Grace in the balance between the prodigal and elder brother response

Prodigal-elderbrotherHow we see our life in Christ will very much determine how we respond to this fresh wind of grace we’re seeing in the body of Christ today. And I think Jesus’ parable in Luke 15:11-32 can help us here.

First, it’s quite telling to me that we traditionally refer to this story as the parable of the “prodigal son.”

You see, Jesus seemed to think it was about a father who had TWO sons. And if we miss this, we miss the heart of our heavenly Father–and our own response to His heart toward us.

But before I continue, I would like to acknowledge the insights of leaders like Jack Winter, Floyd McClung, Jack Frost, Leif Hetland and many others, for giving us a better understanding of this parable in recent years.  For we are finally starting to see the stunning reality of this outrageously loving Father who is relentless about bringing His orphan children home to live in His constant embrace.

For as they have pointed out for us in this story…

The prodigal son is the “rebellious” orphan

The elder brother is the “religious” orphan

An orphan is someone who lives like they have no home. They live life separated from the affections and affirmations that only come from a father, so they seek these things out in their performance–good or bad. I talked about this in “When the Father’s love touches our orphan heart.”

So, what’s revealing about this misnomer is that when we put the focus only on the “prodigal” side of the story we tend to miss the equally important view of the elder brother. One reason could be that the latter’s view resonates more with our traditional evangelical point of view.

After all, the elder brother wasn’t the one who ran off and “sinned.”

The elder brother did nothing wrong. And I’m sure he was “in church whenever the doors were open.” He was the one who kept his nose clean, right?

Of course, a demonstration of extravagant grace toward the “rebellious” always makes the elder brother angry. It’s “not fair” and he demands justice.

Nonetheless, the point of the story is that our heavenly Father wants both sons to “come home,” if you will.

And this gets to the heart of the matter. If we’re still living like orphans–on either side–we will not understand this grace revolution in its proper light. For orphans cannot handle the pure message of grace. They will either abuse it or criticize anyone who tries to walk in it.  For it’s meant for fully affirmed sons living life from the Father’s embrace.

The “prodigal” response to pure grace

They will interpret the undiluted message of grace as freedom to live a self-indulgent lifestyle. For they have not been “compelled by love” to give up their carnal life (2 Cor.5:14-15).

This is because they don’t believe that ultimate pleasures and abiding joy can only be found in Him. So their life is one of running away from His love, seeking out the inferior counterfeit pleasures found in the world to satisfy the cravings of their impoverished soul.

Rebellious orphans think that God is holding out on them, that their heavenly Father doesn’t have their best interests in mind.

The “elder brother” response to pure grace

“Elder brother” Christians will scoff at the pure message of grace and call it a “cross-less gospel,” pointing to the rebellious orphan’s response to justify their claims. They will not receive the pure message of grace because they define their spirituality by following rules, by what they don’t do, and by staying inside boundaries they have devised. They don’t trust God to manage anyone.

They resist intimacy and keep Love at a distance because it requires honest, bare-naked vulnerability. They hide from God with their constant study of Him, trusting only in what they can control and only what can be managed in their own strength. It’s humanistic at its core with only a pretense of spirituality.

Like the elder brother in the story, they never avail themselves to all that the Father has (Luke 15:31),  never understanding that it’s their heavenly Father’s “good pleasure to give them the Kingdom.” (Luke 12:32).

The elder brother Christian sees the Father as an austere, demanding taskmaster who must be obeyed for love. Repentance is shown by putting themselves on probation, being sorry enough, sincere enough, suffering enough…rather than resting in His unconditional love.

And what’s interesting is that both the rebellious and religious orphan are the same in that they operate out of fear instead of love. So they perceive God as being separate from themselves, understanding who Christ is, but never seeming to grasp who they are–inextricably in Him.

Sadly, because of their insecurities and unhealed emotional wounds, neither will enjoy the transforming love that comes from the Father’s heart that allows one to see and love others the way He does.

I wrote about my own orphan-hearted journey as a Christian, going from being the prodigal to the elder brother in “Don’t give your life to Jesus and then lose your soul.”

So, as we navigate on this “ocean” of God in the midst of the current rising tide of this grace revolution, let’s consider where our reactions are coming from. And let us not fear the extremes on either side. Rather, centering our attention and our affections on the One who beckons us out of our “boat” onto the waters of His amazing grace–letting our orphan fears give way to His unfathomable love.

Beloved, we have nothing to fear. HE, and He alone, is faithful to complete that which He began in us. You are loved.

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About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 36 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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12 Responses to Grace in the balance between the prodigal and elder brother response

  1. marklhen says:

    I love this story “about the Father who had two sons”. Very good! And how telling… that we focus on the prodigal. Hmmmm. Sad that both sons lived in fear, relegating both of them to orphan living… one was an ‘orphan’ away from home, and the other was an ‘orphan’ in his home… while neither was an orphan in their Father’s eyes. Great Father. Thanks Dad, for pursuing us! Thanks for the perspectives, Mel.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks. And, amen, on His relentless pursuit of us, bringing the orphans home! It’s sad that so many believers live from fear (focused more on what they’re against) instead of love (seeing with the Father’s eyes). That’s why we desperately need this reformation! 🙂

      I wrote this because I think it shows us where some of the extreme reactions are coming from. As you have said in the past, these are weighty things that need open and honest discussion. We need to wrestle with them until we find the mind of Christ. For God is truly behind it. And it’s as much about what He’s revealing in us–why we react the way we do–as it is about what He’s doing in the continual process of advancing His Kingdom.

  2. dcummuta says:

    Phew! Good stuff. 🙂 I’m excited to see the bride wake up into this reality. It’s getting so fun!

  3. marklhen says:

    Reblogged this on marklhen and commented:
    My friend Mel, has offered some wise insights into what Jesus called the story of “the Father who had two sons”. And how telling… that we focus on the prodigal. Hmmmm. What does that say about us.

    How sad that both sons lived in fear, relegating both of them to orphan living… one was an ‘orphan’ living away from home, and the other was an ‘orphan’ even in his own home… yet neither was an orphan in their Father’s eyes.

    Thanks Dad, for pursuing us despite our broken perspectives of ourselves!

  4. Cindy Powell says:

    “And what’s interesting is that both the rebellious and religious orphan are the same in that they operate out of fear instead of love.” Spot on … again! Always seemed so sad to me that people can be on completely opposite side of a spiritual debate and never once realize they are both operating out of the very same root–fear. Sadly, been seeing more and more of those roots still hanging out in my own heart–ouch! But if it’s an ouch that leads to greater love that is always a good thing 🙂 You are right, so thankful the One who is Love IS so patient and faithful to finish what He has started!

    • Mel Wild says:

      Amen. There is so much I could say about this. I could ramble on and on… 🙂
      Sadly, we see so much of our evangelical focus is on what we’re against instead of what we’re for. “Watch out for this, be afraid of that…” But where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom, and it’s invading like never before. So now there’s this implosion going on as our traditional religious orphan paradigms are being challenged, re-inspected and deconstructed. And that’s actually a good thing because a lot of what we focus our attention on is a huge distraction and actually has no resemblance to the New Testament Church in the Bible. But when love comes, fear goes away. And when this happens we stop being so insecure about who we are, having “boldness and access with confidence” (Eph.3:12) because we are held in the grip of His love. There is where true freedom reigns.

      And I am totally with you on the “ouch” thing! God has shown me so many of my own subtle insecurities and need for affirmation in so many areas of my life lately, including fear of stepping out in what I know God wants me to do. But He is faithful…and relentless! 🙂

      • Cindy Powell says:

        Amen and amen. Here’s to more re-inspection and even more “ouches” if it leads to a greater revelation of His relentless love! I really think we’re on the way. The old grid just doesn’t work for people anymore. Good stuff!

  5. N. says:

    aaw this makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside lol

  6. Pingback: Embracing grace and being led by the Spirit | In My Father's House

  7. Grace covered them both. Before, during, and after their experiences.

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