Today's Devotional: The Elder Brother

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:25-32 ESV).

I have found an increasing demand among the people of our culture for control. Our reading today is found at the close of the parable Jesus used to emphasize the love of God in extending forgiveness to his children. The elder of the two sons became angry at the father’s lavish forgiveness. He used his self-righteousness and judgmental attitude to overshadow the good news of his brother’s return and what that meant in the greater scheme of life.

Most religious polls are telling us that there is a great and growing religious yearning among people who are either not churched or have been away from church for a long time. The overwhelming conclusion from these polls is that people are indeed searching for something spiritually substantive in life. They seem to be experiencing a real hunger for God. Yet while this spiritual yearning is increasing, the membership rolls of mainline churches, almost without exception, are decreasing dramatically. Even in those churches that report growth, their net gain is less each year. Their “back door” is wider than their “front door.”

Having been a consultant to some of these churches, I always like to begin with an examination of the core membership. I wonder if one reason is that they have acquired the reputation of being the elder brother. After all, who’d want to come home to him? I know that reputation isn’t entirely deserved. But neither is it entirely untrue that a lot of churches view themselves as “their club,” rather than as God’s house. That attitude will always drive others away. In any organization, and especially the church, when new people cannot find a place of community where they are welcomed and assimilated with love and compassion, they view that organization as a place full of elder brothers; not warm and inviting, but self-righteous and judgmental. However unfair that reputation may be, the exodus away from the church will only cease when, like the father in the parable, we open our arms to everyone and say: “Welcome home.” Remember, extending that love and compassion will only make us experience love and compassion. And, who doesn’t need more of that!

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