Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Lost Brother

Chapter 11

Luke 15:25-32

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is not just a story about the relationship between the father and prodigal. When Christ described the behavior of the Elder Brother, he went beyond a defense of his association with publicans and sinners. The brother’s protest of unfair treatment forced Christ’s questioners to thoughtfully consider their complaints and criticisms of him.

The Elder Brother is dependable, conscientious, stable, and industrious. It is clear that his father could not have gotten along without him. He was working when the celebration for his wayward brother was planned. When he hears that the party is in honor of his brother, he is angry and refuses to take part, making it clear that even though his father loves the prodigal and welcomes his return, he does not. According to Kenneth Bailey, it was customary for a brother to publicly embrace and congratulate his returning brother. He would stand at the door of the house barefoot, as a servant, to greet the guests as they came in. He would show special deference to his brother who was the honored guest and move among the guests to see that everyone was having a good time. 1

The attitude of the Elder Brother is at odds with the fundamental laws governing brotherhood. Brothers may fight, but defend the other when attacked by an outsider. Brothers are prepared to give their lives to save the other, as exemplified by the following story.

A younger brother was asked to give blood when his older brother needed a transfusion to save his life. After considering the request, the younger brother gave his permission. After the blood was taken from him he lay sad, pale, and quiet in his bed, even when nurses reassured him that his brother would be all right. Finally when a doctor was called, the little boy tearfully asked, "Say doctor, how soon do I die?"

The Elder Brother refuses to consider his own sinful condition. His words to his Father reveal not only self-righteous indignation but also lack of respect. His words also indicate a fundamental lack of understanding as to what it means to be a son and not a hireling. "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends." So like the Rich Young Ruler, his understanding of obedience has no foundation in love, and consequently is external and legalistic.

When the Elder Brother, speaking to his father, refers to his brother as “this son of yours,” it is clear that he hates and wants nothing to do with him. "All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them." (1 John 3:14-15) "Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also." (1 John 4:19-21) As John says, "he that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love."

Self-righteousness is the outward manifestation of a cold heart and a personality that feeds on the faults and failings of others. At the very moment when his brother is struggling against a multitude of temptations and is making his first steps back to right thinking and behavior, the Elder Brother castigates and censures.

When I was the President of Newbold College in England, one of our newly converted students, who had come from a very rough background and was still finding it difficult to adjust himself to polite society, went to a dentist in town who was familiar with the high standard of behavior required of our undergraduates. Since the student was from Newbold, she called me to complain about how impolite this young man was. So I called him in and talked to him. The subject of our conversation surprised him because he did not know that he had been impolite. (His behavior reflected his upbringing and his language was not yet refined.) When I told him to call the dentist and apologize to her, he was more than willing to do it. I thought at the time that if my reaction to that phone call had been to reprimand and condemn, the experience might have crushed him and made it more difficult for him to make what he considered to be important changes in his life.

Robert Folkenberg in his presidential address at a meeting of the General Conference told the story of a young woman who became interested in Adventism and started to attend church. One Sabbath there was a potluck, and she prepared a cottage cheese loaf. An “Elder Sister” who felt that all dairy products were taboo criticized her for bringing that dish. (Imagine what would have happened if she had brought fried chicken!) The young woman never returned to that church.

The Elder Brother in the parable is an ingrate. He has a marvelous father. He has a wonderful home. He is wealthy. Everything the Father owns is his. "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Yet he is jealous because his father has thrown a party for his brother. "But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!"

In a patriarchal society where the word of the father is law and children submit unquestioningly to his authority, how does the father respond to his petulant, ungrateful, self-righteous, and loveless son? He could have justifiably “dressed him down”, and informed him that he'd better hurry up and change and join the party without delay. He could have punished him for his rudeness. Instead the father uses gentle persuasion in an attempt to create understanding.

The Elder Brother’s conduct is a devastating critique of the scribes and Pharisees who criticized Jesus' association with publicans and sinners. The parable does not say whether the son was persuaded or stubbornly resisted the father's pleadings. This is an open-ended story to which we, as Elder Brothers and Sisters, have the opportunity to write the sequel.

Father Damien was a Catholic missionary from Belgium whose mission field was the Hawaiian Islands. When authorities banished and abandoned lepers to the island of Molokai, they were left to fend for themselves and their situation quickly became deplorable. Anarchy and might-makes-right became law because very little food and facilities were provided.

When his Bishop asked for volunteers to go to Molokai, Damien volunteered. In this he emulated Jesus who ministered to the publican, Zacchaeus; the unclean leper; the demoniacs who threatened his life; and the prostitute who was brought before him for condemnation. Damien went, and because of his efforts, the situation on Molokai improved. His ministry cost him his life. Damien became a leper and died at the age of forty-nine.

After Damien’s death the Rev. Charles McEwen Hyde, a Congregational minister living in Honolulu, wrote the following letter to a colleague in Australia which was subsequently published in the Sydney Presbyterian:

Honolulu, August 2, 1889

Rev. H. B. Gage.
. . .I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders. . He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated. . . He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. . .
C.M. Hyde 2

This is the language of a jealous, self-righteous, loveless Elder Brother who is disposed to circulate rumor rather than discover fact, who is eager to publish human failings rather than celebrate noble effort, who is more concerned about his own reputation than with the well being of his parishioners.

In this parable Jesus shows us that we must not self-righteously separate ourselves from the outcasts of society. He cautions us not to criticize “prodigals” and warns us that self-righteousness is a manifestation of murderous intent.

1. Bailey, Poet and Peasant, pp. 194-195.

2. Quoted in John Farrow’s, Damien the Leper (Garden City, NY: Image Books, a Division of Doubleday & Company, 1954), p. 203.

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