Pharisee, Elder Brother?
A man had two sons (Luke 15:11).
Some of our leading preachers today regularly equate the ‘middle America church’ with Pharisees and the elder brother in Luke 15. They say that we in conservative, traditional churches are self-righteous, legalistic, and consequently unwelcoming to the younger brother types -atheists, agnostics, homosexuals, the ‘broken people’ in our communities. So the way this typically plays out is that these pastors, in a desire to reach the younger brother, throw the middle America church, the so-called Pharisees and elder brothers, under the bus. In telling the story of the so-called Prodigal Son (By the way, this title is not in the text of Scripture but was added later. A better title would be ‘The Parable of a Father’s Love for His Two Sons’) Jesus is focusing on the remarkable love the father has for both his sons. This parable is not about self-righteous Pharisees. It is about a seeking, loving father, who goes the distance in urging both sons to receive his love. All three parables (also the lost sheep and the lost coin) are teaching the same thing – God diligently seeks for the lost. This parable is about two types of sinners, the debauched and the self-righteous. Pastors who equate the middle America church with the elder brother are guilty of a non sequitur. This does not logically follow. They make the jump from the Pharisee and self-righteous person in the parable to the conservative church member. This has been very damaging and even divisive in the church. Some seem to dismiss such believers as hopelessly ‘out of touch’, since ‘middle American believers’ have a problem with Christians who use foul language, who support liberal politicians, and who drink excessively. They call such believers Pharisees or legalists.
I have heard many preachers call their church members Pharisees. What an awful thing to say! By saying this they are actually saying their church members are not Christians. In Jesus’ confrontation with the Jews in John 5, after healing the man who had been ill for thirty-eight years, the Jews were giving Jesus a hard time for healing on the Sabbath day. In fact they were seeking all the more to kill him because he was calling God his Father, making himself equal with God. Jesus says to the Jews, ‘You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life’ (John 5:38-40). So a Jew in this context, more specifically, a Pharisee, is someone who does not believe in Jesus, one who has rejected Jesus as the Christ. So the Pharisees, scribes, and elder brother are not middle America type Christians who are rigid and unwilling to reach out to the so called younger brother types. They are unbelievers. It is a serious mistake to equate the elder brother in the Luke 15 parable to a church member of any sort. I repeat – the elder brother and Pharisee are not legalistic type Christians. They are unbelievers all together.
In the parable of the two sons, the father reaches out to both of them. After the younger son comes to his senses, after living in rebellion against his father, seeing his need, he goes back home, telling himself that he will be perfectly content as a servant. He knows he does not deserve sonship. As he went back to his father, while still a long way from home, the father sees his son, feels compassion for him, runs to him, embraces him, and kisses him. No doubt the father was looking often, perhaps daily, for any sign of his son’s return. In Jewish culture it was very unbecoming for an older man to break into a trot or run. The father obviously did not care. He loved his son. He must, therefore, move swiftly to him. Before the son could finish his confession the father told his servants to clothe his returning son with the best robe, to put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet (slaves did not wear shoes). He then had the fattened calf slaughtered. A great celebration was observed. Why? The son who had been dead had come to life, and he who was lost had been found. Do you not see the remarkable love the father has for his son? You were like that, and God had mercy on you too.
Jesus then brings the second son into the story. He had been out in the field dutifully working for his father. When he heard the celebration and the reason for it, he was terribly angry and unwilling to enter the party. Note that the father treated the elder brother with the same compassion. The father also went out to meet his elder son, pleading with him. The older brother reminds his father of his dutiful service, refusing to acknowledge his brother, referring to him as this ‘son of yours’. He also possibly slanders his younger brother saying that he had spent his money on prostitutes and using very strong language like ‘who has devoured your wealth’. Note the father does not rebuke his elder son. He addresses him kindly as ‘Son’. The father is also clearly reaching out to his dutiful son. He loves him as well. The father said, ‘We had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother (he reminds him that the returning young man is his blood brother) of yours was dead and has begun to live and was lost and has been found.’ It’s like this – if one of my younger sons was lost on a hunting trip and after weeks of searching, was still unfound, and presumed dead; and then he miraculously was found, would I not celebrate with a great party? My older son would not expect such a party for himself. Why? He was not lost. He was not presumed dead.
This parable is all about our Heavenly Father’s great compassion and love for sinners. There are moral and religious sinners like the Pharisees and elder brother; and there are immoral and godless sinners like the younger brother and tax collectors. For those in the church of the Lord Jesus, those purchased by his precious blood, everything has changed. You are not a Pharisee. You are not an elder brother. Jesus never calls his beloved ‘Pharisees’. Nor do the apostles. Neither should we. You are not an elder brother. You are not a younger brother. Do you sin? Of course you do. Do you have self-righteous tendencies? Perhaps you do, but this does not make you a Pharisee. Can we stop calling conservative or traditional believers elder brothers or Pharisees?
Well, who are you? If you are in Christ, then consider what Scripture says about you:
You are the salt of the earth, Matt. 5:13.
You are the light of the world, Matt. 5:14-16.
You are a child of God (part of his family), John 1:12, Rom. 8:16.
You are part of the true vine, a channel (branch) of his (Christ’s) life, John 15:5.
You are Christ’s friend, chosen and appointed by him to bear much fruit for his kingdom, John 15:14-15.
You are a co-labourer with God the Father, 2 Cor. 3:9.
You are an ambassador for Christ, 2 Cor. 5:20.
You are an instrument of the Holy Spirit, 2 Cor. 3:3.
You are a slave of righteousness, Rom. 6:18.
You are enslaved to God, Rom. 6:22.
You are a son of God (God is your ‘daddy’ so to speak), Rom. 8:16, 17, Gal. 3:26, 4:6.
You are a joint-heir with Christ sharing his inheritance with him, Rom. 8:17.
You are a temple (home) of God. His Spirit (his life) dwells in you, 1 Cor. 6:19.
You are joined (united) to the Lord and you are one spirit with him, Eph. 4:4-6.
You are a member (part) of Christ’s body, Eph. 5:30.
You are a new creation (new person), 2 Cor. 15:7.
You are reconciled to God and you are a minister of reconciliation, 2 Cor. 5:18-19.
You are a son of God and one in Christ, Rom. 8:14.
You are an heir of God since you are a son of God, Rom. 8:17.
You are a saint, 1 Cor. 1:2; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2.
You are God’s workmanship (handiwork) created (born anew) in Christ to do his work which he planned beforehand for you to do, Eph. 2:10.
You are a fellow citizen with the rest of God’s people in his family, Phil. 3:20.
You a prisoner of Christ Jesus, Eph. 4:1, Col. 4:3.
You are righteous and holy, 2 Cor. 5:21, Eph. 1:4.
You are a citizen of heaven and seated in heaven with Jesus right now, Eph. 2:6.
You are hidden with Christ in God, Col. 3:3.
You are an expression of the life of Christ because he is your life, Col. 3:4.
You are chosen of God, holy, and dearly loved, Col. 3:12.
You are a new man in Christ, Eph. 4:24, Col. 3:10.
You are a son of light and not of darkness, Eph. 5:8-10.
You are a fellow partaker of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, Eph. 3:6.
You are one of God’s living stones and you are being built up (in Christ) as a spiritual house, Eph. 2:20-21.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession to proclaim the excellencies of him who brought you out of darkness into the light, 1 Pet. 2:9-10.
You are an alien and stranger to this world in which you now temporarily live, 1 Pet. 2:11-12, Eph. 2:19.
You were an enemy of the devil, 1 Pet. 5:10.
You are now a child of God and you will be like him when Christ returns, 1 John 3:1-2.
You are born of God and the evil one (the devil) cannot touch you, 1 John 5:18.
You are a sheep of his pasture. Therefore, you have everything you need, Psa. 23.
Rev. Allen M Baker is an evangelist with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, and Director of the Alabama Church Planting Network. His weekly devotional, ‘Forget None of His Benefits’, can be found here.
If you would like to respond to Pastor Baker, please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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