It is easy enough, isn’t it, to view ourselves as the prodigal son. We all know enough about loss, about mistakes made and roads chosen that led to ruin and heartache. We know what it is to wake up one day, and realize we have wandered so far from who we are, who we hoped to be, and who we might belong to, that it seems we are lost and unable to be found. Likewise, the Father figure – we get him as well. We know his agony, his yearning for the wayward child of his love, the replaying of all the conversations as a father, thinking: “Where did I go wrong?” And we get that he is always looking down the road, hoping beyond hope for another chance to get it right. Another chance to start again. We can see ourselves in him.
But the older brother – I don’t think we ‘get him’ in the same way. He is not a sympathetic character in this regard. We think he’s the only one with the sane response, the ‘right’ response, the one that is fitting to the situation. Of course he has the right to be angry. He’s the one who stayed at home, did all the chores, all the work in the fields. He was there to watch his father’s heart break afresh each night, weary from watching down the road for the son that never comes. He is angry each night when he comes in, tired, sweaty and sore-muscled from the fields, hoping for eyes that appreciate his homecoming, but are perpetually turned down the road. “I take care of him day and night, work the farm, do the chores, and what do I get? More work.” Because it is so easy to see the older son’s point of view, we never see him as being just as lost as the youngest son. JUST as LOST as the younger son.
In two short sentences, he reveals just how lost he is. “All these years I served you.” Notice that he doesn’t say “All these years I loved you. All these years I was so honored to be your son? I always looked up to you, and adored you.” He may as well have said: “All these years I have been your indentured slave.” It gets worse “and not once did I disobey your ORDERS.” Orders? Is that how he viewed that Father-Son relationship? It doesn’t even dawn on him on how incongruous his statement is – that is how lost he is. He has no idea that his father didn’t want his obedience or his service. He just wanted his love. He just wanted him to be in a relationship with him.
He keeps digging: “And you NEVER…” Who uses that language, unless they have been ‘counting’, unless they have been ‘earning’, unless they live in a zero sum world, where a gift given elsewhere is a gift lost to them. “You never” is the language of someone trapped in a world of merit and competition, keeping track of the score of what they got and what they did not get.
Finally, “When this SON OF YOURS returns…” He can’t even say the word “brother”. His judgment is so fierce, so hateful that he won’t even acknowledge the possibility that the prodigal is related to him. His is an unforgiving world. Within that world there is no chance for repentance, no possibility of conversion, and therefore, no hope for redemption in which to trust. If you have seen Les Miserables, the character Javert comes to mind as the logical conclusion of such a worldview.
And you know what the hard part is still? I understand his world view. I grew up in a world where I believed I had to earn people’s love, because somehow I learned to turn that judging eye, not outward as the older brother did, but inward. And what I saw there was always lacking, was never enough. And when I failed, I was my own worst enemy, like that older brother – harsh, unforgiving. Because of the goodness of my family, I never fell far enough to cut them off, to speak of them as ‘those children of yours’ – but that didn’t always stop the counting game in my head. And I knew what it was like to play the obey game…
Perhaps YOU know the mentality of the older son in your relationship with God, or at least part of it. Perhaps, there have been moments when your world seems empty of compassion, devoid of relationships, trapped in a cycle of trying to earn God’s love. Here is the good news. The same Father who was prodigal love to the younger son’s flaws and sought him out when he was lost, also seeks us out. Just as he left the party long ago to meet his older son, He still leaves the banquet table, the dancing and the partying, and meets US, where we are, with that same, gentle invitation. “Come to the feast. Come to the banquet. Don’t you know, EVERYTHING I HAVE, including my LOVE, has always been there for you? There is enough of the fatted calf to go around for everyone. You see, we MUST celebrate and rejoice – because I had two sons who were lost, but NOW are found…”