Don’t be the elder brother!

I recall a story I heard many years ago. It was related that it happened, but it may very well be an apocryphal urban myth sprung from a joke:

A man was known to a church to be very inconsistent in his ‘walk’ with Christ, and was often backsliding or falling away, only to come back every now and then and repent all over again. Then he turned up at a gospel rally and heard an altar call to come forward for a fresh ‘filling’ of the Holy Spirit.

He walked forward, hands raised, in tears, saying “Fill me, Lord! Fill me!!”

Then a voice was heard from the back: “Don’t Lord! He leaks!”

While we can laugh at it, a serious message is there.

As far as stories go, the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is one of the best ever told. It is many layered, and has rich characters and wonderful applications. I can only imagine how our Lord Jesus delivered it to his audience. Stephen King, eat your heart out! One of the characters given fairly little attention is the elder brother. He was the one who stayed on the farm and worked diligently and loyally for his father all those years the younger Prodigal was away. When he came in from the field after a typical hard day’s work, he asked what all the noise was. When told it was a celebration for the return of his brother, he just took a big huff and decided he wouldn’t join in.

You can understand his attitude, it was only human: “all these years I’ve been faithful and hard-working while he’s been off wasting his entire inheritance on a pathetic life and useless no-good friends, and he is the one to get the fatted calf, a robe, a ring, and a huge welcoming party!”

The father (that great and magnificent father who allowed his son to find his own way in the world, but still stood looking at the horizon regularly, praying for his son’s safe return) went out to entreat the elder brother [ask earnestly or anxiously] to come in and rejoice with them. His reply to his elder son was that he still had his inheritance – “all I have is yours”, but that the return of the brother who was once lost, once presumed long dead, was indeed a time for celebration. The elder brother’s problem was self-righteousness; he saw himself as ‘better’ than the younger, more loyal and faithful, and yes, he was! However, in the father’s eyes, they were both his sons. He could not disown or turn his back on the younger one, especially since he had returned in contrition and humility.

Jesus reinforces this principle of the kingdom (as all parables relate to spiritual principles) with the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). The workers hired at the eleventh hour were paid the same wage as those hired earlier in the day, so those who worked longer grumbled about it. The vineyard owner asked them why they should grumble when they were paid the wage he agreed with them at the start; “Or are you envious because I am generous?” he asks them at the close.

This envy at God’s generosity is unbecoming of those of us forgiven of our sins and solely dependent on that same generosity of grace from him. If God decides to be gracious and generous (as we well know he is!) to another, who looks to us as if they are deserving of no understanding or allowance, who are we to question that grace poured out? Are we any more deserving of that grace just because we have been more faithful to God like the elder brother, or more religious?

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

You see, I believe that Mohammad was a typical ‘elder brother’ – he heard the gospel of Christ but rejected it. For him, vicarious atonement was just wrong; he didn’t like it. It’s the mainstay of the Christian faith, dependent upon the grace of God to allow Christ’s death on the cross to atone for all who believe in him. Mohammad was a pious and holy man, and he wanted piety and religious observance to be the means of salvation, so he created his complex religion with its five pillars and all the trappings that go with them. You must observe them all faithfully to be in with a chance of God’s favour. This proves that they do not worship the same God that I worship: my God is gracious and generous, and if he deems anyone that I may look down upon, in my pious pride, to be worthy of the same grace he gave me, so be it.

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