Older Brother Syndrome: Are You Stingy with God’s Grace?
One day I was surprised when a childhood friend said to me, “Oh Jan, you never thought the rules applied to you.” I wasn’t sure what she was referencing, but it was obvious from her comment that as a child I was perceived as one who regularly broke the rules or was not a good rule keeper. So, think about it for a moment were you a rule breaker as a child, or a rule keeper and why?
A casual reading of the parable of the prodigal son might confuse the average reader, leaving them stunned, “Why is Jesus’ portraying the older brother as being in the wrong in this story? Isn’t it a good thing to work hard and protect your families assets? Isn’t it a good thing to serve your father?” But, if we dig deeper we see that in this story, neither son actually knew their father’s heart. Both boys believed their father’s love had to be earned.
Who do you think the oldest brother is a picture of in this parable? We find a hint in Luke 15:1-2 when the pharisees and the scribes complain about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. To address their charges Jesus tells three parables about himself. All three stories are interconnected and really important to understanding God’s love for us. He is the Good Shepherd in Luke 15:3-7, he is the Good Woman searching for her lost coin in Luke 15:8-10, and in Luke 15:11-31 Jesus portrays himself as the Good Father. It is in this last parable we discover the oldest son. This son has never wandered far from his father’s fine home, but he still sees his life as hard and impoverished. The oldest brother clearly represents the scribes and pharisees who are blind to the merciful heart of God.
Look at Luke 15:25-32
25 “Now his older son was in the field; as he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he summoned one of the servants, questioning what these things meant.
27 ‘Your brother is here,’ he told him, ‘and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “Then he became angry and didn’t want to go in. So his father came out and pleaded with him. 29 But he replied to his father, ‘Look, I have been slaving many years for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’
31 “‘Son,’ he said to him, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” CSB
When we believe God’s favor is scarce, we will expect him to be more stingy with his mercy.
The pharisees possessed an incredible amount of head knowledge concerning the Old Testament scriptures, but sadly their heart knowledge of God was extremely shallow. Like them, the older brother was living a life of rule keeping without joy. When his father chooses to celebrate his wasteful brother’s return, the older brother immediately felt threatened. His jealousy and perception was that his father was not being fair to him. Ironically, his anger is directed at the one event that has brought his father the greatest happiness and joy he has had in a long time, the safe return of his wandering son. Imagine the sleepless nights this father has endured. With his exploding temper though this oldest son forces his joyous father to leave his guests, and his party, so he can plead with his angry son.
How we view God’s favor is one of the biggest challenges we will face in our walk with God because how we reason matters. If we think God is not being good to us we will feel like we are impoverished regardless of the level of our blessings. Jesus came to give us the abundant life (John 10:10). And, this abundance is released by the power of his sacrifice, and not by our persistent rule keeping. For many years I struggled to view my spiritual walk as the abundant life promised in scripture. Many of my misperceptions were first planted in me by my sweet daddy who was raised in extreme poverty. And, of course I was able to add my own fears to the mix.
My grandfather was a sharecropper in Kentucky before the depression. Sharecroppers did not own the land that they farmed and they had to pay a portion of their profits back to the landowner that they were working for. My grandparent’s lived in a sharecropper’s cabin which sadly was first built to house slaves before the Civil War. My dad slept on the floor with no mattresses, and was regularly bitten by the rats that infested these cabins as he tried to sleep. Then the depression hit and things only got worse for them. This mental state of scarcity was deeply rooted in my father’s childhood trauma.
When I would ask my dad for something I wanted he would always make me feel guilty for asking and then he would say, “We can’t afford it.” This was true even though my childhood was one of financial comfort. Our homes were always heated in the winter and cooled during the hot desert summers, and my mother was a fantastic seamstress who made all my cute clothes. We never missed a meal. But unfortunately, I went into adulthood envious of other people’s prosperity, and was completely blinded to my own abundance. I constantly worried about money. By contrast, my husband’s mother, who was also a child of the depression, took a very different approach when her children asked for something they wanted. She would always answer them by saying, “You don’t really need that.” Consequently, for years my husband Gary felt more financially secure than I did even though we were looking at the same bank account.
One day when my son asked me for a new pair of tennis shoes because his old ones had holes, my attitude of scarcity reared it’s ugly head. Without thinking I began to make him feel guilty for asking for new shoes and I then I heard myself say this, “We can’t afford it.” This was definitely a lie. What was I doing? I knew if I didn’t correct my comments quickly I was going to pass on this mindset that money is scarce and we are poor, to the third generation in my family. Immediately, I apologized to my son and I tried to explain budgets and how you have to plan for expenses, but this necessity was not the same as not having money. I have no idea if this was a teachable moment for him, but it was for me. And, we went shopping for new shoes as soon as we could. Thankfully, when I started meditating on God’s generosity toward me I began to witness how gloriously he has provided.
When we believe God’s favor is scarce, we will be tempted to think that the rules are in danger.
When favor has to be earned, it is easy to believe people might go soft on sin if we don’t strive to hold them accountable. We see mercy as dangerous instead of something God wants to richly provide (Ephesians 2:4). These beliefs come from viewing our lives as in want. Everything can change when we understand our provision is based on Jesus’ sacrifice and not our ability to follow the rules.
Ironically, this older brother’s passion for purity was not driven by his love for his father or his love for holiness. But, because he saw his father as a harsh slave master that was constantly driving him to work harder, and could never be pleased (Luke 15:29). The older brother only believed his father would gift him with a party for his friends, if he was good enough. He never imagined the depth of the father’s love, commitment and generosity. The oldest son is harsh because he has been blinded to the unconditional love of God.
How might becoming a militant rule keeper destroy our spiritual lives?
When we believe God’s favor is scarce, we will be tempted to see sin primarily as a behavioral problem instead of a condition of the heart.
In his judgement the older son focused on outward appearances, and not the secret sins of the heart that give birth to our behavior. Secret sins like hatred, envy, jealousy, lust, and coveting will destroy us from the inside out. James 1:14-15 wrote this about how our desires start small but grow larger in our hearts.
14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. ESV
Maybe the oldest brother was concerned about what the neighbor’s might think. In the end his faulty reasoning caused him to value rules over relationships.
The oldest son was probably horrified that his father had, so quickly forgotten that an inheritance had been squandered. He accuses his sibling of wasting money on prostitutes even though that possibility never appears in the text. Once envy entered his heart it easily escalated to where he was adding accusations to his brother’s already wounded reputation. At this point he definitely believed his father was a cheapskate. Presumably, the older brother was also concerned that he would have to pay the price for his brother’s misconduct and could not trust his dad. The father wants to assure both his sons that there is an abundance of provision and that family reunions are worthy of celebrations.
Why is a sinful heart more dangerous than the breaking of a specific rule?
When we believe God’s favor is scarce we will expect him to be more stingy with his mercy, we will believe the rules are in danger, and we will see sin primarily as a behavioral problem instead of a heart condition.
The older brother has never left the financial comfort of his father’s estate, and yet he sees himself as living a life of scarcity, absent of joy. We want to carefully avoid his reasoning. Our reality is God’s mercy will provide everything we need (Psalm 23:1). He is not tightfisted in his provision, nor in his special care for each one of us. In Christ, he promises us the abundant life (John 10:10). The Bible teaches that God owns it all, but for a season we are stewards of his resources (Matthew 25:14-30). For far to long we have let ourselves be conformed to the image of the envious older brother, instead of letting God conform us to the image of the good father. If we really we want to look like Jesus, we will have to let mercy rise.