Older Brother Syndrome

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.” (Luke 15.28)This week I’d like to look at three events in Luke’s version of the Jesus story that reveal to us how radical Jesus’ Kingdom really is.

Let’s jump right in. The first event is the context of the most famous story Jesus ever told—the prodigal son. It seems everyone who knows about Jesus knows he told this story. But remember, I don’t want to look at the story so much as the context of the story. In other words, what was it that motivated Jesus to tell this story in the first place?

The answer is found in the first two verses of Luke, Chapter 15:

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. BUT THE PHARISEES AND THE TEACHERS OF THE LAW MUTTERED, ‘THIS MAN WELCOMES SINNERS AND EATS WITH THEM.’” (Luke 15.1-2)

So Jesus tells three stories, the last of which is the story of the prodigal. Pay close attention to how this story closes:

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ THE OLDER BROTHER BECAME ANGRY AND REFUSED TO GO IN. SO HIS FATHER WENT OUT AND PLEADED WITH HIM. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son OF YOURS [notice the brother here does not say “brother of mine,” but rather “this son of yours”] who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15.20-32)

I used to believe that the only reason anyone would not be a part of Jesus’ Kingdom in the age to come was because they had rejected God’s love for themselves. But the longer I ponder this story, the more I feel that to be no longer true. If the context of this story shows us anything, it shows us this: If any are left in “outer darkness” (see Matthew 8.12; 22.13; 25.30) it will not be because they could not believe God’s love for themselves. Rather they, like the older brother in this story (and the Pharisees and teachers of the law who muttered at Jesus’ welcoming of “sinners”), reject God’s radically inclusive love for someone else that they feel should be excluded.

(This makes perfect sense if one stops to consider it. If one of my children could not believe I loved them, I would not reject them but rather I’d spend eternity trying to show them and convince them. On the other hand, if they will not embrace my love for someone else, I cannot change to be something other than I am. It is the rejection of love for others, even those who are different than us, that causes us to be so out of harmony with the love of which God is.)

Next let’s look at the story we looked at a few weeks ago, but in our context this week.

“I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian. ALL THE PEOPLE IN THE SYNAGOGUE WERE FURIOUS WHEN THEY HEARD THIS. THEY GOT UP, DROVE HIM OUT OF THE TOWN, AND TOOK HIM TO THE BROW OF THE HILL ON WHICH THE TOWN WAS BUILT, IN ORDER TO THROW HIM OFF THE CLIFF.” (Luke 4.25-29)

For the connection of Sidon and Syria to the Greek tortures under Antiochus Epiphanes toward the Jewish people, please see: https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/02-19-2013. In this story, Jesus has just read from Isaiah saying, this day, Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in their hearing.

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” (Isaiah 61.1-2)

Yet when Jesus reads from the scroll, he leaves off that last phrase, “and the day of vengeance of our God”:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.18-19, emphasis added.)

It was as if Jesus was announcing that he would be travelling abroad proclaiming God’s favor, and leaving off all that vengeful God stuff. (And this is exactly what we see Jesus doing throughout his entire ministry.) Now at this stage in the synagogue that morning, everyone was rejoicing.

“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” (Luke 4.22) But they still weren’t “getting” what Jesus was saying. Oh they knew the passage in Isaiah. They knew it promised God’s favor on them and God’s vengeance finally on all of Israel’s enemies, but Jesus corrects them and virtually says, “No no. What I’m saying is that I will be announcing God’s favor not just for you, but on everyone, including your enemies.” Jesus was not going to walk the earth as the vengeance of God on all of Israel’s enemies, but rather, as G. K. Chesterton wrote, as “the pardon [and I would add favor] of God”, for all, including Israel’s most hated enemies. And how did they respond? They became furious and wanted to throw Jesus off the nearest cliff! (I would submit to you that if you have never had a moment where you were tempted to throw Jesus off a cliff, you probably haven’t met the right Jesus yet.)

Again, these folks rejected the kingdom, not because God’s love for them was too good to believe, but rather because God’s love for their enemies was too radically inclusive to embrace.

One last example should suffice.

“When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. ALL THE PEOPLE SAW THIS AND BEGAN TO MUTTER, ‘HE HAS GONE TO BE THE GUEST OF A SINNER.’” (Luke 19.5-7)

Here we have the famous story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector (see Luke 19.1-2). Typically if you are short, you simply go up to the curb to see a parade and all the taller people stand behind you. That is, they would unless by chance there were those who did not want you there and were shutting you out from getting to the front to see. So Zacchaeus, being resourceful, knew the procession route and ran ahead and climbed a tree. Remember, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die, and one last time he stops to demonstrate what the radical, inclusive favor that would characterize his Kingdom is all about. You have to imagine the people objecting, saying to Jesus, “But Jesus, this man is a sinner!” And Zacchaeus standing right there waiting with baited breath to hear what Jesus would say.

“Will Jesus change his mind once the people tell him who and what I am?” wonders Zacchaeus. And then Zacchaeus feels Jesus’ hand squeeze his shoulder, while he says to the people there, “The only thing I care about is whether or not Zacchaeus’ wife can make good lamb chops.”

How did Zacchaeus respond to such radical, unconditional acceptance and love?

During dinner, while Jesus and he are sharing some hummus together, Zacchaeus becomes overwhelmed:

“Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount’” (Luke 19.8). (Moses only commanded twenty percent restitution. Zacchaeus pledges three hundred percent restitution.)

Remember just a few days earlier, Jesus had experienced the Pharisees responding to his call to give their possessions to the poor by “sneering” at him. (See Luke 16.13,14.) You have to imagine Jesus with tears of joy in his eyes at seeing the irony of this chief tax collector’s response, and saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19.9).

But again, how did the people respond to Jesus going to Zacchaeus’ house to begin with?

Those who are left outside are not the heathens, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, or the sinners. No, the ones outside are the ones who cannot handle the heathens, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and the sinners being included in God’s Kingdom.

What is Jesus whispering to us this week?

If any are lost at last, it will not be because they could not believe in God’s love for themselves, but rather because they could not embrace God’s love for someone else—for someone whom they thought, for whatever reason, should not be included.

The age to come will, I’m sure, be existential bliss to those who have fallen in love with Jesus and what his Kingdom is all about. But consider what it would be like for a close friend of mine who considers himself a “gun-toting, Bible-banging, flag-waving, troop-supporting, standing with Israel, anti-abortion, Constitutional, Christian conservative.” If the age to come looks like Jesus, and Jesus looks like the one we find in the Jesus story itself, then, let’s just say, my friend MIGHT find himself making some pretty difficult adjustments when he discovers whose presence Jesus is celebrating.

HeartGroup Application:

1.Read prayerfully Luke 14.1-5, 15-23 in the context of this week’s eSight and write down any thoughts Jesus shares with you in your reading. Jesus didn’t just eat with sinners, but he included the Pharisees too. The only reason the Pharisees where eventually left out was that they could not handle who else was included with them.

2.Prayerfully consider this thought: Jesus practiced a boundary-pushing, kosher-challenging, line-crossing, Pharisee-infuriating, radical hospitality. The question we have to ask is, are we?

3.Brain storm with your HeartGroup how you as a group can apply Jesus’ radical inclusivity within your group. And then discuss with one another ways in which each of you can practice Jesus’ radical inclusivity in your personal interactions with others outside of your group throughout the week.

Keep living in love, loving like Christ, until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. Now go enlarge the Kingdom.

I love you guys,

I’ll see you next week.