The “elder son.”
There is enough familiarity with Luke 15:11-32 throughout Christian conversation that the companion description of “prodigal son” often pops into mind whenever “elder son” is mentioned.
The elder son. The responsible son. The proper son. The obedient son. And, as the parable unfolds, the son who co-owns everything that belongs to the father….yet settles for a superficial relationship, choosing the role of being an order-taker rather than a fellowship-seeker. Eventually it is revealed that the elder son is rather hard-hearted, judgmental, angry, even prideful, unwilling to extend a heart of compassion and restoration when his repentant younger brother returns home. The “high points” of the parable are so familiar, the details often slip through with little notice.
Wow. Not expected.
I had never considered an application of that parable in a manner so expansive, so inclusive… and thinking about the suggested parallel gives me pause for reflection. Paul taught in 2 Corinthians 5:19“that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” (NASB) Putting those two concepts together gave me a painful sense of…ouch.
So – my inner question is to ask, has “the church” often personified that elder son’s viewpoint in regards to the lost, the floundering, the embracers of immorality, the indifferent, the sought-but-not-yet-seeking?
And my response is – I think so.
I have also become convinced that there is “more to the story” regarding the elder son than I have been taught over the years. For example, I have heard that the older son was conscientiously “doing what he was supposed to be doing” and that the plight of the younger brother – for better or for worse – was of no concern to him. It was the father’s task to deal with the situation. I have also heard that the father considered the elder son’s task to be more important to finish, than to interrupt him with news of his brother’s return, and entreat him to come and join the celebration. Hence, the father had made no attempt to inform the older brother of the turn of events.
But I understand more about the heart of the father, now. And although I have some puzzlement as to why the father made no attempt to run out and share the exciting news, I don’t think that the “job” of the elder son was to keep his nose in the field, irrespective of what happened around him. To have formed a “world of his own” with strict interactive parameters. Something in the life of the elder son had gotten quite off track…and it appears to have begun with isolation and self-centeredness.
According to gospelresearch.org, the elder’s brother role in the Jewish family structure was one of helping “heal the broken relationship in the family,” possessing “a strong responsibility to act as mediator in such a family crisis…he should tell his father that he will set his (younger) brother straight. He should argue with his brother.” Moreover, his silence at the younger brother’s request for a division of the estate was a statement of its own. Under Jewish Law, the elder brother “receives two thirds of the inheritance and the younger brother would only receive one third (Deut. 21:17)” *
Which brings me back to thinking about a parallel between “the church” as the older brother….and those with whom God is seeking active reconciliation, as the younger. They are both far from the heart of the father, and He is ever-yearning to see them reunited with Him. Just as Paul taught about “God in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself,” the next section of scripture reads, “and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:19, italics added, NASB)
And in doing that, we will have carried out our “family responsibility” very well….