This past Sabbath, in the second split sermon, a pastor of another congregation in the Pacific Northwest got emotional while talking about the implications of the parable of the prodigal son. The speaker’s point, and it was a worthwhile point, is that we ought to have a welcoming attitude to returned prodigals who have repented of their waywardness and their sins and returned to the faith. Yet while the speaker focused on the prodigal and on how our attitude should be towards such people–not holding the past against them, giving them a fresh start, and so on, I would like to focus instead on the older brother in the story. While I initially thought that this would be a straightforward and short discussion, as I thought about the topic, I found more and more that I could say about it and so this will merely be an introduction into the subject, an exploration of a very deep rabbit hole.
Let us begin with an observation that is by no means original to me. The father in the parable of the lost son had not one lost son but two. The prodigal son, as prodigals tend to be, was very visibly lost with behavior that was obviously sinful. But the older brother was lost too, lost not in the obvious sense of having squandered his fortune from his father or wasted it on harlots or something else obviously wicked, but lost in the sense of being emotionally estranged from his loving and gracious father, and being trapped in his own bitterness and resentment towards his father and towards his younger brother. I do not think that sufficient attention is paid to the problem of the elder brother, so I wish to begin by sharing the Parable of the Lost Son, and focusing on a few relevant details as it relates to the older brother.
The parable of the prodigal son can be found in Luke 15:11-32: “Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” ’ “And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry. “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ “But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ ””
There are a few details that are worth reflecting on here. For one, let us note that the repentance of the prodigal son is portrayed vividly and descriptively within the parable. He comes to himself, and he reflects on the generous nature of his father and seeks to bargain with someone whose open loving and gracious and kind nature does not even require such bargaining to bless him and show generosity to him. It is noteworthy, though, that the prodigal son does not ever seem to think about how his older brother feels about him. The details given about the older son are far less notable, but there is a structure to it–what had likely been a subterranean resentment boils over when the father celebrates the repentance of his brother, whom he holds in contempt and distances himself from by refusing to consider him a brother. It is also notable to reflect that the repentance of the elder brother is nowhere shown within the story itself. It is certainly clear to the reader that the older brother needs to repent of his resentment and his hatred and his contempt for his brother, and needs to bridge the emotional distance between himself and his loving and gracious father, but the end of the story does not show this process taking place, and leaves us with an ominous feeling about that estrangement. I wish to explore this ominous matter in greater detail.
There are two ways in which people can be lost to God and to us. People can be lost to us because they wish to reject the way we live and have nothing to do with us and go far away and live their own lives which lead inevitably to difficulty. Such open breaks, when people come to their senses and recognize how good they had it before and how wrong they had been, can be repaired when people repent of the mistaken behaviors that led to the estrangement. At this point, how one is to respond is based on our understanding of the sincerity of that repentance, and the example of the father’s graciousness indicates that sincere efforts at repentance are granted with genuine and heartfelt reconciliation. Yet it should be noted as well that one can have a great deal of emotional distance without there being very much or any physical distance between people. One can share a house with someone without there being any fond or warm feelings between them. One can fill the space between ourselves and others with cutting and harsh words and cruel judgments and alienate those who nevertheless remain physically close. A cold and correct politeness can nevertheless hide a heart full of resentment and bitterness towards someone else. How is such a distance to be bridged when it is seldom recognized, or when the sources of such an estrangement are not recognized, because we justify ourselves in being harsh and unloving towards others because we fancy ourselves to be in the right?