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Confessions of a (Recovering) Elder Brother

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Growing up, when I would read Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (in Luke 15:11–32), it was always the younger brother, the prodigal son, that I felt was the focus of the story. After all, that was the title of the parable, right? But that all changed when I read two excellent books on this parable in 2008 – A Tale of Two Sons (later retitled as The Prodigal Son), by John MacArthur, and The Prodigal God by Tim Keller.
MacArthur tells us that the lesson of the elder brother, who symbolizes the Pharisees in the parable, is often overlooked in many popular retellings. And yet it is, he states, the main reason Jesus told the parable.  He tells us that there’s good reason this short story pulls at the heartstrings of so many hearers – we recognize ourselves in it. This is true whether we are believers, conscious of our own guilt but still unrepentant, sinners coming to repentance, or unbelievers.  This parable, and MacArthur’s and Keller’s books resonate with me so much because I unfortunately see the potential for too much of the elder brother in me. After attending Scotty Smith’s “Disciplines of Grace” class at Covenant Seminary a few years back, in which he used Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son (see above), I kept a poster of the painting in my office at work, and would often look up at the condemning elder son.
Here are a few ways in which I have seen myself demonstrate the traits of the elder brother:

  • Doctrinal Pride. Tim Keller writes that what elder brothers pride themselves above all is their right religion. He states that if a group believes God favors them because of their particularly true doctrine, ways of worship, and ethical behavior, their attitude toward those without these things can be hostile. I believe doctrine is important, very important. I don’t apologize for that. However, I often find myself being intolerant of believers who don’t adhere to the conservative, Reformed theology that I do. And I can be pretty critical (see next paragraph) about worship styles that are different from my preferences. What about you? Are you willing to respect the views of fellow believers that don’t align exactly with yours?
  • Critical or Judgmental Spirit. In Rembrandt’s painting, the elder brother is standing on a platform, elevated above his father and repentant younger brother. He looks down with a condemning spirit. Keller states that elder brothers have an unforgiving, judgmental spirit. Unfortunately, I find that I too often have a critical or judgmental spirit. This is something that I have to continually hold myself accountable for.
  • Duty and Compliance over Joy. Keller states that another sign of those with an elder brother spirit is joyless, fear-based compliance. He tells us that the elder brother shows that his obedience to his father is nothing but duty. There is no joy or love, and no reward in just seeing his father pleased. The elder brother is a perfect emblem for the Pharisees. He had no appreciation for grace because he thought he didn’t need it. Elder brothers live good lives out of fear, not out of joy and love. Notice in the three parables in Luke 15 that something was lost, something was found, and friends, neighbors and family are called together to celebrate and rejoice.
    I am a very compliant and obedient person. One of my top five Strengthsfinder themes is responsibility.  At times, I have to check my motivation for doing things. For example, why do I read the Bible each day? Is it a duty, or do I do it to learn more about God, so that I can love Him more?  Do you also at times struggle with compliance and duty over joy?I don’t want to be the elder brother, but unfortunately, at times I display some of his traits.  Do you find that you do so as well?

Author: Bill Pence

I’m Bill Pence – married to my best friend Tammy, a graduate of Covenant Seminary, St. Louis Cardinals fan, formerly a manager at a Fortune 50 organization, and in leadership at my local church. I am a life-long learner and have a passion to help people develop, and to use their strengths to their fullest potential. I am an INTJ on Myers-Briggs, 3 on the Enneagram, my top five Strengthsfinder themes are: Belief, Responsibility, Learner, Harmony, and Achiever, and my two StandOut strength roles are Creator and Equalizer. My favorite book is the Bible, with Romans my favorite book of the Bible, and Colossians 3:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:21 being my favorite verses. Some of my other favorite books are The Holiness of God and Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul, and Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper. I enjoy music in a variety of genres, including modern hymns, Christian hip-hop and classic rock. My book Called to Lead: Living and Leading for Jesus in the Workplace and Tammy’s book Study, Savor and Share Scripture: Becoming What We Behold are available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon.

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