All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours…
In his book The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller describes the situation of Younger Brother in the category of “lost-ness.” Anyone reading the parable can come to the obvious conclusion that the wastrel son has lost his way. We see hints of that in the request to receive his share of the inheritance long before the appropriate time, that is, at the death of his father. The moment the son leaves home for a “foreign land,” a place of debauchery—gambling, prostitution, excessive drinking and drugs, and God only knows what else—it is easy for the hearer/reader to gasp either audibly or spiritually, knowing what is coming. Parents carry in their hearts a fear that our children will leave in the same way Younger Brother leaves, even if we don’t give them a bag of money. Even the departure that will help a teenager develop skills and knowledge in college carries incredible risks. Perhaps for the first time in a young person’s life, freedom to behave in any way that might momentarily please becomes an option. But is this true freedom or slavery of another kind? As he loses everything he owns and is forced by hunger to work in the pig sty, we can feel the abject aloneness and lostness of Younger Brother in our hearts and souls.
Years ago, after preaching a sermon on freedom, the thesis being that freedom is only possible with clear boundaries, a parishioner told me a story about a childhood friend.
"I had a friend whose father had a bicycle. This was decades ago, before the advent of coaster brakes. The only way to slow or stop this bicycle was either to back-pedal or to skid sideways—hockey-stop like. My friend’s father told him to stay off the bike without supervision, as he could easily get hurt. My friend had learned to ride some years earlier under his father’s watchful eye, but he had never ridden alone.
"One day when he was about 13 my friend decided to ride the bike down a long hill near their home; he wanted to feel the freedom of going fast and doing so by himself. As he started down the hill he began to pick up speed and thought, ‘I’m free!’ As he continued to move faster and faster, he remembered there was a crossroad at the bottom of the hill and he would have to crash to stop, at which point he said to himself, ‘I’m not free, I’m loose.”
Whether we ourselves have ever taken the path of “loose-ness” or simply watched while others wandered off, we can easily understand lost-ness for such as Younger Brother. But understanding lost-ness for Older Brother is somewhat more complex. The first son never leaves home, never wastes anything that belongs to his father or family, never disobeys in any way, always acts “appropriately,” whatever that may mean. It is not until the wastrel returns and is feted with robes, a ring, and a feast of the fatted calf that Older Brother’s lostness becomes evident. Keller says, “As we said, the younger brother knew he was alienated from the father, but the elder brother did not. That’s why elder-brother lostness is so dangerous. Elder brothers don’t go to God and beg for healing from their condition. They see nothing wrong with their condition, and that can be fatal.” (p. 66)
The anger and resentment that have been building in the heart of Older Brother can be a toxic brew. Has he been obedient out of love or merely from a sense of fear? Is his feeling of entrapment in slavery a jealousy of the younger sibling who perhaps left home because of the rigidity of his elder brother? Can he have been so angry all these years and kept his resentment a secret? On the day of the return of Younger Brother, his anger, resentment, and even perhaps a tinge of hatred explode as he stands apart from the festival. There is no joy in his heart for the return of his “dead” brother. We do not know how he might have reacted if when the wastrel returned the father had simply put Younger Brother to work hoeing weeds. But this? A party—a veritable feast? Never!
Where is your heart when you begin to think about and pray for reunion with someone who has hurt you deeply, who has wandered off from a close friendship or family relationship? How can I welcome them home when they haven’t paid enough penance or begged me to forgive them as much as I think they should? Have I become a slave to anger and resentment?
Take time today to re-read the parable, slowly, aloud, and prayerfully. Ask God to take away the “older-brother-ness” from your heart. Rejoice with the Father that one who was lost is found, one who was dead is come home. Then join the party!