“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!'” (Luke 15: 25-30).
Jesus is the consummate story-teller and Luke, his faithful scribe and editor, brings those stories alive for every reader. Here we overhear a young man complaining. He has come in from the fields because of talk about his wayward younger brother’s return home. Elder brother is angry! He is jealous! He is ungrateful! He sounds like all of us: “It’s not fair!” he says. “You love him more than you love me!” he claims. “He doesn’t deserve your help!” And then, as we all are wont to do and despite his father’s pleadings, he plays a passive-aggressive game. He refuses to join the welcome home celebration for his brother.
Doug Greenwold from Preserving Bible Times says that the elder brother “seems to have a Ph.D in legalistic morality. In this observant Jewish world, compassion was withheld from anyone who did not behave like [the village did.]” The elder brother has played by the rules, but what did it get him? His father seems to ignore his faithful service in the excitement of welcoming and loving his younger brother, the one who threw the rules to the wind and has now come home – expecting to be included in the family’s circle of love again.
Oh, how I ache for this bitter man! The hurt he feels flies off the page. For many years, I too, lived in scarcity. I saw only the unfairness in my life. I was jealous from afar of any love shown to others. I was sad and bitter because no one in my family seemed to notice what I did or care how hard it was to accomplish. God offered me the same abundant love that he gives everyone but I refused to accept it. Like the elder brother, I was helpful and obedient on the outside, but angry and lonely on the inside.
Many younger brothers (and sisters) find their way into the church by the grace of God. But the church seems to house many more resentful older brothers (and sisters) who want others to work for their grace – especially when it doesn’t seem they deserve it. They want people to follow the rules and traditions, even those they have invented. Love is not part of their equation – except that the hurt from real or imagined lack of love is what motivates their attitudes.
And now our nation, too, is full of angry, loud “elder brothers” (and sisters), people who refuse to others what have what they themselves have struggled so hard to attain. They worship a God who is exclusive; it is obvious to them that God would want only people like them in his Kingdom. They wrap their arms around themselves, stamp their feet, and offer only shame and blame to offer the outsider.
In her latest book, Anne Lamott asks: “Did the older brother go into the feast for the prodigal brother? We don’t know . . . . The parable doesn’t end with the answer. It ends with a question: Will the older brother do the deep dive toward family and mental healing, breathe in all the joy and mercy he has seen, and go into the feast? Will you? Will I?” (Hallelujah Anyway, Rediscovering Mercy).
If we don’t take our own “deep dive” into the love and mercy of God, we will never be like Jesus. If we do step into God’s welcoming arms, we will be able take our eyes off ourselves and look deeply into the heart of another – especially “the other” who needs what we are jealously guarding – the abundant gift of a loving God.
Look for earlier posts in this series: Part 1 ; Part 2. For information on Margaret Adams Parker’s Sculpture Reconciliation which is located on the campus of Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.