I am an older brother. And I am a younger brother. I am, what experts call, the “middle child,” and apparently there are all kinds of tendencies that go along with it.
Apparently, as a middle child I am “probably understanding, cooperative and flexible, yet competitive.” On the flipside, I have a latent and insatiable desire for attention which I feel was unfairly distributed on my older and younger siblings. So there’s that.
An older brother and a younger brother at the same time, but spiritually speaking, I would fall squarely into the context of the “older brother.” Though Jesus didn’t intend one of His best known parables to speak about birth order, we can nonetheless liken ourselves to one of the two sons in the story of Luke 15.
There is the younger brother. He’s the one who goes to his father and demands his inheritance – literally, he says “give me my share of your life,” or treat me as if you were dead. Then he takes that inheritance and squanders it in wild and pleasurable living. Such is the case with the younger brothers who want to get out into the world, milk it for everything it’s worth until it’s not worth much any more.
All the while, there is the older brother in the story. He’s the one who stayed at home. He’s the one who worked hard. He’s the one who had the appearance of faithfulness, but all the while harbored a sense of judgment and bitterness based on the grace shown his brother. And while the parable of Luke 15 is popularly called “The Prodigal Son”, it’s really about two boys, not just one, and the father who had enough grace for them both.
Tim Keller, in his book The Prodigal God (which incidentally is one of the books that’s changed my life the most in the last 5 years), helps us see that when Jesus originally spoke this story into existence He did so not only to talk to younger brothers, but also to speak to the older ones in the crowd:
All the tax collectors and sinners were approaching to listen to Him. And the Pharisees and scribes were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” So He told them this parable… (Luke 15:1-3).
Can you see the scene in your mind? There were two distinct parts of the audience, separated by a gulf of personality and assumption if not physical space. There were the younger brothers – the tax collectors and sinners – pressing hard to get closer to Jesus, and there were the older brothers standing at the back of the crowd with their arms crossed and their noses in the air. Indeed, I have often wondered if that is not the posture that most describes older brothers like me – arms crossed. Head slowly moving left and right in disapproval and pride.
And Jesus told a story for both of them. Thank God He did. Because the gospel is for older brothers, too.
The gospel is for those who turn their backs on their father and walk away and it’s for those who grudgingly nod their head in rigid but reluctant compliance.
The gospel is for those who know the fleeting pleasure and the consuming emptiness of the far country and it’s for those who know the never-ending struggle of performance in the back pasture.
The gospel is for those who wake up one day and say, “What have I done?” and it’s for those who lay down exhausted at the end of the day and say, “Look what I’ve done.”
The gospel is for those who come crawling back home wondering if they’ll be accepted and it’s for those who constantly wonder in the back of their minds if enough will ever be enough.
For all the younger brothers, the gospel is the refrain that says, “Welcome home, son of mine.” And for all the older brothers, the gospel is the refrain that says over and over again until by God’s grace we believe it’s true: “What are you trying to prove out there? The celebration has already begun. Come inside…”