Week 13 (March / April)
The tragic story was going to have a happy ending after all. The prodigal son returned home, repentant. A celebration was called for. Jesus says that a homecoming banquet was being arranged. It was a time for rejoicing in the life of a family whose wayward son had come home.
But then, just as the festivities were getting under way, the older brother of the prodigal son arrives to play the ignoble part of the wet blanket which is an image of being less than enthusiastic. The figure of speech comes from fire-fighting where a wet blanket effectively quells small fires. Unwilling to forgive his brother and jealous of the attention being showered on his sibling, this older brother feels he is owed some kind of payment for his ethical and moral stability and superiority.
To those listening to the story unfold, that happy ending now begins to turn sour.
There is a reason, of course, why Jesus includes the part of the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. He includes this wet blanket to do far more than add interest to the story. There is scarcely a fault more common than jealousy or the begrudging of good to those we deem less deserving than we think we are. It is entirely possible that the story of this elder brother is a mirror in which we will discover ourselves.
Among the many lessons to be learned from the story of the prodigal son is the one that it is not enough merely to have "stayed with the supplies" (a phrase from 1 Samuel 25:13 and 30:24). The attitude with which you did it counts as well. As always, Jesus is honing in on attitudes as much or more than actions.
When forgiveness is based on repentance, there just ought not to be any wet blankets in the church. We must be willing to accept as brothers all those who repent and receive God's forgiveness. And we must do so joyfully, unless we want to find ourselves in the place of the older brother.
That kind of acceptance doesn't always come easy. Sometimes those repentant sinners include prodigal sons who were once a part of the family. They left the family of God for the pleasures of the world and on their return we find ourselves being pushed into the shadows. We are the ones who stood by the stuff. What's all the excitement over them?
Somewhere in 50,000 miles of deputation driving, I saw a bumper sticker proclaiming: "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven."
That's not a bad theme to use with the story of the prodigal son. Oh, we Wesleyan-Arminians might want to argue a bit with some possible theological overtones of this exact wording. But still, it does say something good about what we believe -- and ought -- to practice concerning forgiveness.
Those who expect God's forgiveness must themselves be willing to forgive. That's also part of what the Lord's prayer is saying to us. [ devotional on Lord's prayer ]
The Palm Sunday / Easter Sunday season gives plenty of material for celebration; maybe this is even a time for celebrating some prodigals returned to the family. Let's have no elder brothers in our midst today. Such an unforgiving spirit will rob you of the joy that should be yours on this Lord's Day.
Let's not have any wet blankets today. Let's just shout hallelujah and rejoice together in God's great forgiving grace toward repentant sinners!
I wrote these devotional thoughts while we were missionaries in Italy. They originally appeared in the March 30, 1980 edition of Standard, a take-home piece for adult Sunday school classes.
Howard Culbertson, 5901 NW 81st, Oklahoma City, OK 73132
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