This past Sunday, Pastor Tim continued his sermon series on Luke 15. One of the stories found within is often called the “Prodigal Son“. But on Sunday, we didn’t look so much at the “prodigal” as we did the elder brother. When Pastor Tim first started his series the week prior to the Sunday past, I was intrigued. I had never really considered that the prodigal son may not actually be the focus for Jesus when He was telling this story. The suggestion, instead was that the point of this story is to highlight the [inappropriate] behaviour of the elder brother.
I won’t recap the entire sermon, because my goal here is’nt to preach, but instead to examine this message in the context of my own life, hoping that my reflections might resonate with you, but because some context is always beneficial, here’s a short summary. In the two stories preceding the story of the prodigal son, the focus is always on the rejoicing that comes with the return of something lost (whether that be a lost sheep or coin). The story of the prodigal son continues with this line of thinking – the son is lost and the father rejoices when he is found again. In THIS particular story, there’s more to it. Jesus introduces an older brother character who is not present in all the others. Instead of rejoicing for the return of his brother, he grumbles and outright insults his father. After all, he is the “good” one who stayed home and did NOT spend his father’s inheritance on [insert whatever thrill or pleasure you wish here] while he was still alive. No, the good brother did everything right. And he wants you to know it, too (Luke 15:29). What did he get in reward for his actions? He suggests that he got absolutely nothing. He didn’t get a grand party, or even a young goat to share with his friends, he continues to complain. He seems to be aghast at how his father could treat him so poorly when he believes he is so clearly in the right and always has been. Do you find yourself feeling badly for him? Can you relate?
Perhaps the elder brother was thinking about all of the experiences that he missed by being the “good” one, but he seems to quickly and easily gloss over the hardship and humiliation he also managed to avoid. After all, his younger brother did come home simply with the hopes of becoming a hired servant that he might not need to eat slop made for pigs. The elder seems to think that he would have had more fun if he had done exactly as his brother had. You could even say he regrets being the “good” one. His ideas seem pretty narrow-minded (after all, though he did miss out on the “fun”, he also missed out on experiencing hunger and alienation – just a few of the negatives his brother would have). He is acting jealously and selfishly.
After portraying the elder brother in such a negative light, I’m sure you can imagine how shocked I was to see myself in the elder brother. If you asked me to describe myself, I would probably say that I tend to be a helpful, friendly, kind, loving, and caring person who always puts others before myself. But let’s dig a little bit deeper. These may all be good actions, but what’s my motivation? Sometimes I find myself trying to “earn” my way into God’s kingdom. How strange is that when we have such a loving God that has already taken care of the debt that we could never pay anyway? To think that I could ever be good enough to earn my way into God’s good graces makes me realize that pride hides in my heart, and the biggest problem with it is that it is sneaky. It can manifest itself as the motivation for good actions, not just bad ones. It can creep up in a whole church virtually unnoticed until someone on the outside mentions how unwelcoming or exclusive a place this or that church is. If my motivation comes from pride and a selfish desire to be good, then what I’m doing is not out of love for God or for those around me. It’s for me. And if it’s for me, it’s not really love, is it?
What about your motivation? Why do you do the “good” things in life? Would you be there to celebrate when your “brother” returns from making some pretty terrible decisions – whatever they may be? I am confident that my truthful (though painful) answer to this question would have been a resounding “no, that’s just not fair!” Yikes – what an immature thought. There are times in my life where I have decided (i.e. judged) someone as beyond reconciliation. You know, sometimes there is this snap moment where you realize just how nasty your thoughts can be, and how quickly selfishness and pride can creep up on you and make themselves at home, whether you know Jesus or not. We all share the ugly of the world.
I am grateful that even in my imperfections, God’s love for me is perfect. He is patient and allows me to grow and to change in my perspective toward people – to see them the way that He sees them – and to begin to love them with a no-strings-attached, nothing-expected-in-return, unconditional sort of love. I’ve spent some time doing some heart and soul-searching to make sure that my heart responses line up with those of the Father and NOT the elder brother. Sometimes we need to realize that the ugly that we often overlook in ourselves can be much, much, worse than the ugly that we can point out in others. Have you ever been able to relate with the elder brother? How can we genuinely celebrate with those who come broken-hearted looking for Jesus? Let us know in the comments below! When we put aside our selfish ambitions and simply celebrate with one lost person who is found, God is celebrating with us.