The Father Throws Parties; Older Brothers Throw Fits
Have you ever been in an argument with a family member or spouse when something slipped out that you never planned to say? Some people call this “word vomiting,” and as the term suggests, it usually isn’t a good or pleasant experience. However, it can be an honest experience and helpful in revealing what is going on inside your head and heart about a certain person or topic.
Jesus knew all about this experience, which is why He said,
Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. — Matthew 12:34
He was reinforcing the truth that we can tell a lot about how we really feel and what we really believe based on what comes out of our mouths in conversations, especially when we are not planning what we are going to say.
This principle yields valuable insight into the “older brother attitude” that so often characterizes our churches. [In the parable of the prodigal son] The older son was standing outside the party, refusing to come inside with his father and his brother — perhaps demanding to speak with his dad. His father leaves the party to try to reason with his son. The ensuing conversation unleashes a slew of words that is eerily reminiscent of the way many feel about God and church — and the way God is trying to change our hearts here to reflect the culture of His Kingdom.
But he answered his father,
‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ — Luke 15:29-32, emphasis mine
To begin, his whole speech has a real “look here, old man” feel to it. This speaks to entitlement and disrespect, but it also speaks to the general older brother attitude that leads us to begin reading off our résumés to God as if He doesn’t already understand our lives and, more importantly, what’s best for our lives.
Had the older son been working faithfully for his father? We have no reason to think otherwise, but we do have reason to think this son didn’t understand his father’s heart. As he listed his accomplishments, it’s obvious he believed two things: that the younger son did not deserve the party and gracious restoration he was receiving from the father, and that he himself deserved much more than this because of his work record.
Jesus deals with this concept a lot in Scripture — the restructuring of fairness along the lines of his grace rather than merit. It is also vividly revealed in Matthew 20:1-16, where Jesus tells another parable, this time about a master who hired laborers throughout the day at a certain agreed-on rate. As the day progressed, the master kept going into the marketplace and hiring more and more workers, which meant that some of them worked much shorter shifts than the ones who started in the early morning.
So when the day came to an end, the master paid all the workers the same amount — the very amount he had promised to pay them. As you can imagine, that wasn’t going to cut it for the workers who had put in an entire day’s work. They cried foul, demanding more than the workers who had only worked a few hours. But the master couldn’t have been clearer. He was the master, and he had agreed to pay everyone the same amount. No one forced anyone to work, and the pay was still very good.
It is this matter of comparing our work with others that was also tearing up the older brother as he chewed out his father. He was being paid handsomely already, much more than the servants and much more than he deserved. In fact, lest we forget, the father had already distributed two-thirds of his inheritance to the older son, which meant he was rich beyond his wildest dreams simply because he had been born. This is why the father said to him in Luke 15:31, “All that is mine is yours.” He hadn’t earned this inheritance. In fact, it had been given to him early because of the foolishness of his little brother. He had benefited from the younger brother’s prodigal decision.
But in the mind of the older brother, it wasn’t enough. He felt that even a single goat given to his little brother by his father was somehow robbing him of something he deserved. This brother no doubt owned goats as far as the eye could see — after all, he was chief heir to a very wealthy man. When you think of it in these terms, we see that the older brother attitude is not a fairness problem or even a provision problem, but rather a heart problem.
Many church leaders lead with this attitude, and more than that, they don’t lead their members away from this attitude. The result is that church can feel less like the extravagant party that the Father desires and more like a solemn get-together of insiders eating the same old food. Again, having a welcome sign on your church lawn or a coffee bar in your foyer does not produce the culture of the Father’s Kingdom. This is much deeper stuff — the stuff of your heart and the hearts of the people around you who call your particular church their own.
The bottom line is that God throws parties for His kids who come home, no matter how dirty, wasteful, or sinful they have been.
Older brothers, however, throw fits—and if you find yourself word vomiting like the older brother, Jesus says your words are reflecting your heart, so you should pay attention to them. As church leaders and members, we must become intentional in authentically leading our churches away from the older brother attitude.
Excerpted with permission from Parable Church by Mike Burnette, copyright Mike Burnette.
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It’s so easy to get upset about God’s unfair grace at younger brothers when you’ve been a Christian for a long time. We have to remember to party! We have to remember to celebrate the amazing abundance of God and our outrageous inheritance! Our hearts are important. Let’s not let them get stingy and uptight! ~ Devotionals Daily