"The Elder Son" (April 2008)
When you read the Bible, it’s important that you don’t just “read” the Bible. The Bible is more than just black words on white paper. It was written and inspired by God for our benefit. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16,17) It is full of commands, restrictions, admonishments, teachings, instructions, discipline, life and encouragement. “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” (Romans 15:4) The Bible is also full of examples that were written for us to learn from. “Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11) All the stories that we read in the Bible of Abraham, Moses, David, the Apostles, every character, was given to us as an example. So when we read the stories and accounts of what happened to these Biblical characters, we must ask the Lord to show us how what happened to them applies to us and what the example that we can learn from it is.
The dictionary defines example as: a pattern or model, as of something to be imitated or avoided; an instance serving for illustration. Jesus even used parables as examples to teach us something valuable that we need to know in order to live an abundant Christian life, walk in Biblical principals or avoid a pitfall that could destroy us. One such parable is the story of the prodigal son. We all know the story. Many sermons have been preached about this young man who left his father’s house, took his inheritance and spent it on wild living. It is often preached as an example of God the Father’s love and acceptance of the backslider who repents and returns “home” to Him. There are three characters in this parable: the father, the prodigal son and the elder brother. Each one teaches us a lesson. This month I want to focus on the elder brother and the example that we have portrayed through his life.
Most sermons that are preached about the elder brother deal with his jealous attitude- that certainly is an example that shows us what we need to avoid. But I want to point out other lessons that we have in this story that we need to take note of and not follow the same example. First, we will go ahead and talk about his jealous attitude since that is what he is best known for. We certainly want to avoid having jealousy- it is a destroyer. It will destroy you and hurt everyone around you. It will cause you to miss out on the wonderful blessings of peace of mind, happiness, joy and relationships. “And he was angry, and would not go in.” (Luke 15:28a) When the father gave a celebration for the returning son, the elder son would not go in and enjoy the celebration- he missed out. He missed out on the opportunity to reestablish a relationship with his brother, to enjoy the celebration and bring joy to the heart of the father. When we have a jealous attitude, we miss out too. Solomon said,“...jealousy is cruel as the grave.” (Song of Solomon 8:6ff) The grave is a place of death. When he compared jealousy to the cruelty of the grave, he was saying that it will steal life from you and bury it leaving nothing but death and emptiness in it’s place.
Another lesson we learn from this elder brother’s example is that jealousy, like many other negative and evil attitudes, is just the surface problem. He had a bigger problem than just the jealousy. “Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.” (Luke 15:25-30) Did you hear what his problem was? It was “anger”- he was angry with his father. He was angry because he had not left his father, he had stayed there and served him all those years while his brother was gone, he had been a good son, never gave his father any grief, never disobeyed, yet his father never gave him a party or killed the fatted calf for him but did for this rebellious, wayward son. This elder brother was angry with the father because he didn’t think that his younger brother deserved the attention and acceptance that the father was giving him. He also felt like he deserved it and was not getting it.
Many Christians get jealous when the Lord blesses a fellow "brother" that they don't think is "worthy", but what they don't realize is that their jealousy is really anger toward God (our heavenly Father)- just like this elder brother’s was anger toward his father. The jealousy that they are experiencing is a "surface" problem, the real root is that they are angry with God. This is what happened to Cain. Cain got angry because God accepted Abel's offering and did not accept his offering. Cain's anger was toward God but it manifested in jealousy toward Abel. We tend to believe the problem is the one we see- jealousy of someone, not the one that is hidden- anger toward God, so the way we deal with it is by coming against that person- Cain killed Abel, the elder brother would not go in and celebrate with the younger brother. We find it easier to deal with and admit that we are jealous, angry, etc. with someone else, but we don't like to think and have a hard time dealing with the fact that we are angry, upset, or mad at God. But if we are going to live at peace with one another, if we are going to walk in victory, if we are going to bear the fruit of the Spirit, if we are going to live in fellowship with the Lord, if we are going to be bright shining lights in a dark world, we are going to have to go to the root of the problem and admit like David that it is "against Thee".
When the heavenly Father blesses someone, whether you think they deserve His blessings or not, don’t get angry with Him. Instead thank Him for His grace and mercy that is extended to us all, because the truth is that none of us deserve any good thing that the Lord sends our way. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6a) “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.” (Lamentations 3:22)
“And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” (Luke 15:29-31) A third lesson I want to address is found in verse twenty-nine: “And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.” The elder brother accused the father of not doing anything for him. Does this sound like some Christians you know? They are always accusing God of not answering their prayers, of not meeting their need, of not giving them what they want, of not caring about them. To the elder son's accusation above the father answered, "And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine." (verse 31) The father's answer- in plain English- was: "You've always been with me and everything I have is yours". This answer implies that the elder son had opportunity to ask the father for a party, to have friends over, to celebrate, for anything he wanted, but he never did.
There was so much available to the elder brother- whatever he had wanted was there for him- but he never asked the father for it. If he would have asked his father, he could have enjoyed the same blessings that were being bestowed on the returning son, but he never took advantage of all the resources that his father had. It was not the father’s fault. The father was willing and able to do for his son. It’s not God’s fault either if we go lacking. God has provided great resources for us to meet every need, to give us the desire of our heart, to provide in our times of weakness, to give us when we lack, but we will go lacking if we don't ask the Father for it. "Ask, and it shall be given you." (Matthew 7:7a) The elder son did not receive because he did not ask although everything the father had was available to him. If we aren't asking, we won't receive either? God the Heavenly Father has made so much available to us. He has given us every good and perfect gift, He has promised to meet and supply every need, there is no good thing that He withholds from us, yet we have not because we ask not. “...yet ye have not, because ye ask not.” (James 4:2b)
Lastly, I want to look at another example that this elder brother exhibited- it too is one that we want to avoid, or rather, be on guard against. In order to recognize it we have to first take a look at the father. Through this story we see the nature and character of the father revealed. He was a man who loved his sons. He had great resources and was generous with them. He was a wise man. He was kind, caring, compassionate, patient, long-suffering, forbearing and forgiving. He did not hold a grudge and wasn’t vengeful. He was a man who put the past in the past. They say that children look like their parents. My daughter doesn’t look much like me but there is no doubt of who her daddy is. My sweet little granddaughter looks just like her dad, but has her mother's nose. Children not only have their parents’ physical looks, often they have some of the same characteristics. The older I get the more I resemble my mother in certain areas of our personality. I see some of the same gestures that she makes beginning to surface in me. There are things that my daughter will say and I’ll tell her that sounds just like me. We even think alike on certain issues. It’s not only natural to have the same physical traits that your parents have, but it is also natural to “act” like them because of the influence they have in your life. When I go to my sister’s home, the whole household- my niece and nephew included- all do certain things the same way, and they do them differently than we do them in my home.
When you look at the father in this story and you look at the elder brother, they don’t bear much of a family resemblance. The father was forgiving, the son was accusing. The father was rejoicing over his son’s return and the elder son was jealous. The father exhibited selflessness and the elder son exhibited selfishness. The father was compassionate, the elder son was critical. The father was happy and the elder son was mad. There should have been something in this son that resembled his father. But it looked like they were the opposite in their attitude, in their response, in their disposition, in their thinking and in their actions. This is what we need to avoid- not looking like our heavenly Father. As Christians we should look like Him- in attitude, action and deed. “Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children.” (Ephesians 5:1) The word for followers in the Greek means imitators. We are suppose to imitate what we see the Father do and say. If He is compassionate, we should be compassionate. If He is forgiving, we should be forgiving. If He is kind and long-suffering, we should be the same. If He is merciful, we should be merciful.
Jesus our beloved elder brother, God’s only begotten Son, taught us by example. His example was-- “he that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” (John 14:9ff) Why? “So Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” (John 5:19-New Living Translation) Everything that Jesus did, He saw the Father do, so Jesus was imitating the Father. Therefore, leaving us an example to follow.
When we don’t act like our Father, it robs us of so many opportunities to bring Him glory. It causes us to hide our lights and not let them shine. It hinders us from bringing healing and restoration to those who are hurting. It discredits our witness. Our fruit does not remain and is undesirable to those who would pick from it. If we are His children then we need to be more like Him. “...Because as he is, so are we in this world.” (1 John 4:17b) As His child do you bear a family resemblance to your Father?
If you have noticed in our observation of the elder brother, there has been nothing good that we have said about him. He has proven to be the kind of example that we don’t want to follow and one that Jesus is warning us about so that we don’t become like him. But I can’t stop here, there is more. Perhaps you have noticed some same similarities to him in your own life. Don’t get discouraged, there is hope. “And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.” (verse 28) Even though this son was full of anger, jealously and unforgiveness, even though he was shaming his father by his refusal to come and celebrate, even though he showed no love or compassion... “The father went out to him”. The son wouldn’t go to where the father was at the celebration so the father went to where he was. This father knew that the elder son was a lost sheep also who needed to “return home”. The father had compassion on him and went to “intreat” him to come in. The word intreat in the Greek means: to call to one's side; be done in the way of exhortation, entreaty, comfort, instruction, etc.; to beg; to encourage, strengthen, exhorting and comforting and encouraging. It sounds to me like the father had a heart of compassion for this son as well and didn’t want to see him “on the outside looking in”. The father went to him to try to persuade him to come. Like the “good shepherd”, the father left the ninety-nine (he left the celebration) and went to look for the one (this son) who was in need. The father loved both his sons, and they both had a need. The hope of the story is that it doesn’t matter which son you are- the prodigal or the elder brother; it doesn’t matter how great or small your need may be; it doesn’t matter where you are- in the pig pen, in the house, in the field; the heavenly Father loves you and is “intreating” you to come to Him.