“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“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. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘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.’”
Luke 15:21-24 and 28-32 (NIV)
I recently started reading Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God, a book looking at Jesus' parable of the lost son, and was fascinated to find that it focusses mostly on the older brother of this parable. It is a parable which many of us have probably known since we were young, but one that challenges me every time I read it. Why am I challenged? Because, as someone who grew up always surrounded by the Christian faith, I think that I can often be like the angry older brother.
The older brother was not only disgusted with his brother for taking off with the inheritance money before their father had died (a shocking thing to do at the time), but he is further angered by his father's wholehearted forgiveness towards his brother. The argument he puts to his father is the grown up version of "It's not fair!" which we hear from many children.
And while the younger brother does not deserve the forgiveness he receives (and none of us do!), the older brother's behaviour is equally shocking. His obediance and service to his father does not appear to have been done out of love and a wish to please and honour, but is referred to as "I've been slaving for you..."! He is upset with his father because he hasn't received the good things he believes he has earned by his hard work and service.
And for me, it is tempting to take the older brother's attitude with respect to my service to God. Having grown up in a Christian family, knowing God's word and commands from a young age, I can act as if it is possible for sinful humans to earn their way into heaven. In fact, it is tempting for me to be just like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, living a "holy" life to earn God's approval.
"I go to church every week. I read my Bible every day. I help out with my church's Sunday school. I run a Bible study group. I volunteer for the music team at church. I teach religious education at our local school." These are just some of the statements you may hear (or may say yourself) when considering the "holiness" or godliness of a person. But where the Pharisees, and sometimes we, get it wrong is that our good and godly works aren't what provide us salvation and eternal life in heaven. In love, God saved us from our sin so that we could live holy and pleasing lives for Him - not the other way round!
But no matter which brother you find you are more similar to, we need to remind ourselves of God's grace and mercy. While we should always seek to live lives which please our heavenly father, it is only because of Him that we can have salvation and forgiveness.