The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The elder brother

When we turn to the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:25-32), I think we usually pay too little attention to the elder brother. Lately, he has come to mind.

I liken him to faithful Christians among us, the members of our congregations. Like the elder brother, these people have stayed home. During the years they have faithfully "done the chores." They haven't made unreasonable and selfish demands. You can count on them. On a Sunday morning, they are in their pew. If asked, they might teach Sunday school, fill an office or serve on a committee. At church suppers, you'll find them in the kitchen. They give to missions and faithfully support the congregation's work. Like the elder brother, this member can say, "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command ..." (verse 29).

Tragically, some of these dear people become cranky, negative, angry. Something has turned sour.

In the case of the elder brother, the complaint springs from the favor given to the prodigal. There is jealousy for the father's joy and gratitude upon his young son's return.

Some people in our congregations have spent their years surrounded by the grace and mercy and forgiveness and promises of God — bathed in the gospel, as it were. As the father reminds the eldest, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours" (verse 31). Can we be that close and still miss the Spirit? "But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found" (verse 32).

Maybe it's the pastor who provokes or fellow members who are irritants. Or maybe issues aren't settled to our liking. Bring the stranger, the refugee into our midst and hear the "behind the back" complaint.

Is our faith a claim on God or is it a gift we joyously share?

The father invites his son to a feast, a party. We can assume there will be laughter, music and dancing. One would hope and pray that the elder brother could set aside his pique and join the fun.

Peter, writing to people persecuted for their faith — who, therefore, have some justification for crankiness — urges a different tact. "Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen" (1 Peter 4:8-11). 


Paul & Mary Knapp

Paul & Mary Knapp

Posted at 8:29 pm (U.S. Eastern) 7/19/2011

I have seen it happen.  As a rough patch in congregational participation progresses, the work load on the faithful remainder increases as it must in that situation and the strain can hide the welcome to changes so important to an eventual turnaround.  May God grant us all the grace, in good times and not so, to remember Christ's clear message from the elder son story. 

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