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Devotional: The Older Brother

posted on August 26

The Older Brother

(This devotional is written by Brenda Branson, a member of Hanson United Methodist Church.  She writes a daily devotional for the people of Hanson UMC and has online ministry called Broken People https://www.facebook.com/Brokenpeople . )
“Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant.  And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ 
But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him,  but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ 
And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
RSVLuke 15:25-32
I've always imagined that the elder brother was working hard in the field before coming home and realizing there was a party going on inside. I thought he must have been tired and cranky from a hard days work, and just wanted some peace and quiet. But according to Kenneth Bailey, author of The Cross and the Prodigal, the elder son would have been sitting in the shade all day supervising his servants and hired laborers. A wealthy landowner did not do manual labor, and neither did his sons. That paints a different picture, doesn't it?
As he approached the house, he heard music and dancing. It must have been a great party with a band and dancers and singers. Outside of the house is where children or young boys would hang out while their parents were inside celebrating. The same Greek word for "servants" could also mean a young boy. 
The elder brother asked one of the young boys what was going on inside. He quickly found out that his younger brother had returned and his father had prepared a big feast to celebrate his return. The boy informed him "he has received him safe and sound." At first glance it appears he was talking about his physical health, but according to Kenneth Bailey, the word shalom is a better choice of words. "Shalom includes good health, but it also means 'reconciliation.' If the older son had been told, 'your father has received your brother safe and sound, the older son would have rushed at once into the banquet because such a report would have meant that the father had not yet decided what to do with the prodigal. The older son would naturally want to be present to insist, 'Make the irresponsible fool get a job and return the money before you let him in the door!' But if the father has already received the prodigal 'with peace' then the two of them are reconciled--and the older son's point of view has already lost. This explains the older son's explosive wrath."
Why was he so angry? He stood to inherit the rest of his father's estate. His brother had already cashed out his portion, yet a lavish party was being held to welcome him back. Where did the money to pay for the party come from? It came from the profits of his father's estate--profits that should have been his. If the father had restored him as an heir, he may have also given him another portion of his estate, reducing the portion the older son would inherit.
The elder brother was furious at the lavish grace bestowed on his prodigal brother. He must have thought, "It isn't fair! He doesn't deserve it!" And he was right. Grace isn't fair, and no one deserves it. Think of someone who has hurt you or someone you love, or think of the most heinous crime you've ever heard about. How would you feel if the person who perpetrated hurt and harm was celebrated as an equal heir in the Kingdom when God comes to rule and reign? Would your heart be joyful because they had received forgiveness and reconciliation with God, or would you be angry?
What if the person who slandered your name and took over your position in a company or ministry received praise and honor publicly instead of being held accountable for their despicable acts of lying and manipulating? Would you be happy about their success? Maybe you wouldn't do anything overtly to bring them down, but it might be more difficult to celebrate at a party in their honor.
The elder brother refused to go into the house, even though it was his duty to greet guests. His deliberate refusal was insulting to both the guests and to his father.
"Because it is in public, this rebellion of the older son is more serious than the earlier rebellion of the prodigal. Everyone in the banquet hall tenses expectantly, awaiting the father's reaction. They assume the older son will be punished immediately or ignored until the guests are gone and then dealt with harshly.
"For the second time in the same day, the father's response is incredible. Once again he demonstrates a willingness to endure shame and self-emptying love in order to reconcile. It is almost impossible to convey the shock that must have reverberated through the banquet hall when the father deliberately left his guests, humiliated himself before all, and went out in the courtyard to try to reconcile his older son." --Kenneth Bailey
When the text says the father "entreated" him, it suggests he tried to get his son to see things from his perspective, but the older son is burning with anger and lets loose his pent-up complaints and resentments. The self-righteous mask comes off and his true heart and character is finally revealed. Here is what his profile reveals:
1. He felt entitled based on his history of obedience to his father. There were strings attached to his good behavior.
2. He was envious and jealous of his brother.
3. He accused his father of playing favorites.
4. He was greedy and ungrateful. As the elder son, he was eligible to inherit 2/3 of his father's estate, but that wasn't enough for him. He wanted control of it while his father was still alive.
5. He resented his brother (calling him "your son") and accused him of spending money on prostitutes, even though he had no proof. His goal was to discredit him in his father's eyes, as well as tarnish his reputation in the village.
6. He viewed himself more as a servant than a son. "A servant obeys the law. A son responds to love. His choice is law, and his concern is rewards." (Kenneth Bailey)
7. He was unwilling to forgive his brother and considered himself the victim. He preferred to hold a grudge than reconcile with his brother, even though it caused a break in fellowship with his father.
8. "He is consumed with envy, pride, bitterness, sarcasm, anger, resentment, self-centeredness, hate, stinginess, self-satisfaction, and self-deception. Yet he appears to see his actions as a righteous search for honor." (Kenneth Bailey)
The father didn't respond with anger or disgust or judgment. He called him "son"--a special word used that expressed love and affection, such as "my dear son." Then in defense of his actions, he reminded the older son that "all that is mine is yours," and expressed joy because "your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found."
"The shepherd felt no need to explain to his neighbors why he was happy when he found his sheep, and the woman did not have to argue to convince her friends that they should rejoice with her over finding her coin. Yet this is what the father is forced to do." (Kenneth Bailey)
Jesus didn't finish the end of the story. The Pharisees should have identified themselves by now as the elder brother and Jesus as the father. They had been angry with him for welcoming and eating with sinners, so he is saying in essence, "So what will you do with me now? Will you walk away and refuse fellowship or will you come in and join the party?"
How does this story relate to you today? 
* What will you do with Jesus? Will you accept being found and reconciled to the Father, or reject his love and grace if it means you have to reconcile with your brother?
* Are you like the younger brother, the law breaker, or the older brother, the law keeper--both out of fellowship with the Father and lost?
* Do you see yourself as an obedient servant who works hard for God's acceptance or a son and heir who is beloved by the Father?
* Are you enraged by grace? Would you rather God's grace be limited to only those who work hard to deserve it? Does anyone deserve it?
These are difficult questions to answer honestly because all of us at some time in our lives may have been both the prodigal and the elder brother. It is humbling to admit an underlying anger and resentment toward God when he offers his grace to someone who has hurt us so deeply. Yet, if we don't take an inside look and identify what is consuming us, it will destroy us and affect our fellowship with God. 
The Father's invitation to both the prodigals and elder brothers is the same. It is not "Come, be good, but come, be mine." (Phrase borrowed from Todd Agnew)
"The ragamuffin who sees his life as a voyage of discovery and runs the risk of failure has a better feel for faithfulness than the timid man who hides behind the law and never finds out who he is at all.”  --Brennan Manning
* Say, "I love you, Lord."
* Ask God to show you the inner motives of your heart, and give you courage to take an honest look.
* Whatever you find, take it to the Father and let his love and grace transform your heart and mind.
“You’re waiting on the Lord, when maybe the Lord is waiting on you–he’s not waiting to bless you; he’s already done that and will continue to, regardless of your zeal. And he’s not waiting to 'show up,' because he’s already there. 
I mean, what if he’s waiting for you to have a seismic shift in your understanding of what it means to be his child, what it means to trust him, to finally realize that the sky’s the limit–like the father of the prodigal son saying to the self-righteous one: 'All that I have is already yours.'”
--Andrew Peterson