As the first-born child I am responsible, conscientious, reliable, controlling and over-cautious! Researchers can explain why I’ve turned out this way and why a second child is more likely to be the rebel in the family, with a stronger interest in socialising than family obligations. Jesus may not have read the research, but he knew human nature, and captured these tendencies in a classic story about two brothers.
In the story we find the older son outside sulking. Earlier his younger brother had rebelled and abandoned all family responsibilities. Amazingly, the Father had understood his need to leave home and try to fill his heart with a variety of people, places and things. The Father let the lad go – even granting his request to take his inheritance with him. Unsurprisingly he wastes it all and eventually heads home to grovel for some grace from his Father. Thrilled that this young lad has finally come home the Father throws a lavish ‘Welcome home’ party. Instead of rejecting this wayward son the Dad celebrates that this son is now ready to satisfy his heart with the love of his Father.
The hardworking older brother is furious! How could his Father treat his good-for-nothing brother like this? What had that lout done to deserve such extravagance? Didn’t the Father understand how he was slogging away on the family farm? It just wasn’t fair!
Discontented and disconnected the first-born son chose to pout outside as the party continued without him. As the eldest daughter I get how this happens. When the good qualities found in a ‘proper’ child get out of balance we so easily slide into resentment and martyrdom. Our focus on doing can shut out our need for loving connection. Like the son in the story we can fail to grasp the unconditional acceptance being held out to us too.
I’ve read this story many times, but only recently noticed that both sons were given their inheritance. It seems the older son was so focussed on the tasks and commitments in front of him that he had not taken up the generosity of his Father. Too busy doing what was expected of him he hadn’t ever thought to party with his father. He hadn’t leaned into the lavish goodness waiting for him at home. As a result he totally failed to understand his Father’s generous and gracious heart.
The wise Father longs to embrace both sons, and it is the Father who seeks to melt the hard heart of his firstborn. The word used of their encounter is very powerful – Jesus said the father went and entreated him. Just as the Father had restored the younger son, the ‘good’ son also needed to experience the depth of relationship being offered him.
Recently I’ve come to see that rather than being like one or the other son we hold the essence of each within us. We all can be like a younger brother who makes poor choices and who is heartbroken when he faces up to his flaws. And like this son we may come to realise our need for restoration and seek out the Father.
Yet we also hold within us an older child who is quick to judge our failure to be as perfect as we hoped or imagined. Just as the more outwardly ‘proper’ brother failed to grasp the depth of his Father’s love it can be difficult for those of us who live ‘proper’ lives to accept God loves our flawed selves. We can be our own harshest critics. And when we cannot forgive ourselves it is hard to believe that God longs to. Forgiveness is never fair.
The story is particularly confronting for those of us who identify most strongly with the more proper son. It suggests we also need a change of heart. How challenging to see that God’s lavish love is far too generous to be fair.