In the traditional Chinese family structure, the eldest son traditionally assumes greater responsibilities such as looking after his parents in their old age (although more and more first-born females are stepping up to this role). When a father dies or is unable to provide for the family due to ill health, he is obligated to look after other family members in need. He is also seen as a role model to his younger siblings.
At the funeral of his parents, the eldest son is expected to lead the rites. Only the eldest son is supposed to ‘send the parents off on their last journey’. There’s a Chinese curse which goes something like ‘I hope you have no son to send you off’.
In the parable of two lost sons that took place in a Middle Eastern culture where family practices are similar to Chinese culture, the elder brother should have been out looking for his younger brother to bring him home safely – like the shepherd who sought out one of his lost precious sheep; like the woman who searched for her valuable missing silver coin. The elder brother could’ve done what Donald Dawson did for his brother, a pilot who went missing after his reconnaissance plane was shot down during the Vietnam War. When he heard nothing from the government, he sold everything he had, travelled to Vietnam and risked his life in search of his lost brother in the jungles and the battle fields. He became known as ‘Anh toi phi-cong’ – the brother of the pilot.
The elder brother in Jesus’s parable not only did no such thing, he was actually resentful of his brother’s homecoming! How tragic but by including a flawed brother in the story, Jesus was inviting his audience and us to imagine and yearn for a true elder brother.
In Romans 8:29 and Hebrews 2:9-11, we disocver that Jesus is that elder brother who tasted death in our place so we can taste life. On the cross, ‘…Jesus was stripped naked of his robe and dignity so that we could be clothed with a dignity and standing we don’t deserve. On the cross Jesus was treated as an outcast so that we could be brought into God’s family freely by grace. There Jesus drank the cup of eternal justice so that we might have the cup of the Father’s joy’ (Keller).
“Gracious Father, thank you that we have with us Yēsū, our true ‘大哥哥’ (dà gēgē)!”