On Sunday as I sat down after preaching, I realized I had cut to the end a bit prematurely (probably not a second too soon for those in the pews).
The gospel was the “parable of the prodigal” and I had neglected to respond to the very reasonable resentment of the elder brother. As an oldest sibling, I was surprised by my own omission. As the story goes, the younger brother had prematurely demanded his inheritance, 1/3 of his father’s property. His father liquidated assets to meet this impudent demand. The younger son squanders the entire sum and comes back prepared to grovel in hopes of, at best, being taken back as a farm hand. We gave due attention to the father’s lavish, foolish, even embarrassing response.
But what about the eldest brother who:
a.) was not immediately brought in from the fields to participate in the festivities?
b.) is watching portions of his inheritance showered upon his screw up of a brother? His Dad has given him the best garment they have, a beautiful ring (the eldest had been eyeing for himself), killed a fatted calf, and he has only been back for a few hours. Now the elder brother will be responsible for not only his mother and father, but also for his brother.
c.) cannot help but wonder why he has never felt like the object of his father’s adoration and joy?
If this part of the parable does not sit well with you, than you are not alone. It is not fair! It is more than unfair! It is heartbreaking to live your life by certain clearly defined tenets and then see them undermined right in front of your eyes. However, I do think our dissatisfaction with this aspect of the parable (and certainly the anger of the eldest) stem from some preconceived assumptions.
a.) The moment that the younger son cashed out his inheritance, we assume that the remaining inheritance actually rightfully belongs to the eldest son (remember no one has died, the father remains alive). The need for fairness blinds us to the fact that the elder son has actually lost nothing.
b.) The eldest son also feels (and we certainly sympathize) that greater affection has been shown toward the younger son. I actually imagine that the opposite is probably true. The elder has always held the birthright, been the dependable hard working brother. This relationship was only strengthened over countless shared meals, hours in the fields together, time and experiences the youngest denied himself.
c.) I also believe that the elder son’s anger, hurt, and resentment led him to see his brother as irredeemable. He could not see with the eyes of a father, eyes that always see his reflection in his children. God never sees a beloved child as beyond forgiveness or redemption.
d.) Finally, we assume that the brother’s return is not the eldest brother’s gain. In those meals and hours spent together, the Father sees both the burden place upon his eldest and the void left by a brother’s absence. Is it not possible the celebration was as much for the family that was whole again as for the son who was lost?
In order for us to experience the Kingdom of God we have to step outside the world we have created for ourselves. True lasting peace leaves us changed, seeing ourselves, our worldview, and the person across from us differently. Reconciliation always causes us to lose a bit of our identity. It is not always fair. But do we really want God or God’s Kingdom to be fair or do we want it to be prodigal (lavish, excessive)?
Our God, beaten, bloodied upon the cross, wailing for extravagant mercy, for our forgiveness, is hardly fair or deserved. Maybe the heart of our Lenten journey, is not so much about our own perfection or recalibration but how we understand the target. If the God at the end of our journey is that Father sprinting to receive us, the Triune God of perfect unity, the God that urges both brothers to participate in a Kingdom moment, then maybe that God is more concerned with how we are able to transform ourselves in order to walk the journey together. Perhaps more important than who walked the straightest line, is that we walk in solidarity with the broken and broken down, the poor and disenfranchised, that we walk reconciled with those who wronged us and those whom we have wronged, and that we walk hand in hand in relationship with those most different from us.
Prayers for a transformative Lent and a joy-filled Easter,