by Al Maxey

Issue #110 ------- March 5, 2004
There are a thousand
hacking at the branches of evil
to one who is striking at the root.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

The Elder Brother Syndrome
A Prodigal Son Who Stayed At Home
Luke 15:25-32

We are all familiar with the Lord's Parable of the Prodigal Son. We've read it, studied it, and recounted it to others countless times in our lives. Preachers have preached it, teachers have taught it, and numerous lessons have been legitimately drawn from its characters as they interrelated with one another in this moving account. Most of us, if questioned, would probably admit that we identify, at least to some degree, with the wayward younger son in the Lord's story. After all, which of us has not made bad choices and shown poor judgment in our lives? Which of us has not suffered the consequences of those unwise decisions?

We have all had our "far country" experiences! Each of us, at some low moment in our journey, has probably found ourselves in one of life's infamous "pig pens" wallowing in the filth and mire of sin. Some reading this article may be there now. Others may be contemplating "leaving the Father's house" and pursuing the fleeting pleasures of this world. There may be those who have come to their senses and are on their way back home. We've all been there, and thus easily relate to the spiritual struggles and emotional trauma experienced by the prodigal. In so many ways you and I have been, or are, that lost and wandering child living in the far country, removed from the warmth of the Father's home.

This is far more than a story of a lost child, however. It is also, and perhaps even primarily, a parable depicting a father's love! It is the pure, devoted, constant love of a father even for a rebellious, self-willed son. The affections of the son may have wavered, but those of the father never faltered. Some have suggested this account might more appropriately be entitled: The Parable of a Father's Love. Those of us who are parents can also identify with this aspect of the story as well. Which of us, as parents, has not shared the suffering we witness in our children when they experience the consequences of poor choices in life? Who among us has not grieved when we see them hurting from self-inflicted wounds?

But there is another major character in this parable often overlooked, or merely mentioned in passing. He is just as much a prodigal as the father's youngest son. We refer, of course, to the elder brother. His brother was lost in the far country, but he was lost at home! Who was this other son? What lessons does our Lord seek to convey in this sub-parable of a prodigal who never left home, but who was no less a rebel in need of redemption? It is vital we discover the answers to these questions, for our Lord speaks as much to us in this brother as He does in the other!

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Jesus' parable begins with the statement: "A certain man had two sons" (Luke 15:11). The next thirteen verses then focus entirely on the younger son and the father. The older brother isn't even mentioned until vs. 25. In the final section of the parable, however, we begin to discover some things about this elder son of the father, and we learn that he does have some rather positive qualities which commend him to us.

  1. He was a hard worker. When we first encounter him, he is out in the field working for his father. In fact, in vs. 29 this son points out that he has provided years of continuous, faithful service to the father. While the younger brother was out "sowing his wild oats," the elder brother was in the field, hard at work, diligently sowing seed for his father ... working to bring forth a harvest of grain.

  2. He was an obedient son. He didn't demand his inheritance; he didn't rebel against the father. There was no irresponsibility here; no squandering of his father's wealth on loose living, like the younger son. In fact, in vs. 29 he tells the father, "I have never neglected a command of yours." He was submissive to the will of his father; he was conscientious. In short, we might almost say he was the ideal son. Certainly not like that "wild little brother" of his who had become such a disappointment to the family!!

  3. Perhaps we can even say he was a morally upright individual. At least he certainly seemed incensed over the immoral lifestyle of his younger brother.

These are all, at least on the surface, very positive qualities. What father wouldn't count himself blessed to have such a son?! If this was all we knew about this older brother, we would certainly seek to hold him up as an example to our own children. Jesus doesn't fault the morality, or the obedience, or the work ethic of this older brother. These are indeed commendable qualities. However, Jesus does fault his attitude. In spite of his many laudable characteristics and his tireless service to the father, the elder son was not right in his heart.

When the prodigal son returned home at long last, the father and his household rejoiced. The elder brother, hard at work for the father in the field, heard this merry-making and came to investigate the cause. When he saw the reason for the rejoicing, Jesus tells us "he became angry" (vs. 28). This is the Greek word orgizo, which means "passionate rage." It comes from the root word orgao, which referred to plants and fruits swelling with juice to the point of bursting. The elder brother in this parable was so filled with rage that he was ready to burst! He was "so mad he could have exploded!"

Not only was he furious over this turn of events, but he also sulked and pouted and withdrew himself from his brother. Jesus says, "The older brother became angry and refused to go in" (vs. 28). Please do not fail to notice the result of this brother's rage --- by refusing to fellowship his brother, he also excluded himself from the fellowship of the father's household. Because of his rage, he forfeited rejoicing; because of his fury, he forfeited fellowship! What a high price to pay for a poor attitude! The father finally had to come outside the house, where the older brother was fuming and sulking, to plead with him to come inside the house. This is an important point in the parable and must not be missed --- when we won't have anything to do with a brother who is accepted by our heavenly Father, that places us OUTSIDE of the household of God. Sweet fellowship and rejoicing is within the Lord's house, where some "brethren" don't care to go because of who they might encounter therein!

This is a truth many "elder brothers" in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ today need to understand. By cutting themselves off from those brethren who are not cut off by the Father, they are harming and depriving themselves of joyous fellowship. When brethren reject brethren; when congregations reject congregations ... the elder brother syndrome has raised it ugly head once more among the sons of the Father.

This older son was also guilty of self-righteousness, yet another aspect of this sad syndrome. When the father came out to talk with this enraged son, he immediately called the father's attention to all the wonderful things he had done for him over the years. In vs. 29 he stated that he had never neglected one of his commands and had worked tirelessly for years. This sounds very reminiscent of the proud Pharisee in another parable of our Lord, which He told "to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt" (Luke 18:9). There is probably no more despicable attitude than that of self-righteousness. It will invariably result in a feeling of superiority over others, which in turn leads far too frequently to the affliction of those deemed inferior or "beneath" their contempt.

Speaking of contempt, the elder brother was guilty of this also. In vs. 30 notice how he referred to his younger brother --- "...this son of yours!" His self-righteousness, contempt and anger had led him to the point where he could no longer regard this person as a brother. It's as though he had said, "He may be your son, but he's NOT my brother!" Oh, how frequently we see the same contempt displayed in the Family of God for those with whom we may differ on some matter. What abominable arrogance!! And let's not forget the twin sins of envy and jealousy. These also are evidenced in the attitude and actions of this older brother. "You kill the fattened calf for him ... yet you never gave me even a young goat, so I could celebrate with my friends!" (vs. 29-30).

Suddenly our mental image of this older son is no longer as positive as we had previously supposed. This hard working, obedient, devoted son, who never committed the type of sins committed by his younger brother, has a corrupt heart; one characterized by anger, envy, self-righteousness, contempt, and pettiness. On the outside, based on his works, he appeared to be the ideal son; on the inside, based on his attitude, he was anything but! Compounding the tragedy is the fact that everyone suffered because of his behavior.

  1. The prodigal son was deprived of the warm, loving welcome he should have received from his older brother when he returned from the far country.

  2. The father was torn away from the festivities, having to leave the joyous fellowship of his household, in order to go out and plead with a son plagued with an evil disposition.

  3. Even the elder brother himself suffered. By his pathetic attitude he had cut himself off from the celebration within the father's household. He had severed himself from the fellowship of the family; standing outside ... miserable, angry and alone!

Notice the words of the father to this elder son -- "My child, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to be merry and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found" (vs. 31-32). Not only does the father appeal to the son's sense of reason here ... he explained the logic for such a celebration ... but he also appeals to his sense of family --- "My child ... this your brother." The elder son was long on duty and service, but woefully short on love and family! One's family should always be a place of safe haven; a realm of loving acceptance; a refuge where failure never has to be fatal; a sanctuary where those who stumble may find a hand up rather than a kick to the head while down. The elder brother failed to perceive and appreciate this reality .... and all suffered.

In John 13:34-35 Jesus said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." The true mark of discipleship is not so much the nature or extent of our service, nor in the perfection of our knowledge or understanding, nor in the preciseness of our religious rituals ... the true mark of genuine discipleship is LOVE.

"The one who hates his brother is in the darkness" (1 John 2:11). When our Lord's parable of the prodigal ends, the older brother is outside the father's house, separate from the family and the fellowship, standing alone in the darkness. And it wasn't his years of service and obedience that put him there ... it was his heart! There are too many "elder brothers" in the Family of God today! These are hard working, devoted sons of the Father in many ways, but they have a heart condition. They lack love, and this makes it hard for them to forgive and accept. In so doing, they fail to find true fellowship with their brethren. May God help us all to oppose this "elder brother syndrome" that is leaving too many of our beloved brethren standing outside the Father's house in the darkness. Let's show our elder brothers the love of the Father, and let's welcome them back into the fellowship ... if they are willing to come. If not, let us be like the father in the Lord's parable: eagerly longing for, patiently praying for, always hoping for their return.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in England:

Dear Brother Al, I was brought up in the Non-Institutional Church of Christ, but as I reached my late twenties strange thoughts began to creep into my head. I say strange, because I certainly didn't come up with them! I was firmly entrenched in the belief that the "treasury" could only be used for "the Lord's work." I am grateful to say that the Holy Spirit does work in these days, as I believe I was gently but persistently brought around to see the glaring inconsistencies of that belief. After all, we could pay for water, fertilizer, grass seed, bushes, and even a lawnmower to have a lawn on the "church premises" out of the treasury, but we couldn't support "institutions." In other words, we could feed and water a lawn out of the treasury, but not people?? We could pay someone to clean the building, but not someone who worked in an orphanage? We could HAVE a building we only used three times a week (no kitchen in THIS group!), but not put a roof over someone's head? Look at the examples given in the New Testament. Almost every time the Christians are instructed to take up collections it is to relieve the suffering of others. I once believed, too, that if one of our congregation had left and gone to a "liberal" church, then if they wanted to come back to our congregation, they had to repent first. What a shame!!! Keep up the good work, and God bless.

From a Minister in Donetsk, Ukraine:

Greetings from Donetsk, brother! Thank you for your Reflections. They are great, as always. In one of your more recent Reflections articles you mentioned your congregation's Statement of Purpose. We have put up something like that for our church last year -- -- and will make some corrections this year. I was wondering if I can get a copy of yours. It may be of benefit to us. God bless you, brother.

From a Reader in Chennai, South India:

Al Maxey is not even a good Baptist, much less a member of the Lord's Body, even though he claims to be one!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, It cannot be said enough ... Thank You, over and over, for your in-depth Reflections.

From a New Reader in Texas:

I'm retired military and a retired DoD contractor (Program Manager) and a published author. I was in Vietnam in '69 (same year as you), and earned several credits at ENMU while I was stationed at Cannon AFB. Small world. I was "saved" many times growing up, but religion gave me only guilt. Part of the problem seems to be that I witnessed extreme physical abuse to my mother, my brother, and myself, all the while praying for help. None came. So here I am, at the age of 53, as an undefined "Agnostic." Believing in God, but avidly avoiding all forms of organized religion. I obviously am skeptical about Christianity. All the while, my wonderful wife is an educated, learned, devout Christian.

Al, I have just spent about 8 hours reading and rereading articles on your site. I am profoundly impressed with your writings. I am looking forward to reading your debates tomorrow. I know you are probably busy, like most people, and don't have the time for dialogue, but I just wanted you to know even "non-Christians" read your site.

From a Reader in Arizona:

Thanks so much for your Reflections on individual vs. corporate responsibility. I had seen the word Non-Institutional used in many of your Reflections articles, and I intended to ask you what it means, but never seemed to get around to it. The current issue explained it clearly ... and I didn't even have to ask! The story of the brother who would let the orphan starve before dipping into the church "treasury" brought tears to my eyes. How can a child of God justify such a thing?! I was horrified. I also want to comment on the churches in Texas who banded together to take out a newspaper ad. To me, what that shows is that the Churches of Christ are becoming (or have become) themselves what they so strongly oppose -- a denomination! May God's blessings be on you and your family, Al.

From a Preacher in Oklahoma:

I am a fairly new subscriber to Reflections, and I know that you have spent some time ministering to churches in New Mexico. Here's my question -- Concerning immersion baptism, does one have to be completely submerged to comply? A case in point comes from a recent highlight printed in the Christian Chronicle about a man whose feet were wrapped, then taped in duct tape, in order to facilitate his total submersion (the man had a physical ailment that prevented him from getting his feet wet). This incident occurred at the Cuba Avenue Church of Christ in Alamogordo, New Mexico according to the article. I was once forbidden by doctors to immerse a woman who was in the hospital dying of lung cancer. She was not able to even leave her bed, but she wanted to be baptized. She was sincere in her desire to get ready to meet the Lord, and her death was imminent. I prayed with her, took her confession of belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, poured a small amount of water on the top of her head, and assured her that God could and would take care of the rest. Any comments?

From a Doctor in Kentucky:

AMEN!! A Disturbing Dichotomy Involving Individual vs. Corporate Responsibility is perhaps my favorite article! This was the first thing I read to my wife this morning as we got up at 6 a.m. to get ready for work. Let us pray that these groups, and others who have similar theologies of patternism (but differ in some areas of legalism), come to know Him and His Word better! Having spent 10 years in legalism, I know far too well the dangers of it. Thankfully, I was shown something better.

From a Director at Florida College:
-- A Non-Institutional Church of Christ College

I read your latest Reflections article and can't agree with you that 1 Timothy 5:1-16 does not make a distinction between an accounting or financial obligation that belongs to the church versus an accounting or financial obligation that belongs to an individual Christian who is a relative of a widow. So, unless I misunderstood what you are saying here, Paul is saying not to put on the list widows that have relatives who can requite them or those who are under 60 because they should marry. Your argument sounded to me like you were saying just the opposite of what I understand Paul to be saying.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Wouldn't giving money to a hungry orphan, or to a widow, have more of an impact for God, in certain circumstances, than preaching? For example, in the play Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, at the beginning, stole some silver from the church that gave him food and shelter. When the constable brought him back, the priest told him that the goods were not stolen but a gift to the man. That one event had such an impact on Jean that he completely changed his life. Wouldn't doing the opposite (i.e., letting the orphan starve) actually turn him AWAY from God? Any time we give money to those who are in genuine need, either individually or "corporately," aren't we really doing mission work?!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Change the scenario to "starving non-saint on the doorstep." Not only will NI's not support "benevolent institutions," they will also not take money from the corporate treasury and help a non-saint. The reason: no example in the NT where the first century church ever sent or gave money to a non-saint. I have never known of any NI church not accepting a contribution from a non-saint during the Sunday collection. Yet, in the NT no example is found of a collection containing any funds except those contributed by saints. Such inconsistencies do not appear to be of any concern to them. Isn't it a little deceptive not to keep the non-saints, who may be present in the assembly during a collection of funds "for the Lord," informed of the Lord's very strict requirement that, in the event any of these non-saints might come to a time of need in their lives, the Lord does not permit the benevolent return of any of the funds contributed by them?

From a Preacher in Georgia:

I just returned from a teaching trip to the West Indies, and your Reflections was reflected on my screen. In Acts 3, Peter was approached by a beggar for alms. Peter gave the man something far better by healing him. But Peter's first reply to the beggar was "Silver and gold have I none..." (vs. 5). Peter DID have access to the collected funds, and there were funds available (cf. Acts 2:45). Evidently Peter had no personal money on him at the time, and evidently the collected funds were not to be used for this person. In EVERY case where we find the CHURCH acting in the realm of benevolence, the money was for THE SAINTS. For example, when Paul collected funds for the famine in Jerusalem, he stated that it was for THE SAINTS. Were there no non-believers that were suffering from the famine? As an individual, I have an obligation to my neighbor, but where do the Scriptures make the church an institution for general benevolence?

From an Elder in Missouri:

Al, I have for a long time had concerns about this "dichotomy" you mention. I'd rather call it hypocrisy. As I read your article, I was reminded of the Grecian widows in Acts 6. Clearly there was an individual responsibility that was not being met, but also it seems clear that the church as a body met that responsibility. I think some are missing the point of Galatians 6:10. As we have opportunity, we are to do good unto all men, with an emphasis on caring for our own. This does not mean we ONLY care for our own, but that we will be more inclined to care for those we are close to, as I care for my children but would never neglect another's child who was in need. Just a few thoughts as supper is cooking.

From a Preacher in Texas:

Another great job, Al. I have had this same discussion with various factions within our heritage. After hearing passionate diatribes regarding "the Lord's money," my most common response is, "When does the money become 'the Lord's?'" This usually gets a blank look. Is there a moment, or an event, in which money given in contribution becomes the Lord's? When you went into the church building you had $________ in your bank account that was "unclaimed," but you gave a check with the church's name on it during the collection and at the moment it hit the bottom of the collection plate it was transformed into the "Lord's money." That is pretty well how some see it. "The earth and everything it contains are the Lord's. The world and all who live in it are His" (Psalm 24:1). I too will join the chorus of those encouraging you to take the drive to Denton, Texas and spend time with Leroy and Ouida Garrett.

From a Preacher in Missouri:

Al, your article was outstanding! The problem with too many of our brethren is that they have taken Jesus out of the church of Jesus Christ. This is how they come up with these foolish, Spirit-less, graceless doctrines and dogmas. How else could a so-called Christian say it is against the will of our God to feed a starving child with the money out of the church treasury?!! It is a SIN to do good with the money that is supposed to be used for the will of God?! Foolishness!! This is fleshly, carnal and worldly. Only pride would allow a person to be so closed-minded to the Truth. Some of these brethren follow a pattern alright, but not a divine pattern .... it is the pattern of Matthew 23. God is gracious to us; we should be gracious to others, especially those who can't do for themselves. Who knows, that orphan may come to Jesus and lead many others to Jesus for the glory of God. On the other hand, how many people through the years have been pushed away from Jesus because some stiff-necked religious person refused to help someone in need as a result of this dichotomy?! Even worse, have they taught others to do so?!

From a Reader in Alabama:

Brother Maxey, Having been on both sides of this debate, and living in the center of the Non-Institutional storm (Athens, Alabama), I truly appreciate your latest article on individual vs. corporate responsibility. I was raised in the mainstream Church of Christ, and I considered myself a Christian, and nothing more or less, until I was fourteen. At that time I was informed that I was a "hell bound LIBERAL." This came as quite a shock to me since I believed that everyone whose sign on the building didn't say "Church of Christ" was bound for hell. I now worship with a Non-Institutional congregation, even though I disagree with the majority view concerning the treasury. I guess I'm living "Unity in Diversity." Thanks for the great article; I eagerly await the next one.

Here's something you might find interesting. The very first Reflections article I ever saw was forwarded to me by the man who is your "Critic in Alabama." He wanted to warn everyone he knew of your "false teaching." I guess I should THANK him!!

From a New Reader in Alabama:

Tuesday morning I went to sit with a lady from church whose husband was undergoing a test at the hospital. This woman, in her 60's, kept talking about your Reflections articles and how I needed to read them. I think it's great that a woman in her 60's has the heart and vision that she has. I think the church in general would be surprised to learn how many "older" people are sick and tired of the way things are being done. To sum it up, our worship, attitude, and work is basically ungodly oftentimes. It's time to put God at the center of what we do. We need to remove ourselves and put God where He belongs. I want to be added to your mailing list. I'm so thankful for the work you are doing. God will bless you!!

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