The Older Brother

“Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called to him one of the servants, and inquired what these things might be.
And he said unto him, ‘Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.’
But he was angry, and would not go in: and his father came out, and entreated him.
But he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years do I serve thee, and I never transgressed a commandment of thine; and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but when this thy son came, who hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou killedst for him the fatted calf.’
And he said unto him, ‘Son, thou art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine. But it was meet to make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found’ (Luke 15:25-32).

The “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” which we have discussed previously, is one of Jesus’ most well-known and beloved parables. Yet, in context, a good argument can be made that the parable is less about the prodigal son and more about another character: the older brother.

The older brother stands in contrast with the prodigal. He did not take his share of the inheritance and live riotously. He has been faithful and dependable throughout. In contrast to his brother, he has followed the will of his father.

But this does not mean that he has an excellent character. When his brother returns, his heart is not filled with joy. He, instead, is resentful. He cannot believe the largess of his father toward his brother. He feels deprived, and it stings him a bit.

This parable is one of three which Jesus spoke against the Pharisees and scribes who murmured against Him regarding His eating with sinners (Luke 15:1-2). Jesus is first and foremost attempting to show these opponents how God feels about “sinners” in these three parables; yet, here at the end of the third parable, we have a figure that represents these Pharisees and scribes in the older brother. Sure, they may have not done the things that the sinners have done. But that does not make them right!

The older brother is focused on himself despite his service to his father. He cannot stand his father’s reaction to his brother because it injures his cause. He can only think about how he has been “deprived” despite the “honor” shown to his terribly sinful brother. There is no mercy or compassion in his heart.

The older brother– and the Pharisees and scribes he represents– are to serve as warnings for those who believe and strive to be faithful servants of Jesus Christ. It is easy to develop the “older brother syndrome” when one works hard in the Lord’s vineyard and hears of the repentance of a sinner. We might have been working quite diligently toward serving God while such a one has been living a dissolute life, and now we hear that we both will share the same reward? It is easy to wonder: where is the honor for us?

Such thinking is not of God; it comes from the self. According to God, there is joy whenever anyone turns from their sin. God’s love and compassion can come to all of us, and we should be showing that love and compassion to others. In the end, it is not about us; it is about God our Father. If He rejoices when a prodigal returns, we should also. If He would show mercy toward terrible sinners, who are we to judge or condemn?

The Pharisees and scribes found themselves far from the Kingdom because of their lack of love and compassion toward their fellow man. Let us not be like them or share their fate!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Example of Forgiveness

“And Jesus said, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
And parting his garments among them, they cast lots (Luke 23:34).

One of the beautiful things about Jesus is that He is not merely a great teacher, but the ultimate Teacher: God’s message in the flesh. Jesus, therefore, does not simply utter commandments or provide abstract concepts. His very life provides examples of God’s Word in action (John 1:1, 14, 18)!

One such command is seen in Luke’s Gospel:

“But I say unto you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and from him that taketh away thy cloak withhold not thy coat also” (Luke 6:27-29).

Love an enemy? Bless those who curse? Pray for those who hurt you? These are very difficult things indeed!

Jesus never denies that they are difficult. Instead, He shows you the way by demonstrating the command in Himself, in a circumstance you are rather unlikely to experience!

In the midst of His great suffering on the cross, He petitions His Father to do this very thing: forgive those who are despitefully using Him. As He suffers such great and terrible anguish– anguish that most of us can barely imagine– He still represents God’s Word. He still holds firm to God’s intentions for the Kingdom.

If Jesus is able to forgive those who nailed His body to the cross, can we not forgive our fellow man who may strike us?

If Jesus is able to forgive those who mock Him, can we not forgive our fellow man when he insults us?

If Jesus is able to forgive those who conspired to have Him killed, can we not forgive those who do not particularly like us or attempt to do evil toward us?

It is not easy. It is rather counter-intuitive. But it was just as counter-intuitive for Jesus. The whole experience of suffering for our sins was likely counter-intuitive, yet He accomplished it because He was obedient to God’s will (Hebrews 5:7-9).

Forgiveness is not an option; if we cannot forgive others, we cannot be forgiven (Matthew 18:35). Nevertheless, we are not left without example. Let us seek to forgive others as we have been forgiven in Christ Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus, Sinners, and Pharisees

And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he entered into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. And behold, a woman who was in the city, a sinner; and when she knew that he was sitting at meat in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster cruse of ointment, and standing behind at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee that had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying,
“This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner.”
And Jesus answering said unto him, “Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee.”
And he saith, “Teacher, say on.”
“A certain lender had two debtors: the one owed five hundred shillings, and the other fifty. When they had not wherewith to pay, he forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him most?”
Simon answered and said, “He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most.”
And he said unto him, “Thou hast rightly judged.”
And turning to the woman, he said unto Simon, “Seest thou this woman? I entered into thy house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath wetted my feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair. Thou gavest me no kiss: but she, since the time I came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but she hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:36-47).

One of the difficulties with humanity involves perception. It is easy for people to look at a given person or circumstance through one particular set of lenses and to make confining judgments.

This story clearly illustrates this difficulty. Simon the Pharisee is not an evil man or an evil-willed man. We have no reason to doubt his sincerity and his passion for the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, he looks at both the woman and at Jesus through certain lenses, and does not consider any other alternatives.

The woman, according to Simon, is a sinner. To Simon, this makes her unclean, spiritually if not physically. On account of this “sin” condition of hers, she ought not even be present before himself and Jesus, at least in the eyes of Simon. It does not matter how she feels about her sin– she remains a sinner.

Likewise, if Jesus really was who He said He was, He would know these things. Simon is willing to doubt that Jesus is a prophet because He is not holding to Simon’s expectation of holiness: “surely” a prophet would withhold himself from such a sinner. He would have nothing to do with her!

It is easy to see how such narrow-mindedness leads to hardened hearts: Simon would not be alone in this. He has his own set of expectations based on his judgments. He may question other things, but those judgments are not as questioned.

Thankfully, Jesus breaks out from all such narrow-mindedness and myopia. Did Jesus know what type of woman this was? Most assuredly He did! But the woman was not some unrepentant sinner– she came and demonstrated her repentance by her actions. Jesus’ parable illustrates the reality of God’s Kingdom against the speculations of Simon: those who are forgiven more are more thankful. She loved more, therefore, her sins were forgiven!

It was a shocking statement in first century Judea indeed, but it was true– prostitutes and sinners would enter God’s Kingdom before the Law-loving Pharisees (cf. Matthew 21:31). At the close of this scene, the “sinner” woman, and not Simon the Pharisee, is forgiven, and reconciled to God.

We would do well to learn from this story and to maintain Jesus’ attitude. It may very well be that the “terrible sinners” enter the Kingdom before the “good, moral people.” The Kingdom might be full of people with whom we would not automatically choose associate. Let us not attempt to confine the work of God based upon our perspective. We might find ourselves in the wrong position before the Lord! Let us repent of our sin and mourn for it, and love the Lord Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God and Us

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32)

Many people hold to a rather negative impression of God the Father. He is often seen as a bearded old man who sits up in Heaven, waiting to catch you in your next sin so that He can smite you. Sadly, many people have suffered under an abusive earthly father, and therefore believe that their heavenly Father is also trying to find ways to “get” them or to condemn them.

Yet this is not the picture of God that is presented in the Bible. While it is true that God is no justifier of sin, and calls upon mankind to repent of sin and serve His Son (Acts 17:30-31), God is not out to “get” anyone. God is not the enemy– the Adversary, the devil and Satan, is the enemy (cf. 1 Peter 5:8, Revelation 12:9)! Instead, God is quite the opposite– He has worked to save mankind, not condemn him! After all, if He sought to “get” us, He would have to do nothing but wait, and we would provide plenty of reasons for our own condemnation (cf. Romans 3).

But God loves mankind (John 3:16), and has done what is necessary to allow men to be redeemed from those sins and to be restored in their relationship to God (cf. Romans 8:1-17). God does not want anyone to be lost in their sins (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9)! God, therefore, is not out to “get” us condemned, but to “get” us saved!

Yet Paul’s message here in Romans 8 is directed primarily at those who already believe in the Lord (cf. Romans 1:7). They are to consider these rhetorical questions– if God is for us, who can be against us? If He did not spare His own Son, will He not provide many other gifts?

Why is there a need to ask such things? It is easy to become discouraged on the road of life. Sometimes, even when you believe in God and strive to serve the Lord Jesus, you can feel that God is either not there or perhaps even set against you. Some despair of any divine assistance– sure, Jesus came to redeem mankind, and will come again someday, but in the meanwhile, they think, we are out on our own.

When we feel this discouraged or have these feelings, we would do well to consider Paul’s questions. Is God for us? If we serve the Son, He is indeed for us (Romans 8:1-17). If that is the case, who can stand against us? Even if the forces marshaled against God seem great, and the trials and temptations are many, as long as God is on our side, those with us are stronger than those against us (cf. 1 John 4:4). We can overcome and have the victory (cf. Revelation 22:3-4)!

And let us not feel as if the only gift God has ever given us is His Son. Instead, let us ponder the great mystery: if God was willing to give up the Son so we could have life, what else is He willing to give? Why would God give someone so beloved and yet “skimp” on more “minor” issues? If God’s love for us meant that He was willing to see His own Son die, can we really think that God is against us, not with us, far from us, or unwilling to help us?

In the days of Israel, God delivered Israel with a mighty hand from the power of Egypt. Then, in the wilderness, Israel had no faith that God would provide food and drink, despite the great salvation wrought on their behalf. That generation died in the wilderness because of their faithlessness, and their sons inherited the promised land. If we believe that God has delivered us with a mighty hand, and has wrought a great redemption through Jesus Christ, shall we not have faith that God can see us through the wilderness to the Promised Land, providing the necessary sustenance and direction on the way? Or, despite God’s great faithfulness, will we stand faithless? Let us never doubt God’s love and devotion to us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Imperative of Doing Good

To him therefore that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin (James 4:17).

It is very easy to measure ourselves by the standard of that which we are not doing. If we are not murderers, rapists, adulterers, liars, covetous, drunkards, and so on, we feel like we are doing well. After all, how do most people define a “good, moral person?” If somebody seems nice, is not a bother to anyone, and not living in some obvious sin, they’re “good, moral people.”

We do well if we are able to avoid committing various acts of sin. We should not be murderers, rapists, adulterers, liars, and the like (Galatians 5:19-21). But it is not sufficient for us to simply avoid doing evil– we must also practice what is good and right!

James makes a declaration that is very uncomfortable. To not do the good when we have opportunity is sin, just like committing various unrighteous acts involves sin!

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see the terrible sins of the robbers, beating up the poor man and taking all of his things (Luke 10:30). If the priest and the Levite had seen the events take place, they would no doubt have decried the action as terrible. Perhaps they might even complain about the depravity of their generation. Yet they are as guilty of sin as the robbers– they had the opportunity to do good and did not do it (Luke 10:31-32). Even though they themselves did not beat him or take his stuff, they stand equally condemned before God because they simply walked on by and did nothing good for the man!

James’ statement shatters the pretensions of many. To turn aside from helping the needy is no different from plundering them (James 1:27). To refuse to show compassion to the disconsolate is no different from hurting them in the first place (1 John 3:17). Not showing love to others is no different from actually hating them (cf. 1 John 4). While we humans may find an act of omission to be of less concern than an act of commission, sin is sin before God, and it separates us from Him (Isaiah 59:1-2)!

Society may declare that people who do not commit a lot of “major” sins as “good, moral people,” but God is concerned with not only what people do not do, but also with what people are doing. Serving Jesus means both avoiding sin and practicing righteousness– showing love, mercy, compassion, kindness, goodness, patience, and the like. Let us be known as Jesus’ disciples by who we are and what we do, and not by who we are not and what we do not do!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Divine Kindness

“But love your enemies, and do them good, and lend, never despairing; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High: for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil” (Luke 6:35).

Love and kindness come easily for those who are loving and kind to us.  We enjoy time we spend with those who love us and who are kind to us.  We get together with them and eat and give presents and receive presents.  We recognize that such people in our lives help make life worth living.

Can you imagine attempting to share such gifts with those who hate you?  What happened if you gave gifts to ungrateful people?  What if you did good to others and were repaid with evil?  What happens if you lend someone money and they never repay?

According to human logic, we would at best have nothing to do with such persons, and at worst do them harm (cf. Matthew 5:43).  It is expected that lovable people are loved and unlovable people are shunned.  It is expected that those who are ungrateful get little and those who do not repay have no credit.

Yet, in the Kingdom of God, all of these things are turned on their head.  Jesus turns the world upside down!  He prayed for those who reviled Him and crucified Him (Luke 23:34).  He prayed for His disciple whom He knew would deny Him (Luke 22:31-32).

As it is written,

For while we were yet weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: for peradventure for the good man some one would even dare to die. But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, shall we be saved from the wrath of God through him. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life; and not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation (Romans 5:6-11).

While it is always easier to point fingers at everyone else, we must recognize that we, too, have spent our time in unkindness and ungratefulness (Titus 3:3-8).  God has showed kindness to us when we were unthankful and evil.  He showed us mercy despite our unmerciful attitudes.  He was not yet willing to condemn us even though we were willing to condemn others.  He provided wonderful gifts even though we forsook Him.

Therefore, it ought to be but a little thing for us to show divine kindness: love and help not just those who love us and help us, but also to those who make us uncomfortable, those who might use and abuse us, and those who may hate us.  After all, without God showing us such divine kindness, where would be be?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Summing Up the Law

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, trying him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
And he said unto him, “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.’ This is the great and first commandment. And a second like unto it is this, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40).

We like short and sweet.  Lengthy explanations and excessive details are considered boring and tedious, even when we recognize that complexity exists.

Succinct explanations help when they keep the “big picture” in mind.  Especially in religious circles, many have missed the proverbial forest for the trees.  Jesus came face to face with many such people in His ministry: the Pharisees were condemned for focusing excessively on details while neglecting the weightier aspects of the Law (Matthew 23:23-24).

Jesus provides the “big picture” of the Law: love the LORD with all of our faculties, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  As summations go, there can be no better; in truth, not a detail is lost.  All of our missteps, difficulties, sins, and shortcomings come from a lack of love for God or neighbor.

Why love?  The virtues of love are exalted in 1 Corinthians 13; we may summarize Paul’s message by saying that love is seeking the best interest of the beloved (cf. Romans 13:10).  Love for God is seeking His will and not our own (Hebrews 11:6).  When we love God, it is no longer we who live, but God in us (cf. Galatians 2:20).  If we live lives of sacrifice, as we are charged to do in Romans 12:1, we easily avoid iniquity.

Loving our neighbor can be challenging; after all, our neighbor often wrongs us, cheats us, or perhaps is entirely indifferent toward us.  Yet the power of the “Golden Rule” of Luke 6:31 haunts us: if we view our neighbor in such stark and dismal terms, how does our neighbor look at us?

How would we want to be treated?  Such dictates how we should treat others.  The parable of the Good Samaritan shows us what it takes to be a good neighbor (Luke 10:25-37): sacrifice and humility, helping without expectation of commendation or reward.  After all, this is what we seek from God, is it not?

It seems so easy to talk about “loving God” and “loving our neighbor,” and yet so difficult to put into practice.  It is far easier to be as the Pharisees, so devoted to the trees of various doctrines and technicalities that we neglect the important things.  If we have not love, we face condemnation.  Let us lay aside our own interests and instead put God’s interests and the best interest of our neighbor ahead of ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry