Insight for Those Like the Prodigal's Older Brother—
from Luke 15
One of the most amazing passages of Scripture is found in Romans 9:1-4, where Paul wished he could give up his own eternal life to save his countrymen. Paul says:2] I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3] For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4] the people of Israel.
When we think of Paul's passion for people who don't know Christ, most of us would be put to shame in comparison. When was the last time we prayed a prayer like Romans 9 and meant it? The question is: How did Paul get to the place where he had such a heart for the lost? Can we develop a heart like his for the lost? Can you or I encourage a heart for the lost in others? To answer that question, we need to ask and answer two other important questions, adapted from "Ignite Your Passion for the Lost," by Paul Borthwick, Discipleship Journal, Issue 88, 1995, p. 24.
- The first of these questions is:
- A theological question: Are lost people really lost?
In our age of politically correct vocabulary, we hesitate to refer to people as spiritually or eternally lost. Some drop the word lost and cautiously describe the lost as those who are not quite as far along in their spiritual pilgrimage. Terms like "lost" and "sinner" for some come across too harsh, blunt, or insensitive.
For those who might still adhere to pluralism, Jesus is one answer on God's multiple choice test where every answer is correct. It is not unusual for some Christians to even shy away from declaring Jesus as the unique way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). Some are afraid to say that Jesus is God and the only way to salvation.
But for the Christian, our theology rests on the question, "Is Jesus the one way?" If the answer is yes, how did Jesus refer to people outside of a relationship with Him? He called them lost!
In the parable of Luke 15, which we will look at a portion of today, He refers to a lost sheep; a lost coin; and a lost son, all analogies for those who need to be found by Jesus. When Jesus encountered the hated tax collector, Zacchaeus, in Luke 19, He stated His mission very clearly:
For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost—Luke 19:10.
We are not "narrow" in declaring that people are lost and need Jesus. He is the author of Christianity, and the One who declared the road to God narrow. Matthew 7:13—"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14] But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."
- The personal question: What is our world view and our role in the world?
The way we see our world and our roles in it determines whether we even care about developing a heart for the lost. If we see ourselves as living on a comfortable Christian cul-de-sac, (dorm-de-sac or apartment-de-sac) where the goal is to escape from the world, then we won't care much about developing a heart for the lost. If we see Christianity as only a matter of doing good deeds and being nice (without elements of proclamation of truth or engagement for decision), then why would we develop a heart for the lost? If we are angry and resentful of those who squander their lives and are not following Jesus, developing love for the lost and a desire to see them come to Christ is not likely. If we can't separate sin from the sinner (i.e., love the sinner but dislike/hate their sin), developing a passion for those outside the kingdom will not come quickly.
On the other hand, if we understand our calling to be God's agents as salt and light and that people are truly lost who don't know Him, then developing a heart for the lost will be a necessary act of loving obedience to Jesus!
In Luke 15, Jesus gives us three parables, all of which could speak to how Jesus saw people and how we should as well. The Lord continually sought to rescue those who were alienated from Him, so He gave to the disciples and His critics a series of parables that were a response to the criticism He was receiving. I want to comment on one of these parables, then we'll see how we might apply the spirit of the teaching.
Let me give you the setting first:
v. 1—Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear Him. Isn't this an interesting crowd? Jesus was teaching tax collectors and moral outcasts spiritual truths concerning God's kingdom. But quickly the religious teachers voiced their displeasure. v 2.—But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." Why were they upset?
The tax collectors were dishonest and sold themselves to the Roman government, and the religious teachers viewed them as beyond help or hope. "Sinners" could mean prostitutes; they also were considered spiritually dead and cut off from Israel because of their sin. It's interesting... these teachers were looking for converts, but wouldn't consider these "sinners" as possible candidates—Matt. 23:15. This is true today as well. Many maintain a list of acceptable people, and if someone's sin is too grievous, he/she is off the list.
Look at verse one again:
v. 1—Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear Him. I love to see people of great need gathering, and I note that they "were all gathering around to hear Him." It is such a privilege to have people gather to listen. This is a common occurrence around many of your lives; people gather to hear you talk. The key is, people want to hear Jesus.
v. 2—But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, this man welcomes sinners and eats with them. He did welcome them, and He ate with them. The problem with eating, in the Pharisees' eyes, was that it meant you were one with someone, or seeking to be one with them.
This is what I believe Jesus wants from us as well. It's a very simple strategy. He wants lost sinners—like we once were—to receive a welcome from us, and to gather and listen. He wants us to eat with them, where they should hear stories, teachings, the chewing of food, laughter, the truth. They should feel welcome and understanding through the story's teaching and through the love expressed to them in word and in deed.
vv. 3-7 Then Jesus told them this parable: "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent."Jesus begins the parable by asking a rhetorical question, "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine...?" A person who owned a hundred sheep was a man of small to average means. He himself would care for the sheep, know them all by name, and count them at least once a day.
But when this particular shepherd's attention was temporarily diverted, one of the sheep wandered off, nibbling here and there, until it was completely by itself. Though the parable states that the shepherd left the 99 sheep, it does not say they were unprotected. (The focus of the parable is not on the 99, but on the one sheep that was lost.)
Sheep are very social animals; they stay and live together as a flock. Sheep follow sheep. When a sheep is cut off from the flock, it becomes bewildered, lies down unwilling to move, and waits for the shepherd. When the shepherd finally finds the sheep, he puts it on his shoulders in order to cover the distance back to the flock more quickly. Soon shepherd, sheep, and flock are together again. (See Simon Kistemaker, The Parables of Jesus, Baker Books, 1980, p. 207.
This parable clearly contrasts the Shepherd's spirit from Pharisees/religious hypocrites. God rejoices more over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent. Of course He loves his faithful servants who stay in the flock, but He also loves and is genuinely interested in the salvation of the sinner, the one who wanders off. Thus as a Shepherd, He searches out the man unable to do anything for himself. Do you see who is taking the initiative? God goes out to man, not man to God. As I have stated many times, Christianity differs in this respect from other world religions.
When He finds the lost sheep, heaven rejoices. Again, there is joy over those who do God's will, but when a sinner turns to God in repentance and faith, it is also a time to celebrate together. God's child who was lost has been found (Kistemaker, Ibid, pp. 209-210). There should be a time of rejoicing by the sheep and shepherd already in the flock (us), because at one time each of us was one of the 99 who were lost, and experienced a time when God sought us out. We have memories of our own rescue and celebration. So the celebration is greater each time, because each new celebration should cause us to rejoice in our safe return to the flock as well.
The parable of the shepherd who found his lost sheep is followed by the parable of the woman who found her silver coins.
vv. 8-9—Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9] And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.These two parables form a pair, and virtually teach the same thing. But sometimes we need repetition for emphasis, and sometimes the parable needs to be stated another way for clarity.
It's a common experience to lose something and have to look for it. I am constantly losing things—don't give me an original, only a copy. Before and after each of four Sunday services, I wander around and talk with people. The problem is, I sometimes put my notes down without thinking, and when the next service starts, I haven't the slightest idea where they are.
The lost coins story is short, but it contains the emotions of anxiety, worry, elation and joy, in a few sentences. Marvelous! Jesus portrays a woman who had 10 silver coins—part of her dowry, worn as ornamental decorations on her headdress. The modern equivalent might be a woman's engagement ring and wedding band studded with diamonds, the loss of one of which would cause dismay, anxiety, and worry. When she realized that one coin was missing, she knew it must have become detached and fallen off. It was unthinkable that someone might have stolen it. The place to look for the coin was in her own home.
Every place she might have been was searched, until at last she caught sight of a gleam of metal... upon the hard floor (Kistemaker, Ibid, p. 212). v. 9—"And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' Now Jesus draws the application: v. 10—"In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Can you identify with the joy of finding something that has been lost? As the woman was filled with happiness and laughter because something lost has been found, heaven rejoices when a sinner repents and turns to God in faith. As the woman rejoiced before her friends and neighbors, so God rejoices before His angels. And as the coin belonged to the woman who diligently searched for it, so the sinner who repents belongs to God (Kistemaker, Ibid, p. 213).
The lesson from each of these parables is the same:
- We are called to extend love to the lost, to seek them out.
- If heaven has a celebration, shouldn't we have one when people who are lost are found?
Jesus broadens the scope of His emphasis in the next parable to include everyone who might be listening. He tells the story of two sons and their father.
This parable very vividly depicts God's love toward
- His children,
- the wanderer/the wayward, and
- the obedient.
Luke 15, beginning with verse 11 11] Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. 12] The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them. 13] Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14] After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15] So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16] He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 17] When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18] I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19] I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' 20] So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21] The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. 22] But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23] Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24] For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate."Normally the attention is on the youngest son, but we have already seen the emphasis on the "lost and found" in the first two parables. So I want you to notice with me an added emphasis in this particular parable. We will call it
The Parable of the Older Brother
25] Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26] So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27] "Your brother has come," he replied, "and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound. 28] The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29] 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. 30] But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!" 31] "My son," the father said, "you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32] 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."What are we to make of this section of the parable?
Here we see the church-going hypocrite again—in different clothes and a different time, but with the same spirit. Notice the initial response of the older son; he became angry at his father and refused to go in. He was angry over his father's good treatment of another person, the implication being that the older brother thought he knew best who should be forgiven and that his treatment was unfair.
Translated: "I know better than God the Father—He is too easy on sinners."
Observe the father's response: "So his father went out and pleaded with him." He took the initiative two times in the story, going out to meet both boys and communicate with them. What a contrast! In one case he heard a confession; and in the other, he was accused of being unfair.
That happens with God the Father too!
Listen to the elder son's anger at his father: "29] But he answered his father, Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Problem: Here's one problem. He hasn't valued or enjoyed the relationship of a father with his son. He sees himself only as a slave." He continues his tirade: "29b] Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends."
The older brother's response is improper and disrespectful, but we should observe a portion of what he is saying. There should be a celebration for sinners coming to Christ, and there should be a celebration for the one who remains faithful, too.
"30a] But when this son of yours... (notice he didn't call the prodigal his brother. As far as he was concerned, the actions the brother took meant that he was no longer his brother.) We begin to see the reason for the anger in his next statement:
"30b] ...who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home..." Remember the father had given the younger son his inheritance. Could it be that the older son was concerned he would have to divide up the inheritance even further, now that the younger son had been restored to the family?
"30c] ....you kill the fattened calf for him!" In other words, "he has been given too much and I haven't been given enough." Remember, in the context of Jesus' day, the older son represented the Pharisees. These people/Pharisees and teachers of the law were saying: "Jesus, we don't think you should be helping these tax collectors and other notorious sinners. You need to be rewarding those who have been faithful and obeyed the rules, not those who have been unfaithful, and those who have been out of control. It's not fair that you welcome them and teach them. Why not be like us? We teach only those we feel are acceptable.
A Reason For Correction and CelebrationLet's take these observations and use them as a mirror. What can we learn about ourselves? How can we avoid the older brother's spirit? How can we establish the spirit of celebration exemplified by Jesus?
We need a mirror, because we have a reason for correction.We can tell if we have the older brother's spirit if we exhibit the following characteristics or reactions:
- Anger (negative feelings, suspicion) over the achievements, successes, and spiritual blessings of others (v. 28a, "The older brother became angry and refused to go in"). If you are happy only when things are going your way and you get a party, and/or if you get angry when others receive blessings, then you are probably a hypocrite with the older brother disease.
- Refusal to talk and work out conflict, i.e., no communication. ("... and refused to go in... "—v. 28b.) The father had to go to him, and plead with him to come in. This is typically a "guy thing," but women can learn to avoid conflict by silence, too. Christians will talk to God and each other even if it is painful, unless they have a hypocritical spirit.
- Disrespect toward God and those in spiritual authority. (v. 28b, "So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29] But he answered his father, 'Look!") The word "look" and those that follow are surely much different than the humility exhibited by the younger prodigal. The older brother was obviously showing a lack of respect unheard of in this culture. This disrespectful and angry attitude often comes out in prayers and comments about God and others in authority.
- Ignorance of true sonship. (v. 29b, "But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders... 30] But when this son of yours..") People who have "older brother syndrome," typically have an inaccurate view of what it means to be a Christian, a son or daughter of God. They also don't know how, or refuse, to relate to other believers as spiritual siblings. They see themselves as lone Christians ("it's just God and me and maybe a few others who see life as I do"). Sadly, they have missed a loving family relationship between themselves, their Lord, and their spiritual family. They see themselves as slaves given orders, not as sons or daughters of God with the privilege to serve the One(s) they love.
- Judgmental attitude; i.e., judging others harshly and themselves not hard enough. (v. 29c, "Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30] But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!") These types of people give careful attention to whether they receive what others have received. What's "fair" is the big deal. They judge the motives and behavior of others, even God, very harshly. Typically they cannot see their own actions as needing correction, only that others are getting more than they think they deserve.
- No love or celebration for the lost, i.e., they think only about their needs and their happiness—vv. 29-30. They have no heart for the lost!
That's quite a negative picture. Jesus wanted us to see it and understand it. But that's not all this parable has for us. What can we do if we see this older brother spirit in us and want it removed? Or, what should we do to prevent the older brother spirit from ever being in us?
We need to develop a heart for the lost.This section adapted from "Ignite Your Passion for the Lost," by Paul Borthwick, Discipleship Journal, Issue 88, 1995, pp. 25-27.
- Catch a passion for the lost from others. Where can you find these people? Most would look for a uniquely gifted person who serves as an evangelist, but there are others who might be equally helpful. Look for new Christians, whose zeal over being forgiven bubbles over. Look for the person who has been dramatically saved from something—an addictive lifestyle, tremendous bitterness, or a life devoted to being selfish. Look for a person who expresses the heart of the book of Acts, who cannot help speaking about what they have seen and heard—Acts 4:20. If we have grown complacent or need encouragement, spending time with a person who is passionate about sharing Christ can transform our attitude.
- Open our eyes to see lost people—John 4:6ff. Sometimes we are so immersed in Christian activities, we have a distorted view of the world. We need to rub shoulders with unbelievers. Just remember, there are many people around you who aren't thinking about spiritual things like you are. Pray for opportunities to speak to people who are outside your regular routine and friendships. Find out what they are thinking about and what concerns them. This will help you to answer, at a later date, the questions and concerns the lost really have. Jesus exemplefied this with the woman at the well—John 4:6ff.
- Put ourselves in their position. Compassion for the lost implies our willingness to put ourselves in their position. Try this: Imagine the challenges of the last year, from today to the same time last year, and then imagine going through these challenges without Jesus, without the comfort of God's promises, without the love of God's people, without the peace of God, which transcends all understanding (Phil. 4:7). For many of us, imagining such a year would be a very painful exercise. Yet this should stir in us a greater realization of the lives people are living without God.
- Study their biblical fate—Luke 16:19-31. Jesus spoke about hell more than He did about heaven. If lost people are on their way to hell and eternal separation from God, shouldn't our passion for the lost be intensified? We should let the reality of their eternal destiny sink in and move us to action.
- Ask God for divine appointments—Acts 8:26ff. Some people have an endless string of opportunities to speak to others about Christ, and their stories can be pretty intimidating. ("On the flight on the way home, I had the privilege of leading 12 people to Christ. Yes, by the time we landed I had planted a new church and appointed elders in rows 5, 9 and 11.") Seriously, though, these types of people have been praying, and we can have these types of appointments set up by God if we pray and look for them. Ask God for divine appointments where you can share your story and the comfort you have received from God—2 Cor. 1. Then be alert to His "tap on the shoulder." There is nothing like leading someone to Jesus to expand your heart and desire to see the lost found.
- Be imitators of Jesus—Luke 19:10. As we pointed out, in the Lord's encounter with Zacchaeus, Jesus identified the main tenet of His mission statement (Luke 19:10—"For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost"). If Jesus articulated His mission as seeking to save the lost, shouldn't we do the same?
Be glad and celebrate when the lost is found—v. 31.Listen carefully to the father's words. The estrangement between the younger and older brothers can be bridged by listening carefully to the eternal perspective of the father in verses 31-32. "'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32] 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.'"
I suggest the main thing we are to do is found in v. 32: "... we had to celebrate and be glad... " Biblical celebration ends hypocrisy and rivalry!
We have many reasons we should celebrate. We should:
- Celebrate our relationship with our spiritual family. We must understand our relationship with God and know Him as Father. We must be committed to loving, rejoicing with, and ministering to our brothers and sisters, regardless of their perfection.
- Celebrate our resources in Christ. v. 31. "'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.'" There is no sibling rivalry if we understand our resources; it's an exhaustible supply. What is given to one is not taken from another. There is more than enough for every person on the planet—past, present and future. As a result, we can always be glad for anyone who receives blessings from God.
Think for a moment about this statement: "...everything I have is yours." Do you believe that? If it's true, what more could we want? What more would we ever need? Ephesians 1:3 tells us, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." That verse gives us great cause to celebrate. We need to understand, operate in, and celebrate everything we have.
But the greatest reason of all to be glad is when we
- Celebrate repentance and new life. v. 32, "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." The greatest deterrent to the older brother syndrome is to remember our own repentance and forgiveness. This will have a profound impact on how we respond to others who repent and are forgiven.
Did you know that all of heaven rejoiced when you repented? Do you know that God wants us to join Him in the celebration? Because I believe God is calling us to begin a season of specific celebrations, I want to suggest we be very specific about it.
A Specific Plan for Celebration
Faithful Believers CelebrationsIf we use this parable as our guide, I suggest we have an "older brother celebration" for those who have been forgiven because of their past repentance, and today are continuing to follow the Lord in faithful service. We have so many people in this church who don't have the "older brother spirit," but they have been present in this church and remained faithful, while some of their friends/family have wandered away from the faith. We want to thank them, and we should celebrate their faithfulness from time to time.
- Parents, a thank-you party for your child's walk with God is always appropriate.
- Celebrate by taking a friend for lunch who has been an encouragement to you, and telling them how they have encouraged you.
- Take a cake, flowers to an older couple that has been an example of marriage and how to raise children, and thank them.
- Thank mentors with letters, a gift—let them know of their impact. Tell them how you have used what they have shared with you!
- As a church, we should celebrate and recognize a consistent walk with God and honor the Lord and the individual wherever possible.
Lost But Found CelebrationsI want to institute a celebration every time someone comes to know the Lord, repents of their sin and purposes to follow Him. We have more of a precedent and encouragement for a celebration every time someone comes to know the Lord, than we do to have Christmas gift giving and birthday parties! How specifically should we celebrate? Some of this celebrating should be done by close family and friends who know the Lord. As a church, we will focus our celebration on the day of water baptism. Here's how it might be done: On the day of water baptism, invite family and friends who would rejoice with you at your baptism. The church and friends could provide some food/refreshments/dessert. We could decorate the room, e.g., the fellowship hall. People would bring appropriate gifts—usually small ones, notes, and cards of affirmation. (The church will give a Bible if needed.) There could even be a birthday cake. The one to be baptized could give a short testimony of new life, or thanks to friends/special guest(s).
Most of all, we would all offer praise to God in worship as we join the angels who rejoice over the salvation/return of one of God's children.
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