The lost and found elder brother

  • Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2012 12:22 p.m.

Some years ago, missionaries to India left their 12-year-old son and his younger brother to go to India and take up their tour of duty there. Their intention was that, once they got settled, they would send for the boys. But shortly after they left America, World War II broke out. They couldn’t get to the boys, and they couldn’t get the boys to them. So the separation between the missionaries and their sons went on for something like eight years. Can you imagine what that was like?

When the war was over, the parents returned to America. Their older son was 20 years old and in college. He recalled how excited he was when he got the word that his parents would soon arrive in their hometown by train. The son got to the train depot early, even before the sun came up. When the train finally pulled in, the mother and father were the only ones who got off the train.

The son later wrote these words: “I could barely see them in the haze, and they could hardly see me. We embraced in the semi-darkness. Then, my mother took my hand and led me into the light of the waiting room. There were tears running down her cheeks as she looked at me. She kept looking at my face, staring hard. Then she turned to my dad and called him by name, ‘Arnett,’ she cried, he’s gone and looked just like you! Our child looks just like you!”

That is what Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is teaching us: To go and look like our Father, to take on the loving and gracious characteristics of God, to love unconditionally as God does. While the father is gracious and loving and forgiving, the elder brother is resentful and envious and judgmental.

There is nothing God-like about resentment. There is nothing more destructive to our spirits than brooding, seething resentment. Resentment is a spiritual poison. It can ruin your life and devastate your soul.

This was happening to the elder brother in the story. He resented “the homecoming” his brother was receiving. He resented the generosity of his father, and he resented the work he had been doing for his father. Look at his words here. He says to the father: “For all these years, I have been working like a slave for you.” Notice this now:

He does not see his work as a wonderful opportunity.

He does not see his work as a joyful thing to do alongside his father or brother.

He does not see his work as a grateful response to his father’s blessings graciously shared with him.

No, he says: “I have been slaving away …” and the words drip with the spirit of resentment.

And in speaking to his father who has come out to graciously invite him in to the party, the elder brother refers to the prodigal as “this son of yours.” Sounds almost like a curse, doesn’t it?

I have noticed something over the years that the great people of faith I have known – the ones who really inspired me – were not harsh, critical, judgmental people. No, the ones who touched my heart and inspired me so much were the ones who just seemed to become more and more loving with each passing day.

They never talked bad about other people; they never acted “holier-than-thou.” No, they were grateful, tender, caring compassionate, merciful people. They were God-like people who had received God’s amazing grace and who then spent their days passing that gracious spirit on to others.

Isn’t it sad that so many people miss that? Like the elder brother, they live in the presence of the Father, but somehow they miss the Father’s gracious, loving spirit.

In 1988, the poet Carol Wimmer became concerned about the self-righteous, judgmental spirit she was seeing in some people because she felt strongly that being judgmental is a perversion of the Christian faith.

So, she wrote a poem about this. It’s called “When I Say I Am a Christian,” and it reads like this:

When I say ... ‘I am a Christian,’

I’m not shouting, ‘I’ve been saved!’

I’m whispering, ‘I get lost!’That’s why I chose this way.

When I say ... ‘I am a Christian,’

I don’t speak with human pride.

I’m confessing that I stumble –

needing God to be my guide.When I say ... ‘I am a Christian,’

I’m not trying to be strong.I’m professing that I’m weak

and pray for strength to carry on.

When I say ... ‘I am a Christian,’

I’m not bragging of success.I’m admitting that I’ve failed

and cannot ever pay the debt.When I say ... ‘I am a Christian,’

I don’t think I know it all.I submit to my confusion,

asking humbly to be taught.When I say ... ‘I am a Christian,’

I’m not claiming to be perfect.

My flaws are far too visible,but God believes I’m worth it.

When I say ... ‘I am a Christian,’

I still feel the sting of pain.

I have my share of heartachewhich is why I seek God’s name.

When I say ... ‘I am a Christian,’

I do not wish to judge.I have no authority –

I only know I’m loved.Now, if Jesus based this parable in Luke 15 on a true story, we can only hope that eventually the elder brother came to his senses, left the far country of resentment and envy and self-righteous judgment and came home. If he did, we can be sure of one thing – the father ran to meet him with open arms! Because our heavenly Father is always anxious to love, quick to forgive and eager to reconcile. He wants us to live that way, too!

Rev. Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.

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