The (older son) was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 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!’ Luke 15:28-30
Sibling rivalry is nothing new. We see the thread running from Cain and Abel, through Jacob and Esau, it’s present in the divisions between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Ephesian Church, to the recent revelations surrounding Princes William and Harry. It’s more than likely we are currently experiencing our own relational difficulties with a sibling, or watching it play out among our children! We all live lives in the context of repeating patterns of division and estrangement between siblings.
In Luke 15, Jesus paints a painful picture of one son’s rivalry towards his younger sibling essentially because, in his eyes, his behaviour wasn’t acceptable. In fact, Jesus told this story in response to accusations from the religious leaders that His own behaviour as a Rabbi wasn’t acceptable to God. (verse 3). Jesus was making a point about what makes us acceptable to God!
Jesus was NOT saying behaviour doesn’t matter to God. But the critical question Jesus addresses with the religious leaders of His day is what motivates someone to behave in a way that is pleasing to God?
The Pharisees’ answer was to focus on the law and give things to do or not do. This was the elder son’s approach and much of our contemporary attempts at discipleship tend to resemble this approach. Jesus explains, and experience confirms, no family can relate successfully on that foundation.
God’s answer is Grace! Outrageously, He gives a whole new identity, making us dearly loved sons and daughters of God. He begins with changing who we ARE before changing what we DO, because what we do flows out of knowing who we are.
When the younger son returns home, he owns for the first time his true identity as a son who is loved for who he is, not for what he does. Even though he has behaved in the worst way imaginable, he now knows that the father loves him anyway and he still has his place as a son. He has done nothing to earn it – it’s sheer grace. Just look at the power grace effects to change his behaviour!
But the elder son, the protagonist in Jesus’ story, refused to celebrate the grace shown to his younger brother. Why would he? In his mind, grace toward the undeserving wasn’t something you celebrate; people who behaved in ‘acceptable ways’ deserved to be celebrated! With piercing insight, Jesus tells us he chooses community with the slaves in the field rather than with other members of the family.
In his last words, in complete opposition to familial love, we hear him defending his character on the basis of his performance while attacking his brother’s character out of jealous rivalry. In place of longed-for reconciliation, the siblings are repelled even further apart!
Jesus warns us that when we make it all about our behaviour, siblings will be rivals and the family of God will experience division. But when we understand grace, it changes us! We become motivated to celebrate together, no longer as two siblings, but as one new man in Christ! (Eph 2:14-16). And counter-intuitively, when our hearts are truly tenderised by grace, we will be both motivated and empowered to display the likeness of the True Son, Jesus, in our behaviour towards one another (Eph 4:1-3).
Let’s ask ourselves:
Where do I recognise sibling rivalry-type behaviour across the Church of Jesus Christ today?
Where do I recognise an ‘elder-brother slave identity’ at work in the way I behave towards others?
Dear Lord Jesus, I ask You to show me where I have competed, been jealous or have harboured other rivalries towards any in Your family because of differences in our behaviour. I need Your grace to humble me and allow me opportunities to repair rifts in Your family.
For Your Glory. Amen.