Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
I’ve got to tell you folks, I feel for the elder brother. Oh, not that I don’t feel compassion for the younger brother – all messed up and lost and alone. I know a lot of men and women like that – who’ve wandered so far from home they almost forget where they belong. Many of us have been that person at one time or another – have felt that lost and separated from God. And some of us feel that way a lot of the time. Faced with that feeling, the experience of being welcomed is astounding, transforming. This parable gives us an image that stands at the very heart of our understanding of who God is: the forgiving parent, the one who never gives up on us, the one who longs for our return from exile and celebrates when we arrive at home.
But it’s the elder brother who really touches me. It’s the elder brother, because I know a lot of men and women like him – and sometimes, I’ve BEEN him. Lately it seems like whenever we read this story together as church folk, someone points out how much they identify with this responsible, loyal, dedicated son. He’s done all the right things; he’s honoured his father as the culture dictates (and, one hopes, his heart does too). He’s taken on not only his responsibilities in the family but his wayward brother’s as well, and he’s probably paid a price for it.
I’ve known such men and women: psychotherapists often talk about them as “the responsible child”. They’re often, but not always, the oldest in their families. They’re the ones who follow the rules, do what needs doing, are the rock for their parents and the ones everyone looks to. They shake their heads at their younger siblings, and even as they love them, that love gets tangled up with a sense of injustice, a feeling of resentment, and maybe even a secret wish that those messed-up brothers or sisters of theirs will eventually get what they deserve- oh, not in such a way as to do them permanent harm, but at least something might happen that they would learn their lesson and straighten out! I have seen this sentiment in the family of an addict, in the friends of a person who repeatedly makes foolish or self-destructive decisions and then comes back asking for help, even in just your average family or group of friends where the irresponsible person who occasionally does something responsible gets attention and praise for it and the one who’s always been the reliable one doesn’t get any. I know this elder brother very well; I’m betting you do, too.
So did the great Christian writer and teacher Henri Nouwen. At a point in his life when he was exhausted, drained and alienated from others, he became captivated by Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s a beautiful painting, of a worn-out young man with shaved head, tattered rags, and worn-through shoes kneeling in the embrace of an old man whose strong, wrinkled hands rest on those bony shoulders with tenderness. The light falls on this gentle scene, while off to the right in the shadows are some figures looking on. The face of one of them is lit: a well-dressed man of middle-age – red robe, long beard, gold threads in the cloth of his tunic and turban – one would almost think him a priest. But Nouwen came to believe that this figure was the elder son. The son, drawn in against his will by the loving father, staring down at his battered, repentant brother with an expression one can’t quite interpret. Nouwen began to see himself in that elder son. A priest himself, a man who’d given his life to God, to teaching the Christian spiritual life to others, he was this righteous (perhaps even self-righteous) son. And after hours and days and weeks of prayer, he came to understand that the elder son, too, is lost, and needs to come home. And his journey may in some ways be harder than that of the prodigal, who had nothing left to lose – because the things this elder brother needs to let go of to make that journey are the very things for which he has always been praised – the things by which he identifies himself.
He’s got to let go of being the “good son” – of clinging to that goodness as if he had no hint of the prodigal within himself. He may even have to come to terms with the fact that he has at times wanted to BE the prodigal – wanted to let go of the constraints and duties and responsibilities that bind him and just HAVE FUN! Kill the fatted calf and not worry if there’s another one for the next big family event; take a little journey and let his father fend for himself with just his servants for a week or two; do something just a little crazy and not worry about what people are going to think…
He’s also got a whole truck-load of resentment he needs to get rid of. Is service to a loving father really such a terrible duty? Or is it an act of love? Is his father an unjust master commanding him like a slave; or has his father shared everything he has with him, treated him as a partner in the work they are doing together? In the life of a follower of Jesus, how often we can begin to relate to God in this mistaken way! How often we can see God as a harsh taskmaster, an unforgiving judge who will punish us if we slip up even slightly, if we let down our veneer of righteousness and just be the people we are! If that is the reason for our “goodness”, for trying to live in God’s way, no wonder we’re resentful! How often this happens, and how sad it really is! To be in the company of a loving God day after day after day, and to feel that somehow we have to measure up to it – to have a secret fear that if we don’t toe the line we’ll lose that love! That’s what I call really lost: to be at home, and to not recognize that it really is home, the place where you can just be who you are without shame – where your faults will be met with compassion, your errors with forgiveness.
This is what Nouwen writes: “It is strange to say this, but deep in my heart, I have known the feeling of envy toward the wayward son. It is the emotion that arises when I see my friends having a good time doing all sorts of things that I condemn. I call their behaviour reprehensible or even immoral, but at the same time I often wondered why I didn’t have the nerve to do some of it or all of it myself. The obedient and dutiful life of which I am proud or for which I am praised feels, sometimes, like a burden that was laid on my shoulders and continues to oppress me, even when I have accepted it to such a degree that I cannot throw it off…The lostness of the resentful ‘saint’ is so hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous. I know from my own life how diligently I have tried to be good, acceptable, likable, and a worthy example for others….But with all of that came a seriousness, a moralistic intensity…that made it difficult to feel at home in my Father’s house.” (p, 70, 71) Nouwen goes on to write, “Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being….[it is] something that has attached itself to the underside of my virtue.” (75ff)
What the elder brother in all of us has to come to terms with is that “the father’s unreserved, unlimited love is offered wholly and equally to both his sons”. (75) The elder brother has to let go of all comparisons and competition, and simply allow himself to be held in the Father’s love. The keys, Nouwen says, are trust, gratitude, and joy. Do you trust that God will love you no matter what? Do you understand that God’s love comes to us, not because we earned it, but as a free gift? Can you be grateful for this, and for all blessings? And can you find joy in your life with God? Nouwen writes, “…every choice for joy in turn reveals more joy and offers more reason to make life a true celebration in the house of the Father. Jesus lived this joy of the Father’s house to the full. In him we can see the Father’s joy.” (118)
To all you “elder brothers” out there: whether you are really an elder or a younger or a middle child, whether you are a brother or sister or friend or parent – to all of you who can see in the elder brother and hear in the words of Henri Nouwen a truth that speaks to you: do not let resentment keep you from the Father’s house. Don’t let your anger or sense of aggrieved injustice keep you from the family celebration. God’s love for the prodigal is no greater than God’s love for you. There is no need to measure or compare or compete – God’s love is there for you, as it is for each one of us. Relax that rigid righteousness that’s keeping you away from the party; let go of that “good guy” or “good girl” role you’ve been playing and instead let yourself know the goodness and generosity of God, and rejoice in it.
At the end of the parable, we don’t know what the elder brother decided. The Father has the last word, “Your brother was dead; but now he’s alive. He was lost, but now he’s found”. Perhaps it’s time for the older brother to find his way home, too. Do you think he’ll come in out of the cold?
Reference: Nouwen, Henri. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. Image Books / Doubleday Publishing Group , 1994.