Elder Brothers

Luke 15  

I remember hearing Rick Atchley talk about preaching on this story. He said, “Save the elder brother for last and leave quickly. It seems like when you start talking about him, people get more upset than about anybody else in the story.”  Maybe that’s how it should be.  If you want to understand the story and the point behind it you have to understand the older son. Remember the context – Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:1-2

Inappropriate forgiveness?

Let’s begin with a speech given on May 20, 1991. Lech Walesa, the president of Poland was invited to address the Israeli parliament.  He was invited by Yitzak Shemir, whose parents had died in a Polish prison camp.  You see, the Israeli people, to this day, believe that when the Nazis invaded Poland, the Polish people did not do enough to help the Jews.  And so Lech Walesa said, “Here in Israel in the land of your culture and revival, I ask for your forgiveness.”  And the reaction was interesting – some applauded, some ignored him, some said it was too late, some too little. 

I was reminded of Simon Wiesenthal’s book, The Sunflower.

You may not have heard of Simon Wiesenthal’s book, The Sunflower, but you may recognize the name of the famous hunter of Nazi war criminals. Simon Wiesenthal, as a young man, was interred at one of the Nazi prison camps.  For some reason he didn’t understand, he was plucked from one of the labor details and made to work in one of the hospitals that served the German soldiers. That was probably the only reason he was still alive.  He tells the story that years later he was asked one day to go up to visit a man in a hospital. This man had been an SS Officer. This particular officer had been with some other comrades on the Russian front. They had rounded up some Jews in a barn and set it on fire, and as the Jews would jump out of the second story loft to escape the fire, he and his fellow soldiers would pick them off with their rifles for sport. And he said to Wiesenthal, “I cannot die in peace until you forgive me for this horrible thing that I have done.” Wiesenthal says that he stared at the man for a moment or two, and the he slowly turned his back on the man and walked out of the room.

Now the rest of the book contains 32 essays by theologians and ethicists and moralists about whether Simon Wiesenthal did the right thing. And 26 of the 32 said, yes he did. Some said sin and forgiveness are archaic, some said only those slain could forgive him, but most said he did the right thing because there are just some sins that are so horrible that forgiveness is inappropriate – there are some times when it is wrong to forgive.

Now the last part of Luke 15 makes us face that question: “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!’ 

‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”  Luke 15:25-32.

Is it ever inappropriate to forgive?  You see, the Bible is not a collection of fairy tales where everybody lives happily ever after.  There are 3 parables in Luke 15 – the first two establish the rightness of joy, the third examines one who resents the forgiveness which brings it.  This man had two sons.  I want us to look at this older son through a series of questions.  The father and the son each have a question, and we can get at their questions by asking some more questions.

The main question of the older son is “Why is my father celebrating the return of this boy?”

The father had two sons, one was too good to be true, the other too bad to be bearable.  He had one boy who had been selling oats instead of sowing them, he was never any problem. He would have been elected Outstanding Young Man of the year by the local Junior Achievement council.

You’d probably like him – most of us like workers better than wasters.  He is shocked to learn what the reason is for the music and dancing.  In a sense, everything the father is using to celebrate belongs to him – the younger son has spent his inheritance.  Not only that, but if the older boy hadn’t stayed home and faithfully discharged his duties there wouldn’t be a farm to come back to.  And so, filled with righteous indignation, he refuses to take his place as co-host at this party.  Have you ever been so mad at somebody that you stood out in the yard so you wouldn’t have to talk to them?  That’s what he’s doing.  He’s furious – with his brother and with his father.  And so his question: “Why is my father celebrating the return of this boy?” 

Let me share 3 questions he is really asking when the dad comes out:

1)  “Dad, don’t you realize what he’s been doing?”  “If you knew what he’s been doing you wouldn’t be throwing him a party – he’s been squandering your money on prostitutes!”  But how did the older son know? Had he hired detectives, heard the gossip, or was he judging himself (“If I had a lot of money and took a trip to the far country that’s what I would do.”) Older brothers are good at assuming they know what the lost are like even though they never spend any time with the lost.  It’s always been easier to come back to God than to the criticisms of men.

2)  “Dad, don’t you realize he doesn’t belong with people like us?”

In the older son we see the real heart of Pharisaic theology.  Again, remember he’s responding to the question, “Jesus, why do you eat with sinners?”  They honestly believed you don’t associate with sinners because God doesn’t love sinners – and it goes back to their assumption that sinners can’t change.  Look again at end of Luke 14 – Jesus is issuing a challenging, costly, demanding call to discipleship. And who are these people listening to him?  The very people the Pharisees didn’t think were capable of changing.  They had been prostitutes, profligates, tax-collectors, but they are listening to a life-changing message from the Son of God about getting their lives right with God.

Older brothers can’t remove the language of condescension from religion, they are always talking down to people.   They have what I call an “unattractive goodness” – they are good people, but you don’t want to be around them.  That may be one of the reasons the younger boy left home.  Would you go to that older brother with problems?  That may be the reason more people take their problems to Happy Hour than to church.  They don’t reject you at the bar, but they might at church.  Gandhi was once asked what the greatest enemy of Christ is – he quickly replied “the church.”  As a young man, he was enamored with Jesus, and went to a church to learn more about being a Christian, but he was thrown out because of the color of his skin.  And Gandhi believed that if it wasn’t for the church, most people would want to be Christians.

3)  And the third question – this one’s important: “Dad, don’t you realize who really deserves to be honored?” 

“All these years I’ve been slaving for you.”  That’s the real issue.  “I’m the one who deserves the party.  I’ve kept the orders, I’ve plowed the fields, I’ve taken care of the livestock, but I’ve never even had a weenie roast.  But he goes off and lives like a pagan, comes back and gets a party.”  Elder brothers always feel like they are not appreciated as much as they deserve to be.  They tend to be bookkeepers more than brothers.  They can tell you down to the last line how much they’ve done for the church.  And the bottom line is, he wants a goat more than a brother. 

We’ve still got elder brothers among us – in every church – “I’m worried about that preacher, those elders – don’t we honor morality and faithfulness anymore?  Hugging sinners – a person could do anything, say he’s sorry and be a member of this church.  What’s the matter with these people?!”  What they are really saying is, “when is someone going to pay attention to me? I’ve been good a long time.”  It’s ironic how blind sin-hating older brothers are to their own envy.

And so, the day the father had longed for proves to be bitter-sweet.  He’s waited all this time for his younger boy to come home, and now his older son won’t come in the door.

Let’s turn to the Father’s questions:  The older son asked – “Why is dad celebrating?” The basic question of the father is, “Why isn’t my older boy celebrating with me?”

I like verse 28 – “older son refused to come in, so the father went out…”  The Father’s love in the story is constant for both boys. He went out, not just for one son, but for both of them.  The truth is, both are prodigals, both need to be reconciled.  He knows the anger the older son is trying to live on is no more nourishing than husks the younger boy tried to eat.  And so the Father has his own questions:

1)  “Son, don’t you realize, when your father gains a son, you gain a brother?”  1 John 4:20 If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar.  (If somebody calls you “a liar” those are fighting words.)  …For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 

You cannot be a loving son and an unloving brother.  Look at Luke 15:30, 32 – the older son says, “this son of yours” and the father’s response: “this brother of yours.”  He returns the younger son to his identity as son and brother.  The younger says “I’m not worthy…” but the father says “you are my son.”  The older says “He’s not worthy” but dad says “He is your brother.”

2)  Question #2 – and this one is important: “Don’t you realize you are trying to earn what you already have?”  This story is really about two prodigal sons.  The first prodigal sinned by rebelliously denying his sonship.  The second prodigal sinned by pridefully presuming he had earned his sonship. 

Verse 29 – “All these years I have been slaving for you.”  I’ll bet he could tell his father right down to the number of days he had served. His use of the word “slave” gives him away – he doesn’t understand what it means to be a son. He sees himself as a hireling – “if I do enough and work hard enough I will obligate my father.”  He served out of duty, not devotion, certainly not joy.  He wants something out of the father (it is ironic – he already has it!) 

He doesn’t really want to be with dad, what he really wants is a party with his friends, like the younger brother.  He lost his father, his brother, and his joy.  That’s how it is if you are working for acceptance – trying to earn sonship, instead of serving because you are a son.  (Think we’re just playing with words? Either way you end up working to get the reward.)  But it makes all the difference in the world. It is the difference between slavery and sonship. 

Elder brothers don’t understand grace – they resent it and resent you when you preach about it.  It never occurred to him that his good fortune was a gift not earned.  He thought he deserved it because he slaved for it.  Who’s he kidding?  He’s out in the same field with dozens of others working longer and harder, but they don’t have anything. 

Why does he have anything at all?  Because he works hard?  No! He is a son – that’s the only reason.  He is making himself a slave for what is already his.  It’s almost funny, if it weren’t tragic – “Son, are you upset about party? Everything I have is yours –if you want a party, go get yourself a goat and have a party!”  The only one who kept the son from a party was the son himself. 

Merit theology – it cost him the party he wanted, the joy he needed, and most of all, it kept him from his father.  It makes religion an absolute burden.

3)  “Don’t you realize, it’s not how close you are to sin, but how far you are from your father’s heart?”  He had his father’s name, but not his father’s heart.  In fact, he didn’t trust his father’s heart.  “If you don’t watch him he’ll go out there and forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it.  Someone has to be around to make sure everybody is toeing the line.” 

Both boys are prodigal – you can be lost through rebellion or religion – sitting in a pub or a pew.  The older brother found the far country even though he never left home.  If you think you could never go to the far country you are halfway there. 

It’s obvious from Luke 15 what the angels think of the father’s heart – they love it!  I know what the Pharisees think – they don’t trust it.  And when we finish with the last verses of Luke 15 – it hits us between the eyes – “what do I think of the father’s heart?”

Three questions as we close:

1)  How do you feel about the lost being saved?  We need to remember we all have roots in the far country, and there is no greater sin than denying God’s grace and no surer sign than being unwilling to celebrate when someone who is lost is saved. 

2)  Do you feel like a son or a slave?  When you read Luke 15 and see words like rejoice and joy and gladness and celebrate, can you not connect with them or do you wonder what does that have to do with religion? 

They were honoring David Livingston because of all the sacrifices he had made in his life as a missionary, and he responded, “I have never made a sacrifice in my life. It’s not a sacrifice if you want to do it – it’s a joy.” 


3)  Are you really happy just with the father’s love?  Are you happy just to know that you matter to God?  Just to know the reward of sonship, to get to be with the father?  I can tell you, there is always going to be somebody who gets more attention, applause, appreciation than you.  And that is going to eat you alive unless you are happy just to have the father’s love.  When that is enough you don’t envy your brother. 

What will you do with Luke 15? 

I don’t know what you are going to do with Luke 15, but I heard of one preacher who did something rather interesting with it.  There was a family in this congregation, and they had a boy who had given them a lot of trouble – rebellious, disobedient, disrespectful.  He’d gotten in some minor brushes with the law, ran away from home, stole a couple of cars, wound up with offenses against the law in two different states, and placed in a juvenile delinquency center.

After he’d served his time, it was time for him to be released and the family was nervous.  The boy hadn’t been with them for some time and they didn’t know what to expect, what to do. And so they called the preacher and said they’d just like to get some advice. “We’ve thought a long time about it, and we’ve written a set of rules for how that boy’s going to behave himself once he gets home. And the first thing we’re going to do when he walks in the door is read those rule to him, because he needs to know what we expect of him under our roof.”

The minister said, “I’ll be right over.” I think he knew that that kind of attitude had helped drive the boy away in the first place. So he got over to their house and he opened up his Bible and said, “Before we get started let me read a story to you.” And he read Luke 15 – that’s all he did. The family scratched their heads, “Well, what’s your point?” He said, “No point, I just wanted to read that story.” They got to thinking and asked, “Now preacher, just what are you saying? That we should throw a party for this boy?” “Well, I just thought the story was appropriate – I want you to do whatever you think.”

So the next day the dad drove down, picked up the boy and brought him home. He walked up to the door and opened it – “Surprise!” And there they were – aunts and uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters. And out comes a big cake with candles. Out come the presents. “We are throwing you a party because you are back home with us!”

About a year later, the preacher was telling how it was going with that family and that boy. He was grinning and said, “That boy is in church every time the doors are open. He sits with his parents with his arms around their shoulders. He’s doing great!”

I’m not a family therapist.  I know all families are different.  There may not be one right way to handle every situation.  I didn’t tell the story for that reason.  I told it to ask you this question: Do you think that kind of forgiveness is appropriate?  And let me tell you the answer: you would if you needed it.  And let me tell you something else – you do.