The Elder Brother
Now his elder son was in the field — Luk_15:25
Seeing beneath the Regularities
There is not a little that is excellent in the character of the elder brother, and our Lord, with His eye for what is fine, is careful to bring that into the picture. For instance, the man was diligent—he was getting back from the field when all this happened. The prodigal was returning from debauchery: he was returning from his work. He had been busy on the farm since early morning, keeping a watchful eye on everything, and now at twilight he was getting home. Not only was he diligent; he had also been a pattern of obedience. He could assert, with a perfectly clear conscience, that he had never transgressed against his father. In all such excellent attributes of character he was immeasurably superior to the prodigal, and that the Master freely recognizes. The strange thing about Christ is how He gets below these outward regularities. He pierces through the ordering of habit into the secret spirit of the heart. And how He does that here, till we see the real man, and feel that we should know him if we met him, is one of the most arresting things in Scripture.
Unappreciative of His Privileges
To begin with, we see him as a man who was utterly unappreciative of his privileges. He was the kind of person who always bears a grudge. Every day he had his father’s company, and the blessed society of home. His father’s love was round about him constantly, and everything the father had was his. Yet in the midst of all that wealth of privilege the man had walked with an ungrateful heart—thou never gavest me a kid. When anyone breaks out like that, it is not so extemporaneous as it seems. It is the boiling over, in some heated moment, of what has long been simmering in the heart. That is the worst of many a bitter word, with its sometimes irreparable consequences, that reveals, as in a flash of lightning, what has been festering in the hidden soul. Thou never gavest me a kid—the thought had been there through many a long day. One trifling little thing had been withheld, and it had turned the music into discord. With lavish hand the father had given everything—all that I have is thine—and the man had been brooding on one thing never given. Are there not many people just like that? God has been wonderfully good to them; but because some one thing has been withheld they bear a grudge, and have the bitter heart. And yet they may be industrious and diligent, and obedient to the daily calls of life, just like the elder brother in the parable.
Hardened toward His Brother
Again our Lord reveals him as a man who was utterly hardened toward his brother. He was diligent and obedient—but hard. There is one exquisite touch which makes that plain—the word brother is never on his lips. He does not say, “My brother has returned”; he says, “This thy son is come again”—and sometimes a word (or the absence of a word) lights up the hidden chambers of the heart. The prodigal was his father’s son; nothing on earth could alter that relationship. “Thy son”—the word was uttered with a sneer, and a sneer may be deadlier than a sword. But brother—the word had died out of his speech, because the love it carries had died out of his heart—the prodigal no longer was his brother. He had ceased to be his brother long ago. He had ceased when he became a prodigal. The elder had no kinship with the junior. His heart had no room for ne’er-do-wells. Yet with that unbrotherly and hardened heart (as the Lord is so careful to remind us) the man was a pattern of industry and diligence. How searching is the eye of Christ! How unerringly He sees the deeps! I suppose the Pharisees thought that they were models, till the Lord revealed what was hidden in the darkness. And sometimes, in the strict performance of our duties, He gives us also a little glimpse of that, and we cry, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Out of Sympathy with His Father
Again we see this man, for all his excellencies, utterly out of sympathy with his father. His attitude to the younger brother involves that. Of whom had the father been thinking every day? He had been thinking of the prodigal. He had been praying for him—he had been longing for him—he had been watching for him through the weary months. And always beside him was his elder son, with his heart utterly hardened to the prodigal—father and son a million miles apart. The real prodigal was the elder brother. He was farther away than was the ne’er-do-well. Between him and the father’s loving heart there stretched a quite immeasurable distance. Yet he was at home, and under the same roof, and in his father’s presence every day, while the prodigal was in an alien land. How often we light on that in human life! Two may be near each other, and yet far away. Two may wake and sleep in the same dwelling, yet be more distant than if oceans parted them. And that is what Jesus felt about those Pharisees, to whom this parable was spoken—they were so near and yet they were so far. Sitting in the very seat of Moses, they were strangers to the loving heart of God. Thronging the Father’s House, they shared not the Father’s yearning for the prodigal. Yet were they diligent, scrupulous, exact—earnest toilers in the field of Scripture—just like the elder brother of the parable.
The Father Loved the Unlovable Elder Son
In closing, we should never forget that the father loved that elder son. He was not lovable, but the father loved him. Did he run (exquisite touch!) to meet the prodigal? He acted similarly with the elder brother. He left the song and dance to go and find him. He could not leave him, embittered, in the darkness. And when he found him—he, the Eastern father whose prerogative was to command—he stooped in fatherly yearning and entreated him. Then follows that charming touch of Jesus, for the father did not call him son. He called him child—so is it in the Greek—and child is a word of tenderest affection. Doubtless the prodigal was far more lovable—ne’er-do-wells are often very lovable. This elder brother (like many other people) was just a little difficult to love. And the triumph of the art of Jesus is not that He makes the father love the prodigal, but that He makes him love the elder brother. What Jesus teaches is that that is God. His love embraces folk who are not lovable. So mighty is it that it sweeps into its circuit folk who are very difficult to love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish.”