That was a trick question. In the teaching of logic it’s called a false dilemma.
Because you really don’t have to be either one.
The prodigal son and the older brother are characters in a parable Jesus told in Luke 15. The prodigal son got his inheritance early, left home, spent it all in profligacy, and ended up in a pig sty. He came to his senses and made his way home into the arms of a loving father who welcomed him with a feast.
The older brother was the faithful one who stayed home and did all the things he was supposed to do. He became angry that he didn’t get a feast when he had been such a good rule-follower.
Of course it’s clear that these two brothers are both in their own way self-centered and missing relationship. (Except that the prodigal returns to relationship, and the older brother doesn’t.) So, often when this parable is preached, the audience is challenged that each one of us is . . .
either the rebellious one, running away from the loving Father, who is waiting for us . . .
or . . .
the self-justified, self-righteous one who feels above sin and points the finger at others.
So, we may well be told, if you’re not like the younger brother and wandering away, you’re like the older brother and serving out of hope of reward rather than out of relationship. The message you receive may strongly imply that your whole life you’ll be doomed to slog through either “rebellious sin” or “religious sin” and that you must be very thankful for the forgiveness the cross of Christ offers you for your constant violations of God’s holiness.
Oh Christian, hear me on this one.
You do not need to be stuck in the ghastly mire of either-ever-wandering-prodigal-or-self-righteous-older-brother.
There is a Living God of love and power.
There is a Loving Savior who has power over sin.
There is a Holy Spirit full of power to live in victory.
There is great power available to you to live in joyful pursuit of the things of eternal importance.
This parable Jesus told wasn’t about the power (or not) to live the Christian life. It was about which group of people would come into lasting relationship with the Father: the profligate Gentiles or the rule-following Jews.
The point of the story was that the invitation of the Father was wide open to both—come into lasting relationship!
And thus, the first churches consisted of both those who had lived in utter profligacy having never known of the prophecies of Messiah, and those who had followed the rules all their lives, having heard about Messiah for generations beyond counting.
“Come into lasting relationship with the Father!” Jesus invited the Jews who were listening to His parable. “He is calling rule followers as well as profligate prodigals. Come!”
How we shall live after entering that lasting relationship?
The parable doesn’t talk about that. It isn’t what it was about.
Jesus wasn’t talking to Christians.
How sad that some are left with the feeling that even after they come to Jesus like a returning prodigal, they’re still doomed to be judgmental, self-righteous, and pharisaical . . . .
There is a better way, friends.
Picture the younger brother being filled with love for his father, wanting always to honor him in everything simply because he loves him. Picture the older brother turning from his selfishness to rejoice in his younger sibling’s return, and living in perpetual relationship with his father. Picture the Father having the power to infuse his two sons, as they make request of Him, with the power to turn their hearts toward truth and right, toward goodness and love and mercy.
This is the power that is available to us.
I’m not talking about living a life that is completely sinless and flawless. There will still be distractions and sins to be overcome. I’m certainly not saying there won’t be past trauma that needs to be worked through. I’m talking about how we don’t have to live in the half-life of Romans 7, with self-centered idolatry at our very core. Instead, at the core of our being we can look to Him in faith to be changed, as Roman 8 and other Scriptures describe, to love Him and walk in His Spirit through the resurrection power of our Savior Jesus.
In this new life will you be self-righteous, so that you look down on others? No, it gives you the heart of Jesus, the heart of the Father for others. You’ll have desire to reach out to others with His love.
The way Jesus told His story, the punchline was left hanging. The older brother was invited into relatiionship with the Father, but we were left not knowing if the older brother would follow through. As it turned out, the majority of the Jews (the rule-followers that the older brother represented) turned on Jesus and slaughtered Him, even in the name of the rules they purported to follow.
Why are so many people who call themselves Christians so hateful? I can see only one of two possibilities. They have never come into lasting relationship with the Father. (And so I would say they’re not real Christians.) Or they have been told that they are the older brother. And there is no higher level to rise to than that of the older brother. So they have fallen prey to false teaching and they think they have to live by their works (what the Bible calls works of the flesh). That does not end well.
But for anyone who does truly come into lasting relationship, there is great hope. There’s a world of beauty to explore when it comes to learning to live life in the Spirit. It is available to all of us to be the Prodigal Son and the Older Brother who have come into relationship, transformed in Him, to love the Father and love others by the power of Jesus Christ.
That, after all, is what Christianity is about.
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.