–by Nico Bougas

By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35.

Seven-year-old Bruce Crozier was out camping with his family in the mountains of Arizona. He went wandering around the campsite and, before long, he became lost. Night fell and he still hadn’t found his way home. He slept in the bush, gathering leaves around him to keep himself from freezing. For six days he wandered around without sufficient food or water. Eventually he was found 51kms away from the campsite. On hearing the news, his mother rushed to be with him. She clasped him in her arms and then fainted. His father, haggard and worn after days of searching and sleeplessness, reached the boy’s bedside only later that night. When he was finally reunited with his son, he too collapsed.

God’s heart towards us
The great joy and relief of these parents is not easily imagined, but it gives us some clue to the heart of God when He sees the return of one of His lost children. It sets the atmosphere for us as we look at the scene of the return of the prodigal son. There is music and dancing, the fattened calf has been slaughtered. There is great rejoicing and happiness in the house that night. Friends and neighbours have joined in the festivities and everyone is in a jubilant mood. Everyone that is except for one person – the elder brother.

He was unsympathetic to the father’s heart
Returning home from a hard day’s work in the field, the elder son was puzzled. He heard the sound of music, dancing, and joviality. He had a second look at the gate to make sure he was in the right place. He called one of the young servants aside and asked him what was going on. The servant shared what he thought was great news. But the elder brother was not amused. In fact, he was livid. He stormed out of the house, slammed the door, and went off into some corner of the property to sulk.

The father’s reaction tells us something about his heart. He leaves the guests and the celebration to go out and find his elder son. He loves him no less than the other son. He goes out of his way to plead with him to return to the house. Rebels are often more loveable than the self-righteous. Yet the father shows the same love and concern for this elder brother as he did for the younger son.  

There was not much with which you could fault the elder brother:

  • He was diligent. While all the celebrating was going on, he was out in the fields working. Daily, while his younger brother was in a far country, he was out in the fields working. From early morning till late at night he earned his living by the sweat of his brow. No one could accuse him of being a shirker. No one could accuse him of leaving his father to bear the brunt of all the work while he wasted his money with wild living.
  • He was loyal. All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. – Luke 15:29. For many years he had served his father. He had never succumbed to the temptation to journey to a far country. Day after day you could find him in his place in the fields toiling away faithfully. He was never drawn away from his responsibilities by the glitter and glamour of the big city.
  • He was upright. He could look his father in the eye and say he had never transgressed, never been disobedient, never gone against the wishes of his father. He was, “Mr. Clean.”

It is all about attitude
Yet for all of this he may as well have been in a far country. His attitude was a million miles away from that of his father. To put it in another way, he obeyed all his father’s laws, but was out of sympathy with his father’s heart. Between him and his father’s loving heart there stretched out an immeasurable distance. You will remember how Jesus quoted the words of Isaiah, “this people draw near to me with their lips but their hearts are far from me…”

Maybe you are the equivalent of the elder brother?
You fulfil all the letter of the law. You do everything that is expected of you. You are faithful in every detail. But your heart is out of step and out of sympathy with the father. You may never miss a church service, you may be a leader in the church, you may be a Sunday school teacher, you may serve on innumerable committees and yet your contribution to the kingdom of God amounts to precisely zero.

Every day the father had been thinking about his lost son. Daily he had been praying for him. He had been longing for him; he had been watching for him. Through the weary months and always beside him was his elder son and his heart was utterly hardened towards the prodigal. And when he finally returned, instead of rejoicing he was angry and would not go in.

He was ungrateful for his father’s provisions
And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends.” – Luke 15:29. Beneath the outward façade of respectability and righteousness, the elder son nurtured an ungrateful and unappreciative spirit. In his father’s house he had everything that he needed. He was never in want; he never experienced a famine; he never had to feed pigs or eat the husks they ate. He had servants to wait on him and a father who cared for him. He had all the comforts of an upper class home. Yet he forgets all this in his jealousy. Through it all and beneath it all, he harboured an ungrateful heart. Deep down there was a spirit of bitterness and resentment. “You never gave me even one young goat” he blurts out. As though this had been festering on his mind and suddenly it comes to the boil.

There are many bitter people in the world
He had everything he needed in his father’s house. But he cottons on to the one thing that he had not yet been given. One trifling issue and he makes a big deal out of it. The one little item turns the music of that occasion into discord. There are many people like that. God has been wonderfully good to them but then they latch on to the one thing that may have been withheld. It may have been some gift that they never received, or some aspect of their lives in which they feel inferior, or some tragedy or loss suffered. The result is that they always hold it against God – They go through life bearing a grudge against God. They cannot hear the voice of the Father saying, “Son, you are always with me and all that I have is yours.”

What is your handicap? What is it that makes you bitter against God?
 “And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others.” – 2 Corinthians 9:8. The Amazon River is so wide at its mouth that if you get into the middle you cannot see the shore on either side. Many years ago there was a ship that lost its way and found itself unaware in the middle of the Amazon. They were desperate for water and were jubilant when they encountered another ship. As it drew near they called out, “Water, water, we must have some fresh water”. To which the other ship replied, “Let down your buckets, there is plenty of fresh water all around you!”

We are all afloat on fresh water. We may have plenty of complaints and murmurings and have never realised that God has provided for us – all He want us to do is let our buckets down.

He was unbrotherly towards his father’s son
This should have been the great day in that family’s life. The father was jubilant and overjoyed. But the elder brother was angry and would not go in. He was so wrapped up in his own desires and in his own greed and in his own resentment that he could not share in his father’s joy. He could not join the celebration. He didn’t even have it in him to shake his brother by the hand. He couldn’t even bring himself to address him as brother, but could only refer to him indirectly as “this your son…”

Live together in unity
In the Psalms we read, How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” – Psalm 133:1. The elder brother forgot that he was talking about his own brother, a member of his own family. We have to realise that as members of the family of God, all our fellow believers are brothers and sisters. If we are all brothers and sisters in the Lord, then are we concerned for one another? Do we pray for one another? Do we encourage one another? Are we able to rejoice in the success of others? Or are we envious when we hear of blessing in another denomination or organisation? Do we immediately begin to question their motives, their message, and their methods? 

Love is what unites us
How the Saviour must be saddened by all this bickering and backbiting that goes on in the name of Christianity. It is as if we have torn John 13.35 out of our Bibles and have forgotten that, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35. Do you have a concern for your family? Do you have a concern for your family in Christ? The Bible says, Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” – Galatians 6:10. Do you pray for others in this church? Do you seek to be a help and encouragement? Do you reach out in brotherly love? Will there be any in Heaven who will rejoice because of your influence?

It is time to act on God’s Word
There the story of the Prodigal Son ends. We don’t know how the elder brother reacted. We don’t know if he was ever reconciled to his brother. I don’t know if reading this sermon article has made any difference to you. You may go away with the same bitterness and resentment. You may walk away with the same problems and hassles that you started with. I will never know. The people of your church may never know. But God knows. And while it may not be very important to impress me or the people of your church, there is One from whom we cannot hide. When the books are opened wide will you hear, “Well done good and faithful servant.”, or will you have to hang your head in shame because of the lost opportunity to get right with God and your fellow men and women?

It is time to stop simply going through the motions and trying to impress others. The Bible says, But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.” – James 1:22.

Nico Bougas is the International Director of Development of  Hellenic Ministries. Email him on Nico@bougas.info, visit hellenicministries.com

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