Prodigal Son, Patient Father: The Oldest Brother
Prodigal Son, Patient Father
“The Oldest Brother”
Prince Charles and Lady Diana married July 29, 1981. A week before the wedding, it was announced that King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain decided to boycott the wedding due to a protest dating back to 1704. The king and queen declined the invitation because the royal couple planned to go to Gibraltar, ironically a British colony, for a honeymoon cruise. It was also ironic that they sailed on a boat titled Britannia. Two hundred and seventy-seven years is a long time to hold a grudge!
A man was telling his friend about an argument he had had with his wife. He commented, “Oh, how I hate it, every time we have an argument, she gets historical!” The friend responded, “Don’t you mean hysterical?” “No, the other insisted, “I mean historical. Every time we argue she drags up everything from the past and holds it against me!”
Clara Barton was the founder of the American Red Cross. One time a friend reminded her of something especially mean that a specific person had done to her. Miss Barton responded that she did not recall the incident. “Don’t you remember it?” her friend asked.
“No,” came the reply, “I distinctly remember forgetting it.”
I have mentioned to you before, perhaps you don’t remember it, that there are two Greek words translated “forgive” in the NT. One literally means “to let go,” like when Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus (Mark 1:17). The other word is related to the word “grace” so it means to “be gracious to someone,” in other words, give them something (forgiveness) that they do not deserve.
I have set out this scenario - forgiveness vs holding grudges - in order to set the context for our second lesson on the parable of the prodigal son this morning. Last Sunday morning, we looked at the prodigal son but today, we’re going to look at the oldest brother. Toward the end of my lesson last week, I showed the parallel between the last verses of the parable of the lost sheep (vs 7) and the parable of the lost coin (vs 10) with the last verse in this parable that had to do with the lost boy (vs 24) - “they began to celebrate.”
However, that is not the end of the parable; it’s not the end of the story and that leads us into the whole purpose of the story, the parable. I mentioned last week that the parable of the prodigal son is not about the prodigal son. The parable is not primarily about evangelism. The older brother is the focus of the parable. The parable is about refusing to forgive. How do I know that? Because the #1 rule for interpreting the Bible is to examine the context. Context, context, context. Context rules!
Let’s look at the context. Go back up to 15:1-2… We see that the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling that Jesus was receiving sinners and eating with them. It was in response to that action that Jesus tells these three related parables. He says, in effect: “You know what? If a man has 99 sheep and loses 1, he goes to look for it and he rejoices when that one is found. Indeed, there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance. You know what? If a woman has 10 silver coins and loses one, she goes and looks for it and she rejoices when that one is found. Indeed, there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. A man had two sins and lost one. He rejoices when that one is found. But the brother does not.”
If we are not in the place of the prodigal son this morning, perhaps we are in the place of the older brother. Let’s take a look at him now…
REASONS FOR DISPLEASURE (A review of the prodigal) - 15:11-24:
I just want to hit some highlights of the prodigal son just to point out what the other brother did not do! First, it sounds like the older brother received his share of the inheritance at the same time the youngest brother did (15:12). If so, the oldest brother exercised his free will and stay with his dad. He continued to work on the estate. He did not forsake his dad. He did not waste his inheritance on loose living. He did not hit rock bottom. He did not have to feed swine. He did not lose his mind!
Like a good, obedient, respectful child, the oldest boy stayed at home. Continued being a hard worker. He continued being respectful to his dad. He continued staying faithful and de-pendable and trustworthy. Up until verse 25, we have every reason to have a positive image of the older brother.
But things can change…
THE BOY WAS DOING WHAT HE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE DOING - 15:25-27:
In these two verses, we see that the oldest son did not know his brother had come home. Why? Because he was out working, like he was supposed to be doing! He was in the field where his youngest brother should have been!
Jesus is telling this parable in the audience of the Pharisees and scribes. They were in the law as they should have been. They were in the temple where they should have been! They were in worship to God where they should have been. Depending, perhaps, on the individual Pharisee or scribe, they were in a relationship with God, where they should have been! They were doing all the right things and checking all the right boxes, except one…
THE OLDEST BOY WAS JEALOUS OF THE YOUNGEST’S REPENTANCE - 15:28-30:
Rather than the response that we might anticipate, rather than the rejoicing we saw at the discovery of the lost sheep and the lost coin, the brother (!) gets angry! He is mad relative to the youngest boy coming home! We do not know what all was going through his mind. We can only judge what comes out of his mouth.
First, he was not willing to go in to the party that was happening in their home. He would not go in. His father came out and began pleading with him. Notice the way this verb is translated in the NASV: “began pleading;” which means this was a persistent behavior. The father did not just ask the oldest son once to come into the house. He kept on asking and kept on asking. And the oldest boy dug in his heels and refused to come in; he kept refusing.
In verse 29, he finally responded: “For so many years I have been serving you” — this tells us that the prodigal son must have been gone for a long time. But the son never left his fa-ther’s side.
Secondly, the son says, “I have never neglected a command of yours” — The son em-phasizes his obedient nature. We’ll assume he is being sincere here. He did everything his father asked of him. Everything.
Thirdly, and here is where we get a glimpse into the motivation of the oldest son: “yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends.” Oh, that’s the whole issue there - Dad has never killed the fattened calf for the oldest son. Think back to the Pharisees and scribes for a moment, Jesus’ original audience. What did they expect? What did they want from Jesus that He wasn’t already giving them? Were they grumbling that God had not “killed the fattened calf” for them? Were they jealous of the grace of God that He would ex-tend conversation to tax collectors and sinners?
Verse 30, the son continues in accusing his youngest brother of wickedness - “this son of yours” (notice he does not even claim relationship with him), “who has devoured your wealth” (this verb carries the idea of using up completely) “with prostitutes.” Now, I do not know if this is accurate or not; it was the first time this accusation has been brought into the picture. It is easy to assume that’s the behavior the youngest boy did when he had all his money, but the older broth-er might have also been exaggerating to get a point across - “This boy is a sinner, Dad! A rank, sinner! How can you receive him back as a son!”
THE FATHER EXTENDS MERCY TO THE OLDEST SON - 15:31-32:
Again, we’ll have a whole sermon next Sunday on the dad. But here, we see how he re-sponds to this grumbling, somewhat ungrateful, oldest child. “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Notice how the father reacts. First, he acknowledges that most of what the son has said is true - “You have always been with me.” You have always done what I asked you to do. You have always stayed by my side and worked hard keeping this farm operat-ing.
Secondly, the father reminded the oldest boy of the blessings that were still his. The youngest son wasted, squandered, scattered all his estate - yes, perhaps with prostitutes. But the youngest boy does not have anything left. Nothing. Everything that is on the estate at this point belongs to the oldest son! Why couldn’t he see that and appreciate that? Family, let us be careful that we not despise what we do have from God simply because we look around and get jealous about what we don’t have from God.
The Pharisees and scribes had a relationship with God. Why were they jealous, grum-bling, that the tax collectors and sinners were being invited themselves to develop a relationship with God? How would it have a negative impact on the Pharisees and scribes for Jesus to eat with the tax collectors and scribes? What would they lose from that arrangement?
I really believe that one, maybe the big reason, why so many people in our country today want to tax the rich is because of jealousy. Too many people are jealous of what they don’t have versus what the rich have. But, family, it is simply the case that taxing the rich does not make the poor richer. It makes the richer a little poorer - which is what I think the prime motivation is all along - you don’t get richer by being given handouts. You get wealthier by working hard, invest-ing, and saving. That’s what the Bible teaches and that’s what history and personal experience tells us.
Bill Gates does not get richer at my expense. If Bill Gates gets richer it does not make me poorer. If I decide I need a laptop and I go and buy a laptop for $900, Bill Gates gets a little richer, yes. But if I need a laptop and it will help me do my work to perform my task to get paid, I’m not poorer! I’ve made an investment in myself for $900. Bill Gates is better off and I am bet-ter off. Let’s not allow jealousy dictate our economic policy.
Jealousy is the oldest boy’s heart problem. But it leads to something else - holding a grudge and refusing to forgive.
In verse 32, Jesus has the father tell his oldest boy that they simply had to celebrate the lost boy’s return. The verb translated “had to” carries the idea of a moral necessity. It was nec-essary for us to celebrate your brother’s return! Notice here that the day reminds his oldest son that the boy is also his brother. He has a vested interest in the boy coming back home. No, he will not be equal with the older brother because the youngest son no longer has any inheritance. But, the oldest brother has someone to share the work with. He has someone who can help him manage the farm, especially when dad dies. He’s got his brother back! The brother that was dead but is now alive, the brother who was lost but has been found!
That’s where Jesus left the parable - with the Pharisees and scribes asking themselves how they would respond, being in the position of the oldest brother.
How do you and I respond when someone repents?
Thankfully, I have not seen it here at Swartz Creek; I hope I never do. But you have seen it, probably; perhaps you have even felt a little bit - “Is this person really sincere when he or she comes forward?”
When I was a youth minister in KY twenty years ago, there was a man in the congrega-tion in his mid-50s. The man was an alcoholic. Rachel and I visited with him and his wife several times. We took his wife to hospital visitations because he was working and could not get off. He died about two months before we moved to Romania. In the two years I worked with that con-gregation, that man probably came forward 3-4 times, about every six months.
I remember hearing one person question the man’s sincerity since he came forward so often. The man wasn’t insincere! If he was insincere, he would not have been coming to church in the first place! The man wasn’t insincere; he was weak! He needed our prayers and our en-couragement - not the attitude of the older brother!
What do we want? What do we expect when a brother or sister comes forward? Are we going to make them jump through hoops to “prove their repentance” to us? “If you read your Bi-ble every day, I’ll accept your repentance.” “If you say five prayers every day, I’ll trust that your repentance is sincere.” Isn’t that what the Pharisees and scribes were implying? God needs to expect something out of you that He does not expect out of me. God knows when I repent, I’m sincere but I’m not sure about you. You need to do something extra. Saying you’re sorry just doesn’t cut it.
Are we going to become Catholics and require penance to insure that someone is sincere when they repent? The Catholic Catechism requires a sinner to be contrite, to confess his or her sins, and then to make satisfaction for those sins - it’s called “penance” - I’m quoting from my copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent’s personal situ-ation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear” (Article IV; Chapter II; VII: 1460, pag 407).
Is that biblical? Of course not. When we as Christians sin, we confess our faults to one another (not to a “confessor”; James 5:16), we repent of our sins, and we are immediately re-ceived back into full fellowship with Jesus Christ. That’s exactly what the apostle Peter told Si-mon the Samaritan after he sinned as a Christ: Repent and pray (Acts 8:22). The rest of us Christians need to be more like the father in the story of the prodigal son and less like the older brother.
God is able to forget and forgive our past. Why can’t we forgive others? God throws our sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19) and puts up a sign on the shore that reads, “No fish-ing.”
In ancient times, the depths of the sea were completely inaccessible to humans. We could only dive as far down as our lungs could hold air. But now, we have equipment that could go down 6.79 miles, so we don’t appreciate Micah’s figure of speech. Perhaps we should say that God has cast all our sins into a nuclear waste dump! Now in today’s terms, that is truly inac-cessible! And that’s forgiveness.
Take home message: Let sin go. Extend grace. Be as welcoming as the Father.