Knox Press