In the parable of the prodigal son is an interesting statement made by the prodigal’s elder brother. The context for the statement is that the brother was returning from the fields when he heard music and dancing coming from his father’s house. He asked one of the servants what it meant and the servant answered, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.” Luke 15:27
Instead of being happy the elder brother pouted and refused to enter into the party so his father came out to see what the problem was. Now here is that interesting statement, “Lo, these many years I have slaved for you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.” Luke 15:29
The older brother believed that the way to find happiness and fulfillment was through moral conformity. The Pharisees believed that the only way to obtain a connection to God was through strict obedience to every word written in their Scriptures. The way to God’s heart was through absolute obedience and the smallest infraction of that obedience was sin. Even when they fell into sin they believed that they were judged by how sincere and contrite they were about the sin. Even in their failures they had to measure up to moral conformity.
Moral conformity, however, has as its underlying root the idea that tradition and community take precedence over the individual. That view unfortunately is still portrayed today through much legalism and moralism. We are constantly told we as Christians must conform to certain standards and teachings regardless of how far removed they may be from grace. As a result it is easy to fall into the trap of the elder brother believing that, “these many years I have slaved for you, and I never disobeyed your command,” yet I don’t seem any more special than a broken sinner who has stumbled his way home.
Here is the problem with the elder brother, he is good and does everything the father asks of him but he is as lost as the prodigal was before he came home. The elder brother, unlike the younger brother, doesn’t see his sinfulness because in a real sense he has never left home. He just sees home as a drudgery and a place where he must slave for his father. He works every day running the farm, not out of love and joy for the opportunity to be with his father, but out of duty and obedience.
The older brother is working not for the father but for himself to make the farm bigger and better for when he inherits it all. How many Christians follow Jesus not for the opportunity to be close to Him but for the dream of eternal life living in Heaven forever?
Now, let’s think about the elder brother’s statement for a moment when he says, “and I have never disobeyed your command.” That is the key for moral conformists. Everything is based upon the hope that their obedience to the commands of God will allow them to inherit the Kingdom of God. What Jesus is saying, I believe, is that relying upon strict obedience to the laws of God means we are as far removed from God as the prodigal when he lived in a foreign land eating garbage and living among the pigs.
For most of us Christians we think of sin in terms of breaking God’s laws but in the parable Jesus goes far beyond that basic definition. Flannery O’Connor in her novel Wise Blood says of the character Hazel Motes, “there was a deep black, wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” Wise Blood: A Novel p. 22
You can avoid trouble with Jesus if you don’t sin is the philosophy behind Hazel’s insight, and it is an insight held by many Christians today. Just like the elder brother, people who strive to keep all the laws believe they are entitled to heaven, God’s attention, answered prayers and the good life because they slave for Him.
There is no joy in following Jesus, instead it is only work, something that has to be done to obtain the end goal. This is not Christianity because when we allow ourselves to become moral conformists we no longer need a Savior because we have become our own savior. Elder brothers obey God to get things from God not to know God as a friend. This is the true definition of sin making yourself God instead of allowing God to be Lord of your life.
How do we break out of this spiral of obedience worked based elder brother religion—grace? Morality says do this or that and God will love you, but grace says God loves you while yet a sinner. It doesn’t matter where we are in life, what we have done or not done, we are all in need of the grace of God. God’s love is unconditional and is poured out freely to the vagabond who straggles along through life indifferent to the pleas of God to come home and to the fine upstanding churchgoer who prides herself on never missing a church service.
We are all in need of grace but we can only know that grace when we accept the fact that all our striving and working have no merit. We all come before Jesus with nothing to offer but our brokenness and need—but that is enough. His love stems from His love, not from our pathetic attempts to impress and prove our worth.
We can never be good enough for God to love us any more than He does. He loves us wherever He finds us and then invites us to come into the party with lots of music and dancing.
* The persecution of Christians has not stopped. If anything it’s increased. The main stream media doesn’t talk about it much anymore but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Pray and stay informed and inform others. Please take the time to read some of their stories at http://thebeggardanced.com/nine-oclock-club/ there is much more on the internet…