Some other observations about legalistic types from the story of the Prodigal’s big brother:
They tend to miss the party: “He refused to go in …” (Luke 15:28) Lots of legalist-leaning Christians are like that. They may be, in one sense, “holy,” but it’s never a happy holiness. They’re too busy keeping their halo on straight to go in and dance with joyous abandon in the father’s living room. Apparently they don’t know that God is more interested in getting us to know him than with getting stuff done on his farm! He doesn’t give birth to kids in order to get lots of work done in his fields. He brings us into the world so he can befriend us, teach us stuff, and include us in his daring mission.
They’re not very good company: “The older brother became angry…” (Luke 15:28) C.S. Lewis said, “Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.” At the very least legalistic people can be some of the least pleasant people on the planet. Always comparing, measuring, bragging – they don’t make very good company.
The son was angry because he was jealous of the attention his prodigal brother was getting. Legalists are like this – jealous of everyone who enjoys his life. One way to tell if you’re a Pharisee, is how happy are you when someone else gets loved on and blessed by God. Anne Lamott confessed, “God has an unfortunate tendency to forgive and love all the people I hate!”
Hurt people hurt other people. Put another way, unloved people (at least those who feel that way) are quite unable to love people.
They’re not the ones you call when you’re hurting: It was probably a very good thing that he wasn’t the first one his brother encountered when he came home. Big brother might’ve convinced him to turn around and go back to the pig farm! And wouldn’t it have been nice if he would have made an effort to keep his little brother from leaving home in the first place? But that’s not how the legalist rolls in relationships. Since their righteousness is comparative righteousness they don’t really want others to be more spiritual than they are. Legalistic people don’t tend to lift people up as much as tear them down and pray something like, “Lord, if you can’t make me skinny, make all my friends fat!”
They don’t often realize God’s presence: “My Son, you’re always with me…” (Luke 15:31) From the father’s perspective they were always together. But when he was working out in the field the son was so wrapped up in his labor that he didn’t notice his father walking and working right beside him. He didn’t hear his dad’s voice or enjoy the quality time they spent together. He missed all the wisdom-laced lessons his dad shared everyday and the blessing of his presence. He was all about his obedience, his hard work, what he was doing. What his dad was doing or where he was in proximity to him was all but lost on him.
They don’t typically enjoy the Father’s enjoyment of them: The son was so busy laboring to please him that he didn’t notice his father was already pleased with him. He didn’t see the smile on his father’s face whenever he looked his way. The performance-based religion of the legalistic can never be anything but joyless. Where’s the joy in a hopeless pursuit of God’s approval, being always on probation with him? Only grace-based faith can let go of our inadequacy and lay hold of his undeserved love.
The legalist may be of jail, but not be entirely free. He has a global sense of guilt and lives in a haze of divine disapproval. There’s seldom a time when he doesn’t feel guilty. He feels guilty when he doesn’t feel guilty!
But the father said, “Everything I have is yours…” (Luke 15:31) The boy had no idea how well off he was. He was wealthy young man who stood to inherit a double portion of his father’s estate. He only had to receive it, not achieve it. As love-lavished sons and daughters we’re heirs of God and co-heirs with our “older brother” Jesus!
* * *
As with many of Jesus’ parables, this one doesn’t resolve itself. Jesus keeps us hanging about the son. Did he join the party? Will he get it that he’s loved? Will you?