The Parable of the Elder Brother

42_Lk_15_09_RGI talked about the Prodigal Son yesterday. I reminded people that the most famous part of the story, where the father receives the son who is coming back from a wasteful life, is not the point of the story. It’s important and very similar to the point of the preceding parables. But the parable of the prodigal son is really the parable of the elder brother. If we don’t take a long, hard look at him, we won’t hear what Jesus is trying to tell us.

Look how Luke 15 begins:

“Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable:” (Luke 15:1–3)

And Jesus proceeds to tell three famous parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son. They were told to address the criticism which the Jewish leaders were aiming at Jesus: he fellowships sinners. He welcomes them. He eats with them.

So the heart of the parable about the two sons is here:

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:25–32)

I understand the older son. I do. His brother had disrespected their father. Many of us can handle an insult but become indignant when a family member is attacked. His brother had taken a third of the family property and wasted it (which is what “prodigal” means; you knew that, right?). Now the brother returns and receives a party the likes of which the faithful brother had never had.

I think the irony is intensified by the sentence: “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field.” He was working, faithfully, while his irresponsible brother was receiving a magnificent party! I understand his outrage.

But Jesus is making the point that he mentioned before: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)

It’s not easy to have that heavenly attitude. I reminded our group yesterday that, as we look for new members, we want “elder brothers” in our church. They are dependable. They are hard working. And they still have their money!

Younger brothers have baggage. They don’t have a good track record. And their money is gone.

Yet Jesus says that’s exactly who God hopes to see come and join our community. The lost sheep. The lost coin. The wasteful, recovering younger brother.

Illustration courtesy of Sweet Publishing

One by one

puzzleA couple of weeks ago I wrote about “The Silver Bullet,” that one trick that would make your church successful. It probably goes without saying, but I like to state the obvious: what I said about churches in general applies as well to outreach. There’s no magic formula for reaching millennials. There’s no secret approach that will engage your Hispanic community. There’s no special Bible study guaranteed to convert your unbelieving spouse.

Outreach is about people. It’s about forming relationships. It’s about loving them. It’s about showing them Jesus, both with your life and your words.

It’s also about accepting that some people won’t ever give themselves to God. We’re to about the business of telling people what Jesus did on the cross, about God’s grace. One by one. Family by family.

You aren’t out to teach the whole world. You’re not out to change your whole community. You’re to be about teaching and loving people, one by one.

photo by Michael Connors

Serve, not be served

mowingService is at the heart of all outreach. Think about how Jesus described his mission: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) If you are going to reach out to any portion of your community, your church needs to be known as a people who serve. Who care about others and help them.

That’s why I think that the biggest way to reach out to the Latino community is to think about how best to serve them. How to get involved in their lives and help them. Some of it can be formal, like ESL and GED classes at your church building. Immigration and legal seminars. After-school tutoring for kids.

But that “formal service” needs to be accompanied by informal service. People who just help. Who lend a hand when they can. Giving someone a ride. Helping carry groceries. Helping push start a car. Not just Latinos or the specific group your church is trying to reach. Serve everyone you can.

Service includes doing what you can to make someone’s day better. Seeing people as people and not part of the scenery. The waitress has a name and a life with challenges. The cashier at the store has something they are worried about. The guy mowing the lawn at your kid’s school is a human being who could use a smile and a kind word. I remember hearing Stanley Shipp say, “Everyone you meet should have a better day because they met you.”

There is a trap, of course. Service doesn’t replace telling people about Jesus. It won’t explain to them the fact that he died for them so that they could live forever. Service is not an end in and of itself.

But it’s a big part of who we are to be, as Christians.

“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant* is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (John 13:12–17)

photo from MorgueFile.com

Us, them and outreach

file8581285192158As we talk about reaching out to Latinos, it’s important that we not let such outreach lapse into paternalism. (Yes, I’ve written about that before in this same context) We can’t afford to have a “you people” mentality.

Notice that as I’ve addressed this topic so far, I’ve said little about Latinos themselves. Marketers and sociologists have written much about the different perceived needs among Latinos, about how to tailor advertising and political appeals to address those topics. I don’t think that’s how the church crosses ethnic barriers. (please remember that the term Latino does not refer to a specific race, nor even to a homogeneous group of people. It’s an ethnicity.)

As I said last week, it has to be about people. It has to be about relationships.

One of the good things that came out of the church growth movement in the 1980s (along with quite a bit of chaff) was the realization that we have to be intentional about reaching out to people from other social groups. People tend to befriend those most like themselves. If churches aren’t careful, they can get locked into one group, eventually becoming unattractive to those of other groups. (Sadly, the church growth movement chose to exploit that, wanting churches to start new groups within other social groups; that’s far from the biblical picture, in my opinion)

All of this is especially true when there is a history of distrust. That’s true in Texas. Years ago, Latinos were criticized, and at times punished, for speaking Spanish in public situations. One man told me the story of the time when he was a teen and dared speak Spanish to a cafe worker who was a member of the predominantly Anglo church of Christ in town; she grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him, saying, “Don’t you speak that Spanish to me, boy!” Many Latinos find it hard to speak Spanish to me, even when their English may not be so good, because they’ve been taught that you only speak Spanish to those that look like you. (Funny thing is, same thing happens to my wife, even though Spanish is her first language)

There other stories, as well. Anglos who have been mistreated by Hispanics. Hispanics raised in the States who have been ridiculed by immigrants. Immigrants who have been taken advantage of by U.S.-born Latinos.

Christ came to tear down walls, to eliminate the hostilities between people. His church is to be a model of people coming together.

None of this began with Martin Luther King, Jr., though we do well to remember the struggle he was a part of. Because of the example of our Lord, Christians should be at the forefront of efforts to unite and heal, to reconcile those who society has driven apart.

Reaching out to those unlike us is a beautiful way to do that.

photo from MorgueFile.com

Outreach is about people

groupAs the discussion about outreach to the Latino community moves forward, an important reminder needs to be stated: this is about people. Outreach is about people. It’s not about numbers. It’s not about methods. It’s about techniques.

Outreach is about forming relationships with people. That’s especially true when reaching out to Latinos, for the typical Latino tends to focus much more on relationships than the mainstream U.S. culture does.

Let me repeat some of the advice I gave Josh the other day (in the comments):

  • Be aware of the Latinos around you. It’s a bit like when I started dating a girl in high school that drove a Chevy Impala. Suddenly I was seeing Impalas everywhere, where I hadn’t paid attention to them before.
  • Be intentional about speaking with the Latinos around you. Introduce yourself to the girl at Dollar General. Make sure you learn your waitress’ name. Go to high school athletic events and speak with the parents in the stands.
  • Once you have a minimal relationship with some Latinos, ask them if there’s anything you could be praying about. This question rarely comes across as offensive, and many people are grateful for the interest.
  • Tactfully broach the subject of ministry with some of the Latinos you’ve gotten to know. Something like, “If our church were to do something for the Latino community here in Smallville, what would be the best thing we could do?”

The first part of outreach is going to be service and ministry. What’s the old saying? “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” It applies to much of church work.

So, we have to make this about people. Serving people. Getting to know people. Helping them get to know Jesus.

photo from MorgueFile.com