I don’t identify with the prodigal. I never left home. I find more in common with the elder brother, which make me a little uncomfortable. The parable has powerful truths for people with elder-brother issues.
HONESTY IS HARD FOR ELDER BROTHERS.
The body of Christ should be the place where people can tell their story and find a safe place. It is often the place where people pretend it is good when it isn’t.
Enter the elder brother. He’s respectable, conscientious, hard-working. It’s a sham. He hates a father who makes him work for every penny. When the father asks him to quit working and join the celebration he resist. Yet he says, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” Hey, Charlie, how about the one you just refused? He tried to control his brother, and he attempted to control his father’s response to his brother, all the while out of control with anger. Think Pharisee.
The prodigal had nothing to lose by being honest. He confessed, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (21). Not a bad prayer for starters. Prodigals can teach us truckloads about honesty. Elder brothers who can take off their mask long enough to be weak will discover how weak they are–and how great God is. Not easy.
GRACE IS HARD FOR ELDER BROTHERS.
You’d think they were talking about different dads. The prodigal tells you how much he was forgiven. His brother says, “You never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends” (29). Why? Because he was a servant, not a son. He worked for a boss, not a father.
Elder brothers are more comfortable with law than grace, with performance than promise. Grace sometimes makes them angry: “When this son of yours (not too accepting) who has squandered your property (wrong–it was his own) with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him” (30).
Elder brothers need to take their cue from the prodigal. He embraces grace, he wears it. Grace is related to truth. When we embrace truth, we receive grace. People who feel they deserve grace cannot lay hold on it.
CELEBRATION IS HARD FOR ELDER BROTHERS
There’s no time for fun when there’s work to be done. Too many deadlines. The boss expects too much of me. And yet “the boss” tried to get him to loosen up: “My son (look what he called him), you are always with me, and everything I have is yours (generosity). We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours (point) was dead and is alive again” (31,32).
The Christian life is not primarily doing something for God. It is knowing God, being known by him, letting him love and enjoy His family. The prodigal’s dad HAD to celebrate. Not the brother. Servants get a paycheck, sons get an inheritance.
We need to ask ourselves, “Have I turned delight into duty?” May we repent of our self-righteousness that has driven younger ones into the far country. May we be gracious enough to embrace the prodigals—and the elder brothers who need the same grace.