The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32 below) is one of the most powerful passages in Scripture. The first time I ever heard an emphasis on the older brother was in a book, The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen.
Both authors remind us that the story, which we always thought was just about a wayward son returning home and how his father welcomed him home, was also about the self-righteous anger of the older brother.
Yes, just about all of us can insert ourselves into the role of the prodigal son or daughter. We’ve all lost our friendship with God in one way or another, but yet, He’s always waiting for our return, eager to bestow His love and mercy on us.
Many commentators also speak to the understanding that we’re also called to be like the loving and forgiving father in the story.
But it was Nouwen who helped me first understand the importance of the older brother. Yesterday, Neal Lozano reminded me how much I’m really like this character in the story. It’s not that I want to be, it just seems like it happens to many of us over time. Lozano calls it the “older brother syndrome.”
The syndrome entails doing everything right, working hard and being faithful. We feel like we’ve been the perfect son/daughter, and we deserve some gratitude. Then along comes someone who has messed up big time, and all of a sudden, they get the party because they’ve “come to their senses.”
In his introduction, Lozano writes that his book is not about
what God is doing to bring the lost home. It’s about what God is doing among older brothers- getting his family ready to receive the returning prodigals.
I have often wondered: what would have happened if the prodigal had met his older brother instead of his father on the way back home? Would the older brother have spewed out his resentment and bitterness? Would the younger brother have come under condemnation and turned away, feeling hopelessly unworthy? Would he have heard his brother’s demand for justice and left again, utterly discouraged?
I don’t know about you, but I can easily find myself super critical of others, especially those who have lost their way, sometimes over and over again. I, on the other hand, have been pretty faithful and have stuck around doing the hard work.
I haven’t gotten too far into the Lozano’s book yet, but I’m guessing he’s going to challenge us to have the heart of the Father.
When the father saw the anger and bitterness of his older son, he didn’t offer to throw him a party too. Instead, he spoke of the truth of the situation. His younger son was dead, but came back to life. His older son remained faithful, and everything the father has was his.
In hearing the truth, the older brother had the opportunity to recognize that he, too, was dead and needed to come to life. Blinded by his bitterness, he had lost sight of the value of the real inheritance that he had in the father’s heart, in his father’s embrace.
So, the challenge today is, where are we in this story? What character looks most like us? Do we need to change?
Here’s the story for you, in case you don’t have the chance to look it up yourself.
Then he said, “A man had two sons and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:11-32)