Many of us are familiar with the parable of the prodigal son who asked for his inheritance, left his home, and squandered his riches on a sinful lifestyle, only to return home to his father’s house repentant and broken. The story can be found in Luke 15:11-32. However, it is the prodigal’s older brother I am focusing on here, because I believe we can learn much from his story as well.
When the lost son returns, his older brother is out in the fields, presumably working. Coming to his home the older son is puzzled by the sound of music and celebration, and seeks an explanation from a servant. When he finds his younger brother has returned and has been received with joy by their father, who has even killed the prized calf for a feast, he is not at all pleased.
But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you never gave me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’’ (Luke 15:29,30)
What we see in the older son’s response is something that has plagued the church throughout its history: legalism. Legalism displays itself in many forms but at its core is a focus on self and denial of God’s grace. We can observe legalism at work in the older brother in the following ways:
Disdain: “…he became angry and was not willing to go in…” Legalism is rigid and unteachable, often immovable. Legalists love to quote selected scriptures, often out of context, but are poor in the experience of knowing Christ Himself.
Law Oriented: “Look, for so many years I have been serving you and never neglected a command of yours…” The legalist has a high regard for their own goodness, often focusing on Old Testament commandments. They seek to please God through service, ministry and law keeping. Their good works are motivated by a deep fear of God’s punishment, rather than flowing from a relationship of love and grace (1 Jn. 4:18).
Pride: “You never gave me…” There is a sense of superiority, that God owes them something for their service, that they deserve His favour more than others who may not be so diligent. The older son did not understand that all his father had was freely available to him. He sought his father’s approval by work, not valuing the fact that he already had that approval.
Accusation: ‘’…but when this son of YOURS came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’’ The older son was laying blame for his brother’s sin at his father’s feet. We can see the same attitude in Adam after the fall, when he responds to God “the woman YOU gave to be with me” (Gen. 3:12). Legalists accuse and blame others in order to disassociate themselves from what they cannot understand: grace. Given a choice between extending grace and laying blame a legalistic person will choose to blame and/or accuse, even though it may be done subtly.
Bitterness: The older son’s response betrays the bitterness hidden in his heart. Ultimately legalism, falling short of grace, will always lead to bitterness (Heb. 12:15).
Then they said to Him, “Where is Your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither Me nor My Father. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also’’. (Jn. 8:19)
One of Jesus’ main contentions with the spiritual leaders of His day was that they did not know His Father. When Jesus taught the parable of the prodigal son, it was to demonstrate who His Father is. The older brother shows by word and by action that despite many years under his father’s roof, he did not know or understand his father’s generous heart. Similarly, despite their long history of claiming to worship the one true God, his Jewish audience did not know Him or understand the grace that was an integral part of His character. Their relationship with God had become steeped in legalism.
There is little doubt Jesus’ teaching on the prodigal son would have seemed shocking to the hearers. He taught them “not as the scribes” (Mt. 7:29; Mark 2:22). He spoke of a lost son who had wasted his inheritance and his life on sin and decadence, but also spoke of a gracious father who welcomed the sinner home like royalty. Then he told them of an older son who had seemingly done everything lawfully, but was offended by his father’s actions. His point? Just as the older son did not know his father, neither did they know His Father, who they claimed to worship.
In 2012 I wrote the following: “Hiding within every one of us there is an older brother who stubbornly clings to law and rejects the illogical concept of grace. Under pressure, the older brother will always revert to emphasising his own efforts as proof that he is worthy of reward.”
At the heart of legalism is offence. Legalism is offended by grace because grace cannot be comprehended by the natural human mind. It takes humility to receive God’s grace because it comes to us with the knowledge that it is completely undeserved. Grace crucifies any thought within us that we can earn God’s favour and lays us flat on our faces before a God who defies our efforts to save ourselves.
Before we call legalism out in others, we need to recognise it in ourselves. Legalism is part of our fallen Adamic nature. We need to die to it, often daily. Jesus wants us to know His Father, and ours, in the same way as He knows Him. We come to know the Father through knowledge of the Son (Jn. 14:6-7).
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2022 and beyond. Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.