Sunday, July 21, 2013
When the prodigal's older brother teaches religion
Once Jesus told a story of a man who broke off his relationship with his father, demanded his inheritance and left home. Much later, after learning some humility, he returned. He returned because things were hard -- and because every hardship reminded him that things did not have to be that way. Compared to his current situation, he knew that his father took better care of his hired men than that. He had a basic trust in his father's goodness that set his feet on the path home. But he still underestimated his father; he planned to ask for a place as a hired hand. He didn't really understand the depth of the love the father held for the one he brought into the world.
Neither did the older brother. When Jesus originally told the story, the older brother represented the religious people, the ones who thought less of grace -- specifically, forgiveness and redemption. It may be because they thought they were already doing the right thing. Did they think that grace was a bad idea meant for bad people, and would undercut their hard-won goodness? Or it may be because they thought it was all about doing the right thing. The older brother always did the right thing, didn't he? While the younger son thought he came home offering to be a hired worker, the older son spoke as though he had spent his long years as a slave. Jesus tells us that the older brother said just that to his father: that he had slaved for him. Just like the younger son, he insulted his father's love and denied the bond they shared. Even though he was "good" (obedient) because he stayed at home and did what his father asked, he did not get to know his own father. The older son did not understand the father's love any more than the younger.
There is a kind of earnest religious rule-follower who is just as much a stranger to the love of God as someone wasting his life in riotous living. The man of hard-working piety is at risk of not knowing what he is missing, because technically he never left. Grace is the gift that the older child should have enjoyed by staying at home. As often as he strives for obedience to God, does he enjoy fellowship with his Father? Does he think that grace is for losers instead of being the ultimate prize?