I am the prodigal’s older brother. I never understood the celebration and I always understood the anger. I mean, I was glad the young man came to his senses and returned to the father, but I’m on the big brother’s side with, “You never even gave me a goat (let alone the fattened calf) after all my years of work.” I was a good church girl, never involved in typical American teen rebellion. I married a church boy and expected God to bless me because I was good. It was more of a business arrangement than a love affair. And there was the difference ~ Love.
Love (and subsequent humility) is a dominant theme of Jesus’ “travel narrative” from the gospel of Luke, a chronological relaying of healings and teachings, and where the parable of the prodigal son is located:
Go and do likewise (show mercy) (10:37).
You Pharisees clean the outside but inside are full of wickedness (11:39).
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom (12:32).
Some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last (13:30).
Let the little children come to me (18:16).
There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (15:7).
Was no one found to return and give praise to God but this foreigner? Rise and go; your faith has made you well (17:18-19).
The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but beat his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other (“good” Pharisee) for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled but he who humbles himself will be exalted. (18:13-14).
It took God’s “no” to a miraculous healing, years of King David-like keening (Why do the wicked prosper? Hear my cry! Answer me!), and conversion to the Catholic Faith for me to learn a few things about life, unfairness, suffering, rejoicing, my own ugly sinfulness, and absolute forgiveness. For both brothers are sinners, the wild one and the do-gooder. Both brothers need the father’s extravagant love to pardon unpardonable acts, the one who squandered his inheritance in riotous living and the one given to anger and jealousy. Both brothers have a place in their father’s arms, the returning humiliated one and the present appalled one. Both brothers need forgiveness because all sins separate us from God ~ the big, obvious ones and the polite, acceptable ones.
G.K. Chesterton, in “Orthodoxy,” imagines Christianity as a huge, ragged, romantic rock, compared with paganism’s smooth, symmetrical, marble pillar. This rock, although battered and swaying, is perfectly balanced because of its exaggerated excrescences distributed among all of Christendom. Even the Chartres cathedral contains planned, beautifully unmatched elements by various roof heights and materials, geometric forms, and stained glass subjects. The Church of Christ needs, uses, ministers to, and loves both kinds of brothers, all formations of the rock.
The sins of the older brother are no less heartbreaking and vile, for all their civilities. What’s worse is his lack of humility and charity (which the younger brother understood, with all his troubles). This is why Edmund is my favorite Narnia character. Sure, his siblings were brave, adventurous, and loyal; but only Edmund, forgiven after betraying truth and love, understood the sacrificial, lavish love of Aslan more deeply than the others.
So what must I, and other polite, sinful older brothers do? We must fight that anger and jealousy with big guns:
Fill our lives with Holy Communion, confession, Scriptures, and prayers; ask Saint Jerome and our guardian angels to pray for us and aid us. And above all, ask the Holy Spirit who loves to give us gifts, to fill us with love for our Father and for all people. “Love does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth”(I Corinthians 13:6). Our Father, the Father of us all, reminds His oldest son that “Everything I have is yours. Now we must rejoice and celebrate because your brother was dead and is alive again!”
I will rejoice. I may not understand this unfair life but I will rejoice with my Father over lost loved ones coming home. Rejoice!
5 Replies to “Being the Prodigal’s Older Brother”
I never understood this parable so well as right now. Thanks for this interpretation / explanation.
Those “big guns” don’t work for me. I’m sick and tired of His unmercifullness toward ones who were always faithful to Him.
I’m glad you commented. I get weary, too. And I do still rail at God like King David sometimes. A few more thoughts:
The big guns are for us to root out anger and jealousy and it sometimes is a daily struggle. But just one day at a time.
And the Father wasn’t really unmerciful to his older son. He told him that his place was right beside him and that everything he had was his. He didn’t lose a thing by celebrating (except that wretched anger and jealousy).
I see it nowadays as someone, after years of bad living, coming back to the Lord and everyone wants to hear them speak or write. All that attention. What about those of us who never left? How come no one wants to hear or read our story? Where’e our calf? Where’s our miracle? (It’s kind of embarrassing for me to see those questions in print…) Well, we’re all children of the Father and part of the Church (that bumpy rock). We all have a different story and different cross.
It also helps me to remember the Israelites who went on as slaves for hundreds of years, thousands dying without ever experiencing God’s Mighty Hand. Sometimes we just have to do the right thing with our prayers and Masses and sacraments. Our Father knows and loves us. Heaven’s real. We’ll get there.
When I call my kids together for morning prayers in a few minutes (it’s 10am in AK and we’re late), you will be on my mind and in my intentions.
I can so relate to this. I feel like the older brother in this story a lot too. Thank you for the new take on it, really helps to see it even more clearly. Great post!
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