I recently read a book that I couldn’t put down. We have all been there. For whatever reason a book lands in our hands, we begin reading, and simply can’t part from it. The book was loaned to me by Roger, it was Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. Henri was inspired to write about it after being transformed by Rembrandt’s painting of the same title. The story of the Prodigal Son is taken from the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel. He is the only gospel writer to document this profound story. The 15th story is a string of 3 parables, all similar in nature (something being lost, then found) and each increasing in value. The first being the lost sheep, then the lost coin, then the Prodigal (lost) son. Regardless of whether or not you are a believer, chances are good you know the overview of the story.
Younger son goes to his father and says I want my inheritance now (in short, “I wish you were dead”). The father goes ahead and gives it to him. The younger son leaves home and for years lives lavishly until he is completely broken: spiritually, physically, socially and financially. After some mental jockeying he decides to swallow his pride and return home. He is immediately greeted by a joy-filled father who immediately calls for the son to shed his rags and put on clothes worthy of a prince and for everyone (this was wealthy family) to prepare for a huge celebration that night. Sometime that evening the elder son returns from a day of work and sees all the commotion. He inquires of one of the servants as to what is going on. He is told that his younger brother has returned home and the father is throwing a huge party. Everyone is happy…..except the elder son. The father after a period of time sees that someone is missing from the party – his oldest boy – and he goes outside to find him. When he does find him he invites the eldest son into the celebration, but his son refuses. Instead he basically unloads on his dad:
“But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” Luke 15:28-30
I have heard plenty of sermons and teachings on this story, but for some reason Nouwen’s close examination of the elder son was convicting.
“This son of your…” the elder son was so heated, so angry that he wouldn’t reference the younger son as his brother. He didn’t see him worthy of a title. This level of disgust didn’t happen that evening, it was something stewing for years. But what is maybe hidden, is the level of disgust he has been harboring against his dad for years. “Yet you never gave me even a young goat….” The elder son has been quietly keeping score against the father as well as his brother. In his mind dad was guilty of playing favorites.
What do we know about the elder brother? Well, he was in many ways a classic first child. Overachiever, loyal to the family, sensitive to image, walks the straight and narrow, disciplined and so on. Life was all about tasks and being dutiful. But, his response to the father seems to indicate his loyalty and obedience was actually a burden. A burden he didn’t want or like. I would guess that deep down the elder son was jealous of the youngest. Maybe he wishes he had the courage to leave home and sew his wild oats. What was it like to eat, drink and be merry? He would never know because his obedient to obedience.
Was it possible that the elder son was just as lost, even though he had stayed home? The younger son’s “lostness” is obvious. He lived lavishly and literally was lost! But the elder son kept his lostness internal but was equally distant from the father. How many hours had he spent in the fields allowing his inner-lawyer to tell him how innocent he was? How the father was probably missing his younger brother more than he wanted to be around him? How many hours did his spend in pity-filled jealousy of his younger brother? Not hoping he was safe and would return home someday – but that he was missing out on all the sensual fun.
Nouwen states “The more we analyze a problem (chew on it), the more reason we find to complain.” I say “AMEN!” to that.
The elder son had to be a miserable person to live with. He hated his brother, filled with resentment towards his father. The lostness of the elder son was deeply rooted in his soul. And the heart cannot contain both joy and resentment. Resentment will always win out. That is why the Lord says to settle a dispute with your brother before attempting to worship, and to avoid going to bed angry. Resentment is a powerful, powerful force.
What is unfortunate about resentment, is that if you point out I am resentful towards someone, I will probably get resentful at you, and get more resentful at them! It is the perfect snare. No tree in this world has a root system like resentment. And we seem to make sure that the trees of resentment are constantly watered and fed.
Healing must come from the outside. And healing begins with a broken but honest view of self. It is a painful move that begins by going into the heart and saying “There it is. This is why you are so sad.” No excuse finding, no blaming, just living up to the fact your heart is in need of healing.
Amazingly the father doesn’t meet the elder son’s words with scorn. He doesn’t slap him, he doesn’t say “Oh shut up and get inside.” The father probably hurts for his boy. He understands and sympathizes with his pain. What good would shaming do? What good would forcing him to suck it up and “act like a man” do? All he says is:
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The father has no favorites. Understanding the sensitivity of the moment he doesn’t try to build a defense on how great a dad he is. All he wants is for the son to join the party – but the elder son refuses.
The Prodigal Son is a great story, until you realize that you’ve spent much of your life as the Elder Son. I am in a process of learning just how sensitive the human heart is. It is frighteningly fragile. It retains hurts, wounds, negativity, loss, defeat, failure with such precision. And we try so hard to make other think we are OK. The elder son did this through disciple and loyalty. Externals. But internally he was a broken boy. The world doesn’t make it safe to say “I am hurt, will you love me still?”
We don’t know what happens with the rest of the story. Does the elder son go in? Do the brothers heal their relationship? Does the younger son leave again to pursue the world of pleasure? The bible doesn’t say.
Rembrandt shows the elder son joining the party. But he stands in fierce judgment. He is on the right hand side with a clear separation from the father and younger son. Straight and erect, just like his life. Rembrandt also adds a stick in his hand. Probably representing someone with discipline and punishment in their mind.
What is also striking is how Rembrandt showed their age. As the elder son, he was probably not much more than maybe 10 years older than the younger. If that much. But Rembrandt shows the elder show much older. Could it be that a sour, resent filled heart can age you more than hard living and decadence? A hard life on the inside is more stress to a person than a hard life on the outside?
I suppose I have spent a lot of my life as the Elder Son. Though I am an only child. Harboring anger, and jealousy. It weighs on you, and I guess indirectly it ends up weighing on others. When I begin to talk about how someone else has it better, or how I have been slighted, when everyone is seen as a competitor, or how I was a victim, lamenting about the past, or how great I am yet I am not noticed – all I am doing is being the Elder Son. Low self-esteem is not a virtue
Maybe someday I will be like the Father. A person who understands that relationships are messy. That as I make myself available to the world that I am going to get hurt (often by those closest to me). Like the father I hope to be loving, forgiving, able to celebrate, patient, longsuffering, humble and welcoming.
We have a choice to listen to the father (God) and come to the party or stay resentful like the Elder Son