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Stuck as the Prodigal Son\’s Older Brother

May 29, AD2014

\"jenni\"

I was very young when I first tasted the bitter pall of resentment. My first clear memory of its beginnings was when I was about six and my sister was three. Our family went to a gathering at another family\’s farm — the lovely kind where there are lots of adults sitting around and talking, more food than we could all eat in a week, and bunches of happy children with plenty of room to run around.

We children began a game of tag, running around an open field. I was \”it\” a few times, and had a hard time catching anyone, but I played the game and did my best. And I think the older children probably let me tag them just to keep the game fun. There came a time when my sister was tagged and it was her turn to be \”it\”. Her response was to run to my parents, crying all the way, tattling on the older kids for their \”meanness\”.

My dad came stomping out and scolded us for treating her badly. He told us that she could play, but she didn\’t have to be \”it\” at all.

As an adult, I realize that the poor kid was only three. Practically a baby. But what my six year old self saw was that my sister didn\’t have to play by the same rules. Whereas I had to work hard to be part of the fun, she got the fun without the work.

This episode probably stands out in my mind because it was part of a much larger pattern. My sister is mentally ill, and there were signs from when she was very small. But it was a different time then, there were no resources for things like that, and it certainly wasn\’t something that was discussed openly.

Growing up, I never knew something was wrong, I just knew that my sister was given a different set of rules to live by than I had. Over and over these moment dipped my heart in resentment. I felt slighted, like the game was set to my disadvantage.

Because of this, the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) has always been a hard one for me to swallow.

I totally understand where the older brother was coming from. He did all the right things! He stayed, didn’t ask for his inheritance early. He was working while his younger brother partied! And if the younger brother was back on good terms, that would mean that he would probably have to split his inheritance with him again. Maybe that is just speculation, but I know in his place that would have crossed my mind.

Any time this story comes up as the gospel reading or in bible study, I get a little grumpy. How does the older brother end up being the one in the wrong? Sure, he has kind of a chip on his shoulder, but who wouldn’t?

I try to remember that I am really the younger brother here. I do things all the time to waste the grace that was poured on me. I am a sinner and doing things that should lose my inheritance each and every day. It helps a little to think about that, but it doesn’t really fix the heart issue going on here. I still know so deeply the resentment the older brother felt. It clings to me, and I am afraid I sometimes cling to it as well.

I don’t even remember where I read it, but there came a time when I stumbled upon a discovery about this passage that changed my perception of it completely. The older brother refused to come in the house when he saw the big celebration that was being thrown for his brother.

\”He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. – Luke 15:28

Did you catch that last part? His father came out and pleaded with him. He went out to him in much the same way he had gone out to meet his younger brother.

Oh.

When I am feeling the part of the older brother, I have to look around and see the gifts and graces that are mine, and remember that the Father has come out to me, to welcome me and invite me in. I have the choice to stay angry and cold or to let my heart melt and accept His love. Sometimes that is much clearer than trying to connect myself with the younger brother, knowing that the older one is standing to the side seething. The older brother has his moment of conversion and humility too, and so do I.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

I'm Jenni. Wife to my hero, mom to 9 great kids ranging from 2-24 years old. I stay busy washing their clothes and driving them everywhere. I am a convert to the Catholic faith and I'm on the RCIA team at my parish. I love photography, writing, beadwork, sewing, reading. I dabble in science fiction TV and movies and am an avid fan of J.R.R Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. I write at CirclingJericho.com and try to keep a photo blog of the family at GroftZoo.com. For more information: Our Vasectomy Reversal Story, More About Me

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  • Micha_Elyi

    The younger brother so often has it easy in Scripture.

  • Mary M.

    I always identified with the older brother also (being the oldest child in my family and always appalled at what little heathens my younger brother and sister were!) That perspective changed when I became a parent. Nothing that my children could do would ever make me give up on them. I try to remember when I encounter difficult people that they are God’s children also and try to see them from God’s perspective. Don’t always succeed, but I do try.

  • Thanks for the article. I am the older brother too, and I often remember that exact wording of the Father, who says to me, “All that I have is yours.”

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  • David Peters

    Great article Jenni. Thanks for sharing about this issue of the heart.

  • WSquared

    He went out to him in much the same way he had gone out to meet his younger brother.

    Bingo.

    All of us have been both the Prodigal Son and his older brother. And both examples describe two ways in which our hearts can be dangerously far from God. The resentment of the Prodigal Son’s older brother is a resentment that does need addressing in a constructive manner. There are some fine distinctions to make, in that it does not mean that the boundaries of Our Father’s house do not exist. But rather, He will come out to meet us to invite us back in. This is different from hiding behind those walls or claiming that there are no walls. It does us well to remember C.S. Lewis’s observation that “forgiveness always seems like such a fine idea. Until we have something to forgive.”

    The Prodigal Son is able to accept the invitation of his father’s mercy, because he is repentant; he turns back instead of despairing: he realizes that he is in the wrong, and he admits that wretchedness and being treated as a hired worker is what he would justly deserve. Mercy does not obliterate justice, but elevates it– it recognizes wrong but then helps people back on the right track. It is an act of restoration. This is not the case of those who claim to need no repentance, and/or who believe in a justice without mercy (and this includes pretty much those who approach the faith by ticking all the right boxes but who fail to love in the way Christ loves, and those who would like to think that sin doesn’t exist). Repentance is a key point.

    Where we often feel the resentment of the Prodigal Sons’s older brother is when we don’t know how to respond to sin in a balanced way. The learning curve is steep, and it is constant. It’s allowed to be hard. It will often come up whenever anyone claims that “love” dictates that we not just condone, but celebrate, mortal sin. Out of frustration, we often put justice first and forget about mercy, probably because we have very shallow ideas of mercy and love in the first place, even as we must recognize that there is something very wrong. But in the parable of the Prodigal Son, nobody is celebrating his mortal sin; they are celebrating his return from the dead. In coming home, the Prodigal Son has not demanded that his father change the rules to suit him, or else his repentance would be meaningless.

    Your sister who, with her illness, is indeed carrying her cross. She is not “having fun without doing the work.” Not at all. Forgive me for stating the obvious. We presume to “have fun without doing the work” whenever we presume to have the Resurrection without the Crucifixion, since we are to carry our crosses if we are to be Christ’s disciples, and no servant is higher than his master.

    • Oh yes, I realize my sister has quite a cross to carry, certainly not “having fun without the work”. Just as the prodigal son was certainly not having fun when he found himself living off of pig swill. But at age six, or twelve, or even sixteen, I couldn’t see that.

      You said, “Where we often feel the resentment of the Prodigal Sons’s older brother is when we don’t know how to respond to sin in a balanced way. The learning curve is steep, and it is constant. It’s allowed to be hard.” I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you.