If you haven’t read my previous post, read it before you get to this one because it will make more sense. The second part of this parable in Luke 15 is difficult to communicate, but crucial. It’s difficult because from the outside, elder sons look like they have it all together. They obey the rules and seem to get this whole Christianity thing, when in reality, they completely miss the point. Not only do they miss the point, but actually tend to push non-believers away. They are so heavily focused on their achievements and moralistic abiding rules that they forget their need for Jesus. They think they can be their own savior. The gospel obliterates this idea; I mean it completely wrecks it. The gospel opens veiled eyes to our sinfulness and desire to soak in self-glory like elder sons, but it provides a free, yet costly solution. It provides a substitution on our behalf–Jesus. It reveals that even our best efforts and mustered up righteousness needs to be forgiven and atoned for. This is why Jesus taught the parable and it’s exactly why it is one of my favorites, because he teaches that both types of sons rob us of joy and that when our eyes are fixed on ourselves, we will never be satisfied. I know because I’ve seen myself as both types of sons. It isn’t until our eyes are fixed upon Christ’s work–not our own, that we experience freedom and true joy.
The elder son:
After the celebratory feast for the younger son’s return home, the elder son becomes filled with rage. Luke 15:28 says, “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.” There are two key parts to this verse alone. If the elder brother’s motivations weren’t skewed, he wouldn’t have responded in anger. Rather, he would rejoice in the fact that his brother came home. He would be filled with an overflow of joy, just as we should respond joyfully to others’ zeal for our Heavenly Father. His heart was just as filthy as his younger brother’s but he was blinded to it. The second part to this verse is the father’s response to his elder son. The father pursued him. He left the party to beg his son to come and join the feast. He didn’t respond in anger to his son. He graciously asked him to come celebrate! The son pridefully answered his father in verse 29-30 saying: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never even gave me a 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!” His response reflects an ungrateful and entitled heart. Elder brother’s begin to feel entitled because they compare their righteous acts to others’ wrongdoings. They secretly enjoy when others blow it because it seems to make them look better. It overtakes our joy when we compare to others. But I say this because I know from experience! I fall into this at times, as I think we would be foolish to say we do not. The parable wraps up with the father’s response that says, “My son, 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.” For someone to not be able to celebrate something like this clearly displays a deep rooted issue in their heart.
The elder son carried spiritual toxicity. What I mean is that he obeyed his father’s rules, but used this as a disguised tactic to point to himself. The point of Christianity is not to make ourselves look good, but rather to make much of Jesus and point towards Him. I can’t help but think about a famous quote by Ghandi that says, “I like your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians.” This is exactly where skeptics and even elder brothers fail to understand the point of Christianity. Jesus isn’t just a sidekick to our righteousness. He is the only true righteous One who can redeem our dark hearts. The depth of our sin is so heavy that we must not only repent for “wrongdoing”, but also “right-doing”–the sin under all surface-sin: seeking to be our own Savior, which amounts to pride. Even our own righteous acts are sinful and so many people miss this. Isaiah 64:6 would bluntly say: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” These too, must be atoned for. We must count them as loss for Christ’s sake as Paul would say in Philippians. But elder brothers want to hold onto these acts and take credit for them. For us to take credit for any good acts is foolish to the cross. The whole reason for Jesus to come live a perfect life is because nobody could. Not one type of offering, sacrifice, or soul can fulfill God’s demand for holiness–only Jesus can fulfill that and save sinners. Elder brothers subconsciously desire to take the place of Christ by trying to work for salvation. They put emphasis on themselves and their actions. The spotlight isn’t to be placed on us, but on Jesus. Our duty is to boast in Christ and Christ alone. The gospel leaves no room to elevate man, but our society says everything opposite. It’s exactly why it is an offense to many who believe the gospel isn’t enough, or even that it is well too good to be applied (to a younger son). Both beliefs are prideful. Jesus came to seek what was lost and it would be foolish to think on either side of the pendulum of licentiousness (younger brother) or self-righteousness (older brother).
The elder son’s motivations in the parable were completely jacked. He obeyed his father not as a response to the father’s great love, but to try to earn his love and manipulate it. It is Christ’s love for us that compels us, not our love for him! It must all start with God. We must examine our hearts deepest motivations and ask deep questions like “Why am I truly desiring to be in a relationship with Jesus?”…”What compels my yearnings for Jesus?”…”Am I truly grateful for the grace of Jesus?” We have to pray for God to rip these self-glory seeking hearts out of us and replace them with humility and repentance–and with God-yearning, God-glorifying hearts. You see, careful obedience to God might actually be used against us and serve as a strategy for rebelling against God (I got this last sentence from Tim Keller. No, I am not that wise to come up with that on my own!). The good news is that God can transform any type of heart that is driven by either self-righteousness or licentiousness. His ability to redeem exceeds any one “stereotypical” person. God’s grace is violent and relentless, which is good news! I want to wrap up with a C.S Lewis quote. It covers both types of brothers. It says: “God loves us; not because we are lovable, but because He is love; not because He needs to receive, but because He delights to give.”