I Am a Big Brother
I am a big brother.
My sister was born five years and a day after me, on Valentine’s Day 1988. Since that time, I have been a proud big brother. If my parents had thoughts of upgrading and making improvements with the second edition of their progeny, they definitely succeeded.
But when I say I am a big brother, I’m not speaking only in relation to my little sister Jill. Rather, I mean that I am a big brother in a Luke 15 kind of way. This chapter in Luke is home to perhaps the most famous of Jesus’s parables, the prodigal son. Many who have never opened a Bible are still familiar with this tale of a son who wanders far from home and later returns to receive the welcoming grace of his loving father.
My ever-evolving view of the older brother in this famous parable runs parallel to the journey of my own spiritual self-understanding. My earliest recollection is feeling sympathy for the older brother. Here he was trying to do to the right thing, never leaving home but sticking around to do his fair share of the work. It’s hard not to feel bad for him when his good-for-nothing brother returns to fanfare and feasting. What kind of world—what kind of father—rewards laziness and disloyalty like that?
In time I began to see that perhaps the big brother wasn’t completely in the right. As I learned more about the customs of the time, I discovered that it would have been highly disrespectful for the older brother to refuse to come into the feast given by his father. As upsetting as a party thrown for a wayward younger sibling might be, disrespecting one’s parents is still wrong. Despite this, I still had a great deal of sympathy for the older brother, who seemed to be the truly aggrieved party in this entire drama.
The latest evolution in my understanding of this parable did not take place until I realized that I had been mistaking proximity for presence. For the first time I noticed that, by the end of the parable, the son who had been far away was now in the presence of the father, while the son who had seemingly never left was standing outside, indignant. This led me to a few conclusions.
First, those of us who have been part of the church since birth strongly identify with the older brother because, like him, we have never left. We have been loyal, or so we think, because we have remained in close proximity to Christ and his church. We’ve always been there, always put money in the plate, and often volunteered here and there when needed. Though I wonder if we’ve spent all this time in close proximity to God without truly enjoying his presence.
Second, the main motivation for the older brother’s work and loyalty seems to have been the reward he would receive. When the prodigal son receives a feast with the fattened calf, the older brother protests: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30 ESV). The father quickly replies, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (15:31).
I wonder if, deep down, what he wanted was not access to his father’s wealth, but for his father’s wealth to be his. This would certainly explain his response to his father’s largesse towards his wayward younger brother. The older brother’s loyalty should have placed him on the inside track to the father’s wealth, yet now it seems the younger brother is being rewarded instead! The tragedy is that by focusing so much on tangible rewards, the older brother has completely overlooked the blessing of his father’s presence. The younger brother’s wanderings had cost him valuable time with his father, time the older brother had been able to enjoy. Or had he?
Finally, the real tragic character in this parable is not a son who disrespects his father and squanders his wealth only to return home penitent. The truly tragic character is an older brother who sees his father merely as a means to an end. I cannot help but wonder, is it better to wander far from God but eventually return home, or to remain seemingly close to God, yet emotionally distant? The prodigal son receives the warm embrace of his father. Could it be that, despite having been in close proximity to him all this time, the older son had never sought the comfort of his father’s arms? I tend to believe that if he had, he would not feel slighted over never having received a goat, because he would have received something much better.
I am a recovering big brother. I am recovering in the sense that I have learned a great deal from my prodigal brothers and sisters. Their zeal for a God who welcomed them home has led me to question whether I have truly sought my Father’s embrace. I no longer revel in the smug pride of never having “wandered far from God,” because even though I might have been in closer proximity to God all these years, there have been times when I was emotionally distant. If the feast is for a child who was lost but now has been found, maybe the feast is for me.