Among the best known parables is the story of the lost son. Here I only care to deal with the elder brother. And since that’s how we’ve only known him, let’s personalize the story a little and give both him and his younger brother a name. Uri will be the elder brother and Zev will be the younger one.
The Good Son
The entirety of Luke 15 is Jesus’s response to the Pharisees’ murmuring about his associating with the rotten apples of society. This is important to remember because he implies many things about the Pharisees in the lost son illustration.
As stories go, Uri’s is a little complex and sad. As for any scripture, we cannot make arguments or assumptions from silence, especially with parables; but I wonder some things about Uri. And since parables demand that we think contextually, follow along for a moment.
I am probably correct to assume that Uri loved Zev most of his life. I think he rallied to his father’s side when Zev started rebelling. Uri must have pleaded with his brother to not do something stupid by leaving; he knew Zev possessed a wild streak. Overall, I think Uri was a good son and a good brother.
Still, nobody was able to stop Zev; and for all anyone knew of him in the interim, he very well could have resurfaced with a caravan of riches. But when this wasn’t the case, indeed far from it, the moment revealed the character of Uri’s heart.
A Profile of Uri, the Elder Brother
Uri was juridical, rule-oriented, and contractual. He colored inside the lines and had learned to do so very well. He deeply appreciated the reason for those lines. They were order and civility and justice that made the world turn.
But he was unyielding about compliance, his own and everyone else’s. Uri colored only in black and white, and he bore little tolerance for transgressors. He believed in swift and immediate reprimand. For him, love was defined in legal terms and breaking the law made one unlovable.
“It’s All Yours, Uri.”
In Uri’s mind, Zev’s departure was an unforgivable split Zev had created. His request for his inheritance was tantamount to wishing his father dead. So now that he’s back after having been beaten by life within an inch of his own, Uri can hardly control his contempt and disowns Zev. His father cannot convince him to join the party he should be co-hosting, not even with the sobering reminder that his brother hasn’t returned dead. But by Uri’s convictions, that would have served Zev right for what he had done.
(Ever met people like this?)
Further, Uri is beside himself that his dad should go to such lengths to welcome Zev back. It cuts him deeply: no hoopla was ever made over him. And he has worked his butt off for his dad. But Uri didn’t understand that he was the only one caring about his performance. His father loved him and owned a proud heart because all he possessed was under Uri’s management and discretion.
The question is how well Uri knows his father; the answer is not well at all.
Uri’s problem in the parable is that he doesn’t have his father’s heart and had never properly assessed his father’s character. Relationally, although he was the elder son, he lived more like a servant, even a foundling or an orphan. He worked for love that was already his. Nothing stopped him from having already hosted several of his own events, but his heart harbored incorrect assumptions about his father that limited his freedom.
The Father: Get to Know Him
Uri’s problem is the same lofty piousness that makes us no longer resemble our Father. Erroneous views about God that have been pushed on us and our own wrong theological conclusions all conflict us and burden what should be a vibrant father-son bond with duty and fear and resentment.
What’s really peculiar is that we’ll go on unaware of our problem until we encounter others in need of God’s love. Our relational deficiency will show itself for what it is: our prepotent need. And like a sputtering car, coughing and choking, we will spew a black smoke of toxins in the faces of those finally ready for fresh air.
Hopefully the Spirit will get us to see how we’ve made it our job to zealously defend and protect God from those who need him most; that we’ve too often forgotten all about the people we should love and opted instead for gracelessness and sanctimony, proving our lack of true religion more than anything.
In the end, let it not be that we have glamorized Jesus and his ministry to outcasts and cared little about following his example. Let it not be that we are all church and no Christ. Let it not be that our churches are Bible-themed social clubs. And worst, let us not affirm what outsiders and antagonists already think about us, that the church is irrelevant and outmoded.
We’ve gotta get this right. Uri’s problem is the most major point of the whole New Testament. His issue was never Zev; it was in the mirror. And the answer was in the father’s heart.