Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Prodigal Father and the Elder Brother

While browsing on FB, I came across the video below and had this to say about it:


I seriously have tears in my eyes and my goosebumps have goosebumps after listening to one of my favorite singers (Dan Dean of Phillips, Craig & Dean) sing one of my favorite songs ("When God Ran," originally by Benny Hester). It perfectly encapsulates the story of the Prodigal Son as related by my pastor, Tommy Brandon, last Sunday at Calvary Church of South Fort Worth. 

Oh, God's amazing grace! I am just now beginning to truly understand it. To anyone wondering if you have gone too far to come back to God, please watch this video and know that there is no place too far for His grace to reach you. All you have to do is turn your heart toward home, and your Heavenly Father will run to meet you on that road.

Then a little later I began singing the song again (in the shower, and I'm sorry if that's TMI, but on this here Hairline Fracture blog, we tells it like it is) and crying a little, and then a lot. And I asked myself, "Why am I feeling this song so deeply? I know it's because I'm on a journey of experiencing God's grace at a deeper level than ever before, but...I'm not the Prodigal Son. Or the Prodigal Daughter." 

To give you some context, I accepted Jesus into my heart when I was sitting on my mother's lap at about five years old. I did feel a deep conviction and began to cry as the altar song was being sung, and my mom asked me if I wanted her to pray with me, and I did. And from that day until this, I have never intentionally walked away from God. 

I don't think that makes me better than anyone else. I know that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23, NKJV). I believe that I am just as much of a sinner as the worst murderer on the face of the earth. And yet...on some level, I have never truly identified with the stories of the Prodigal Son, the lost sheep, or the lost coin, because I never truly felt lost. I never left.

And then it hit me. I never left.

So in this story, that makes me...the elder brother?

That doesn't make sense, I thought. When I hear the song, I'm imagining myself as the Prodigal, seeing the Father run to me, feeling Him pull me into His arms, holding my head to His chest, lifting my face, wiping the tears from my eyes, and most of all, hearing Him say, "Child, do you know I still love you?" The elder brother didn't experience any of that, so why was it speaking so powerfully to me in a way that goes beyond mere emotional empathy?

Here is how Jesus says the elder brother reacted when he heard the news that his younger brother had returned after wasting his inheritance and then how his father had responded:

 28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’" (Luke 15:28-30, NLT).

All of my life I have heard that Jesus was condemning the reaction of the elder brother who was so mean-spirited that he refused to be glad that his own brother had come home alive. The elder brother represents the believers like me, like the ninety and nine sheep, who had never left, while of course God is the Father who runs to welcome home the lost sinner who has wasted all the precious gifts he was given, but who is far more precious in his father's eyes than the inheritance he lost. 

I have heard it pointed out that because "prodigal" means "spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant," the story should really be called "The Prodigal Father." What earthly father would be so extravagant as to welcome that idiotic boy home without at least mentioning what he'd done?

"So...what'd you bring back?...Nothing? What, I'm sorry--I thought you actually said you brought home NOTHING out of the HALF of everything I own..." [Closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose.] "Okay. Okay. I'm going to need a minute. Okay, I've already ordered the fatted calf and told everybody we're celebrating, so I'm going to have to go through with that. But TOMORROW, buster, you and I are going to have a SERIOUS talk about how you can work off this debt!"

No WONDER I have trouble understanding the heart of my Father in Heaven--I get annoyed when my 12-year-old doesn't bring home change from the $20 I gave her to hang out at the mall for a couple of hours! In my own nature, I am so stingy, so close-fisted...and not just about money.

Left to my own nature, I am the elder brother.

Because--and this is a thing I don't think I have ever heard anyone say before--I think the elder brother's reaction is actually pretty relatable to most of us, if we think about it. Most of us are a lot more like him than we're like the younger wastrel. We've completed whatever schooling was available to us, gotten legitimate jobs and worked hard at them, tried to treat others right and be friendly and tip well and just generally be Good People.

Until that pesky younger brother shows back up and our Father goes all out CRYING for joy and falling on that STUPID IDIOT'S neck and throwing a huge PARTY for him. When all the time we were RIGHT HERE providing unpaid labor and not saying a WORD even when that JERK basically said he wanted Dad to be DEAD so he could go ahead and take his inheritance...and Dad GAVE it to him! Oh no, we kept our mouths shut like good little boys and girls and let him go, thinking, "Goodbye and good riddance." But now that he's back with nothing but the filthy rags he's wearing and smelling like PIGS, Dad's all, "Oh, hooray, Elder, your brother's back, let's waste some MORE money on him!" It just proves what I KNEW all along: DAD'S ALWAYS LOVED HIM MORE.

(It's possible that the elder brother in my imagination uses a lot of EMPHASIS when he's MAD, kind of like [ahem] someone else I know.)

This is the truth that hit me like a ton of bricks: the elder brother was actually not mad as much about the money, as he was jealous for the father's love.

He thought that his father's generosity toward his brother meant that his father loved his brother more. But as Jesus said, nothing could be farther from the truth! Unlike the teachings I've always heard, the father doesn't condemn his elder son; he begs him to understand. He tries to affirm his son and reassure him that the father's love has always been his.

31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours.'" (Luke 15:31, NLT).

How would this story have been different if the elder brother had admitted to himself that the real problem was that he hadn't left his father's home in body...but he had never believed he deserved to live there?

He had stayed in the fields and worked, believing way down deep inside that he HAD to work to earn his father's love...but his eyes had followed his younger brother as he went on his merry way, and possibly he'd had the thought flash through his mind, "Now Dad will HAVE to see that I'm better than him. He'll HAVE to love me more."

And when his father ran toward his prodigal younger brother, it exploded that sordid little belief, and he felt angry and hopeless and unloved. 

When the truth was that if the elder brother had ever asked, the prodigal father would certainly have given him anything he wanted to throw a party. 

But he never asked. He assumed that if the father loved him, he'd just provide things like he had for the spoiled baby of the family. Except...that isn't accurate either. The younger brother asked, so the father gave him what he asked for. The father gave, grieving all the time that the younger son valued his money more than his relationship with his father. 

Whereas the elder brother had the chance to experience the depth of the father's unconditional love every single day...but he didn't believe it was his, and so he worked and slaved and stewed and felt unworthy and unloved. He never asked.

What if, I asked myself, just what if the elder brother had fallen into his father's arms and sobbed out all his insecurities and fears? What if he'd let his father hold his head to his chest, let his father lift his head, let his father wipe the tears from his eyes, let himself hear, "Son, do you know I've always loved you?"

Why then, I realized, it would probably feel a lot like I was feeling at this very moment.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!" (Matthew 7:7-11, NKJV)


  1. I'm out of my depth here, but I like your interpretation. Also, I remember being in Catholic school in grade seven or eight and doing a really cheesy seventies-type play about The Prodigal Son, with a narrative song and some updated touches, like the father packing tv dinners for the son when he goes away.

    1. I typed out a long comment on my phone and Blogger ate it. I was intending to say something about interpretation even of sacred texts and how I think being a lifelong reader prepares you best for that kind of close reading. But I can't remember any of the rest of it, so instead I'll just say what I do remember: thank you, friend. That means a lot.

      Oh! I do remember I was going to say that play sounds very seventies-tastic. Complete with crocheted vests and bell-bottoms, I bet. I can imagine the creators stroking their drooping mustaches and saying, "THIS is how we'll capture the hearts and minds of this generation: with contemporary references! A modern parable...with TV dinners!"

      At that age I would have been confused by the transposition of Biblical culture into our times. I would have been all, "Why are they talking about TV dinners when they couldn't possibly have had TVs?" I was very literal as a child.