The Older Brother

      Comments Off on The Older Brother

Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

It is “a picture which those who have seen the original in St. Petersburg may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted.”

That’s Kenneth Clark, the art historian.  He was talking about The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt’s 1667 masterpiece.  It captures the moment in Jesus’ famous parable (Luke 15:11-32) when a young man who has utterly sabotaged his relationship with his father falls on his knees before him, seemingly broken beyond repair. 

But the father’s touch is tender.  Instead of drowning his son in a storm surge of shame, he begins the process of restoring this child who is incapable of healing himself.

Soon he will announce, “It’s party time, everyone.  Let’s celebrate this good news!”

Author and priest Henri Nouwen visited the State Hermitage Museum in Russia, where the picture hangs, in 1986.  He pondered it for hours.  Nouwen was so moved that he later wrote a short book about his experience, reflecting on the power of spiritual homecoming. 

It did not escape his attention that there’s more than one story being played out on the Dutch master’s canvas. 

Notice Rembrandt’s signature use of chiaroscuro – the dramatic contrast of light and shadow.  Father and son appear to be spotlighted on the left side of the picture.  But who is that standing in the spotlight on the right? 

That’s the older brother.  Many Bible commentators believe that Jesus’ parable isn’t nearly so much about the irresponsible son who ran away as about the hyper-responsible son who stayed home.

Every day that his younger son has been gone, the father has been dreaming that he might return.  The older son has been dreaming, too.  He can’t wait for the day his little brother drags his sorry carcass back across the threshold and gets what’s coming to him. 

But now he feels hurt and confused.  How in the world can his father be talking about a Welcome Home party?  

In this moment of incredulity he makes a crucial decision: He decides not to enter the courtyard and participate in the celebration.  This decision has serious cultural implications.  As scholar Kenneth Bailey points out, whenever a Middle Eastern family throws an important party, the eldest son is required to be a sort of headwaiter.  This is the family’s way of saying, “You, our honored guests, are so important to us that even our sons shall be your servants.”

Big brother is supposed to walk around the party as long as it lasts – and that might be several days – shaking hands and slapping backs, making sure that everyone eats and drinks way too much. 

These guests are the most important friends of the family.  And they are all going to be extending congratulations to the big brother, making up little toasts and gushing things like, “Isn’t it wonderful that your darling little brother is safe here at home again?”

But this is too much for him to stomach.  His sense of justice is being violated.  The brat went out and blew a sizable chunk of the family’s net worth.  Why isn’t his father drawing up a repayment plan?

The older brother smells barbecue.  The father has ordered the servants to slaughter the fattened calf.  And who “owns” the fattened calf, at least in the ultimate sense?  Since everything in the estate that would have fallen to the younger son has already been parceled out and squandered, the entire remaining contents of the household will be inherited by the elder son when his father dies.  So everything being consumed in this party actually “belongs” to him.  This kid is drinking from his cup, reclining on his pillow, eating his rump roast.

“Something wonderful is happening here, and you need to be part of it!” says the father.  He beckons his older son to plunge into the family celebration.

But big brother is having none of it.

He snaps at his father, “Look!  All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” (Luke 15:29)  

Like countless religious people over the past twenty centuries, he is proud of his spiritual track record.  He’s not a screw-up.  Why should he welcome back this loser?  Speaking to his father in verse 30 he says, “But when this son of yours…” In other words:  Dad, this kid belongs to you.  He’s no relation or responsibility of mine.

But notice how the father gently turns the tables in verse 32:  “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” 

That’s God’s call to all of us. 

We need to claim each other.  We need to say, concerning other people – no matter what kind of mess they have made of their lives – “this sister of mine; this brother of ours.”

It’s clear in Jesus’ story that both brothers are in desperate need of the father’s grace – not just the one who ran away, but the one who stayed home and never missed a day of church.

If we find ourselves thinking, “I wonder which of these two sons I tend to be,” the answer, clearly, is both.  All of us run away from God in matters both large and small.  And there is also something deeply ingrained within each of us that makes us want to stand back and hope that while we will be on the guest list for God’s party, those other (undeserving) people will be left out in the cold.

What’s fascinating about Jesus’ story is that it doesn’t have an ending.  It just hangs there in mid-air. 

The father is left standing outdoors, just beyond the music and laughter of the celebration, pleading with his older son to come join the party. 

It’s as if Jesus himself is appealing to each of us. 

You have to be humble to come back home when you know you’ve made a mess of your life.  And you have to be humble to recognize that you don’t love others the way your heavenly Father loves them.

So what will it be?  Will you keep standing up for your rights, because you’re certain you’re in the right?  

Or will you accept your Father’s invitation to take a different kind of stand – to stand alongside him