Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Prodigal Brother

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the best-known stories in the Bible. It only appears in one gospel, Luke 15:11-32, but even people who will have nothing to do with the Bible know this story of a young man, the younger of two sons, who asks his father for his inheritance and goes off to distant parts, where he wastes it all on wild living. He becomes so poor he finds a job taking care of pigs, and decides to return home when he finds himself envying the pigs and reflecting that his father's servants are living better than he is. His father sees him on the road and rushes off to organize a huge party. His older brother is out working in the fields and hears the party when he comes in. Disgusted, he points out that he has stayed at home and been a good son and never been given anything. His father says everything he has belongs to the elder son, but he has to celebrate because the younger son was lost and has now returned. A lovely tale of repentance and redemption.

Except....what about the older brother? He is said to represent the Pharisees who were criticizing Jesus. He is said to be thinking in terms of law, merit, and reward, rather than in terms of love and graciousness. I once heard a sermon on how resentful the older brother was, and how he is an example of how not to act. The older brother, in short, is not an admired character.

I don't think this is a fair assessment. I look at the younger brother, who only came home after falling into poverty. He offered himself as a servant to his father, which shows that at least he came to his senses enough to be ashamed of his actions, but he didn't come home because he missed his family. He wanted to have enough to eat and a roof over his head. His father was overjoyed to see him. When the young man said he had sinned and was no longer worthy to be called his son, the father accepted him back wholeheartedly and celebrated. I get that. I'm a mother, and I know if my son was lost and miraculously returned, I wouldn't care what he had done or how he had acted. I would be glad he was back.

But I hope if I had another son, who had stayed home and taken care of the family, that I would show him a little more appreciation than the older brother in this story seems to have received. He wasn't even invited to the party for his brother-he only found out about it when he came in from the fields. There was music and dancing and a calf being prepared for the numerous guests, but the older brother had to ask a servant what was going on. Nobody, not even his father, thought to go out to the fields to let him know his brother was back. They just started to party without him. It was only when he refused to go in that his father remembered him and came out to ask him to join the celebration. This young man was resentful that his father had never given him anything and now was throwing the house open and showering the young wastrel with gifts.

I get that too. There are a lot of people in the world like the older brother-quiet types who are always there, fulfilling their responsibilities and not getting much thanks for it. I think of how the younger brother took half of everything his father owned, and how the wealth the father had to welcome him home with was partly due to the labors of the older brother. I think of the older brother, respectful of his father throughout the years, coming home to a wild party he was not invited to. And I think of the father, realizing at last how precious his older son was too, leaving the party to finally say something to this faithful, overlooked young man.

Did the older brother go in to the party? The Bible doesn't say. The story stops at the father reassuring his son that he may be celebrating the younger brother's return, but he does love the older brother and that everything already belongs to him. I like to think he did go in and welcome his brother home. I also like to think the father no longer took him for granted, and maybe threw him a party of his own. The story is called The Prodigal Son, and he's the main focus, and it's a good point to make-that we can always return to God, and He will rejoice over our return. But I have always seen another good point in this story-not to overlook a loved one who is always there for us without calling attention to themselves. To me, it's also a story that cries out, "Don't take someone you care about for granted. Let them know before they ask that you love them and that everything you have belongs to them."