Magazine article The Christian Century

The Prodigal's Brother

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Prodigal's Brother

Article excerpt

WHEN I PREACH on the parable of the prodigal son, I always get stuck on the elder brother. I wish there were a fifth gospel in the New Testament devoted to reaching out to that guy because he's everywhere in the congregation I serve, wearing many names and faces. Frankly, we depend on elder brothers to keep the place running. But I struggle to know how care for them.

I've tried giving elder brothers more stuff to do because they happily accept, and I've tried encouraging them to work to create a more just society because I know they think it's up to them to get things right. But both of these strategies miss the point of this parable--and the gospel of grace.

Most preachers know how to proclaim grace to the prodigals. "It's OK," we keep saying, "God knows what you have done, but you are forgiven. All you need to do is come home and accept the forgiveness that is waiting for you." We can make those words sing for those who have screwed up their lives, but what does the gospel say to the elder brother who spends his life playing by the rules?

It is tempting to make him into a bigger sinner than he is. This is not without biblical warrant since Jesus kept saying things like, "All your righteousness is as filthy rags." But it's a mistake to conflate the elder brother with the prodigal. They have different roles in the story, and the role of the elder brother is to demonstrate the dilemma of those who don't know how to get into the arms of the father that are outstretched to prodigals.

The sins of the elder brothers are, well, boring. When one of them comes to see me claiming to want to make a confession, I usually hear, "I have agreed to coach my daughter's soccer team because no one else would, and we will be moving my aging mother-in-law into our back room, and the church's tutoring program for inner city children is expanding way beyond our expectations--so would it be OK if I didn't chair the stewardship committee next year?"

I want to say, "That's it? That's your idea of a confession? I can do better than that. Let's change seats." So it doesn't really work to try to convince elder brothers to act like prodigals. They're just terrible at it.

Scripture makes it clear that repentance is a necessary response to the salvation of Jesus Christ. But of what do the righteous repent? …

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