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Today's Study

Luke 15:25-28: Is the Elder Brother Unreasonable?

The prodigal's elder brother deserves our sympathy. He had never given his father a moment's anxiety, but no fuss was ever made over him. Of course not; no one makes a fuss over people who are always at hand and always dependable. The tendency is rather to take them for granted, and those who are always being taken for granted become aware of the fact and do not like it.

How different it was with the younger son! His original request was reasonable: for the two sons to share the family smallholding would probably not have worked. It was better that he should get his share of the inheritance in cash and seek his living elsewhere. His was in any case the smaller share; the elder son would get his double portion in land.

The trouble arose when the younger son squandered his money instead of investing it wisely. The day of reckoning was bound to come for him. For a Jew to be reduced to looking after a Gentile's pigs was degradation indeed; yet he would gladly have joined the pigs at the feeding trough for a share in the carob-bean pods which they munched, so hungry was he. To go back and beg for employment as a casual laborer on his father's land was humiliating, but he could think of nothing better. Casual laborers might earn but a denarius a day, but that was probably more than he was getting from the pig owner; and while they were at their duties, they could eat as much as they wanted. So he swallowed his pride and went back.

The father might have said, "That's all very well, young man; we have heard fine speeches before. Now you buckle down and get to work as you have never worked before, and if we see that you really mean what you say, we may let you work your passage. But you can never make good the damage you have done to the family's good name and property." That in itself would have been an act of grace; it might have done the young man a world of good, and his elder brother would probably not have objected. But--and this is the point of the parable--that is not how God treats sinners. He does not put them on probation first, to see how they will turn out. He welcomes them with overflowing love and generosity. And Jesus, in befriending such undesirable types as he did, was displaying the generous love of God.

Those who entered into theological controversy with Jesus would not have denied that God was like that. In a later rabbinical work God is represented as saying to the Israelites, "Open to me a gateway of repentance only as wide as the eye of a needle, and I will drive chariots and horses through it." But it is not always easy to put theological theory into practice. They might magnify the grace of God, as we may do, but does it not seem prudent to put repentant sinners on probation first? Can they be admitted to the holy table, not to speak of our own tables at home, without more ado?

That is how the prodigal's elder brother felt. He had stayed at home all the time, led a blameless life, worked on the farm, carried out his father's direction. It had not occurred to him to expect much in the way of appreciation until the black sheep of the family turned up with his hard-luck story and the occasion was celebrated with an evening's feasting and jollification--the fatted calf killed, the neighbors invited in, music and dancing and no expense spared!

But life is like that. As the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin showed, more fuss is made over the recovery of something that was lost than over the safe keeping of what has been there all the time, and where human beings are concerned, this is even more so.

There are young people who have come up through Sunday school and Bible class, who join the church and are present week by week at all the meetings--perhaps notice is taken of them, perhaps not. But here is a rank outsider--a youth out on probation, maybe--who has been dragged along to a Billy Graham meeting and has gone forward when the appeal was made; and what a fuss is made of him! He is billed at every youth rally and invited to give his testimony at every opportunity (and it must be admitted that his testimony is rather more colorful than that of someone who has never strayed from the straight and narrow). One can understand the jaundiced point of view of some of the others!

No blame is attached to the elder brother; he remains sole heir to all his father's property. He simply does not feel the way his father does about the prodigal's return. A human father feels that way, and the heavenly Father feels that way. "There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent" (Lk 15:7). No blame attaches to the ninety-nine; of course not. But they were never lost; that is what makes the difference.

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Shir ha-Shirim Rabba 5:2.