The Prodigal's Rerun
By Audrey Stallsmith
Many of us sympathize with the older brother in the story of the prodigal son rather than with the prodigal himself. We still feel that the dependable brother got a raw deal, because his faithful work wasn’t rewarded, while the prodigal’s rebellion and laziness were. As Philip Yancey comments drily on his web site, Christ’s stories tend to make “the wrong person the hero.”
I suspect the parable of the prodigal hits so close to home because it recurs over and over in many families--and in many churches. It’s a plotline with which we are all too familiar! We even see it in the light-hearted comedy Sabrina, where the older brother has to keep cleaning up his younger brother’s messes. Psychology tells us that the older children in a family tend to be more conscientious and responsible, while the spoiled youngest frequently becomes the black sheep.
At least, in that movie, the good guy gets the girl! That isn't always the case in real life, as some females have a weakness for bad boys whom they think they can fix.
Parents and those hopeful women often appear to expend all their concern and energy on the straying sheep, rather than appreciating the more mature ones who never left the fold. And often a church family will make a big fuss over the dramatic repentance of a notorious sinner, while overlooking faithful members who were raised in that church and never wandered far from its teachings.
What this parable attempts to point out to us is not the difference in work ethic, but the difference in attitude, between the two brothers. The younger recognizes himself as being needy and unworthy. The older does not.
Even though he is still living on his father’s provenance, he believes he has earned it, so he feels no inclination to be grateful. “Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist,” Henri Nouwen reminds us in The Return of the Prodigal Son, “since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don't receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”
The truth is, of course, that God’s love is much more than any of us deserve. Because we have all sinned at some point, we are all prodigals. Once we are far enough removed from the days of our own repentance, however, we often begin to lose sight of that fact. We revert to believing we can earn our salvation and God’s approval, no matter how many times we’ve been told that we can’t.
In Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner writes of the eldest son that “He is a caricature of all that is joyless and petty and self-serving about all of us. The joke of it is that of course his father loves him even so, and has always loved him and will always love him, only the elder brother never noticed it because it was never love he was bucking for but only his due. The fatted calf, the best Scotch, the hoedown could all have been his, too, any time he asked for them except that he never thought to ask for them because he was too busy trying cheerlessly and religiously to earn them.”
Many of us wonder why God favored another younger son, David. Although the shepherd boy started out well, as a king he could be astoundingly cruel. However, from the Psalms we see that David was also the type who constantly repented and asked God for help--in fact, almost childishly demanded it--over and over again. He recognized his need, which most of the other Old Testament kings did not.
We don’t have to be guilty of the most obvious sins, such as the adultery and murder committed by David, to be distant from our Father. I say the “most obvious” rather than the “worst,” as many commentators consider the sins of which the older brother was guilty--pride and lack of love--to be worse than physical sins such as fornication.
If we don’t serve God out of love and gratitude rather than duty, we are farther removed from him than that prodigal was. We are, in fact, in danger of becoming like the Victorian age. As it grew increasingly skeptical about religion, it still retained morality as a habit. In The Image of the City, Charles Williams perceived that era as having appropriate conduct “without any adequate end, duty without interior and eternal significance.”
“Of course we don't have to go into the far country and of course we need not first have gone out and lived and sinned with a vengeance in order to experience this miracle of homecoming.” Helmut Thielicke writes in The Waiting Father. “It is quite enough if every day the first thing we do in our morning prayer is to give thanks that we are even permitted to speak with God. . .”
In their own ways, both sons wanted to be independent. The older just tried to do it by paying his own way, by getting to the point where he didn’t owe his father anything. That is ridiculous, since a child owes its very life to its father and mother. And all children owe their existence to their heavenly Father.
“The fact is, of course,” Thielicke notes, “that we are always subject to one master. Either to God, and then we are in the Father's house, possessing the freedom of the children of God, sons and not servants, with constant access to the Father. Or we are subject to our urges and therefore to ourselves, subject to our dependence on men, subject to our fears--with which our hearts are always well supplied--our worries, our Mammon.”
Subject to our pride as well. In God Never Blinks, Regina Brett relates how she struggled to repay her heavenly Father for his mercy until a monk told her, “God loves us because of who God is. Not because of who we are.”
At first she felt like the older brother must have, as if she’d been slapped in the face, as if all her work and struggle to please her Father were for nothing. Then she felt a huge sense of relief. She finally realized that, although she can't recompense God for his love, she can never lose it either.
If we can reach that certainty ourselves, we won’t feel threatened by having to share His love with the rest of the world. If the older brother had truly cared for his father and brother, after all, what made them happy would have made him happy as well.
In The Waiting Father, Thielicke concludes of the prodigal what should be concluded of the older brother as well. “That he should have wanted to separate himself from his father now seems just as ridiculous as that a person should fret over being dependent on air and then hold his breath in order to assert his freedom. We cannot with impunity-actually, without being utterly foolish-separate ourselves from the element in which we live and have our being. We can't take God off as we would take off a shirt. To separate ourselves from the Father is at bottom not merely "unbelief" at all, but simply the most monstrous kind of silliness.”