The parable of the prodigal son is one of those beloved parables – the perfect parable for a Lenten journey. Part of the story’s perfection is that there are so many characters with which to connect. This year, I have been lingering on the older son. The older son has every reason to be angry with his father’s lavish forgiveness. The older son has done what has been expected of him. He is obedient, hard-working, and would have never insulted his father as deeply as his brother does. He is the consummate good and faithful servant. And so when his father, who, by the way, has never given much praise for the older son’s obedience, throws a party for his wayward brother, the older son finally snaps. He throws a first-class temper tantrum, refusing to come into the party and then yells at his father about the injustice of such a party.
What is so real for us with the older son is that we know his reaction all too well. Two strong emotions take over the older son. First, he is struck down with a serious case of envy. The older son sees the party for his wayward brother, and covets the party. Never once has he been offered even the smallest of parties for himself and his friends. The older son has a case of what the Berenstain Bears children’s books call the “Green-Eyed Monster.” In the Berenstain’s book, The Green-Eyed Monster, Brother Bear is celebrating his birthday, receiving gifts. Sister Bear is mostly fine with this arrangement, remembering her own birthday party earlier in the year. That is, until Brother Bear gets the most beautiful, sleek bicycle she has ever seen. Then the Green-Eyed Monster takes over. But just so that the adults do not think they are immune, before the story ends, Papa Bear gets a visit from the Green-Eyed Monster too when a neighbor gets a fancy new car. The point is that envy and jealousy are all too familiar to us.
The other emotion that takes over is self-righteous indignation. The older son is clearly right about his younger brother. His younger brother did sin, was disrespectful, behaved selfishly, and disgraced the entire family. The younger brother does not deserve the reception he receives. But that is exactly what makes the reception so full of grace. But the older son is so blinded by his self-righteous indignation, that he cannot see the blessing of his father’s reaction. As one person describes his situation, the older brother is “standing outside in the dark, perfectly right and perfectly alone.”[i]
When we do premarital counseling, we talk about the ways that spouses and partners behave in disagreements. Every family and couple has them, and so our counseling is a way to talk about handling disagreements in a healthy way. I once had a priest tell me that the three most important words for any marriage are, “I. Am. Sorry.” They sound like three words that are simple enough to say. But somehow we have such a hard time saying them. Partly I think we struggle with saying them because we think they mean admitting guilt or, even worse, defeat. And few of us like to lose. But that same priest told me, the next three most important words are, “You. Are. Forgiven.” As hard as apologizing can be, sometimes forgiving can be even more difficult. But forgiveness is the only thing that can keep our relationships in balance. Ideally, by one person saying, “I am sorry,” and the other saying, “You are forgiven,” both parties give up some of their power. Both parties submit something of themselves to the other. When one party is unwilling to say one of these things, they become like the older son – perhaps perfectly in the right, but also perfectly alone in their rightness.
What the older brother teaches us is that sometimes we have a choice between being right and being in relationship. In some ways, much like the younger son has been in a distant country, the older son is also in a distant country. He has cutoff connection to his brother, to his father, and even to those who have gathered to rejoice over the new life his brother has been given.[ii] In choosing to be right, he stand out in the darkness, unable to rejoice in another’s joy, closed off the hope of redemption and reconciliation. In Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son, the older son stands at a distance, hands crossed in front of him, standing in a darker section of the painting. His face is lighted, but only to highlight the way in which his distance is important. Like in the parable, Rembrandt shows the older son, in his rigid, distant body language, as choosing rightness over relationship at that moment.
In the face of this stubborn resistance to forgiveness and grace, the father in the parable shows equal abundance toward his two sons. According to etiquette of the time, leaving his guests at a party was a breach of social mores.[iii] But the father ignores social mores for both sons. The father disregards common practice, and seeks out his older son in the same way that he ran to his younger son upon his return. The father reminds the older son of the promise that still awaits him. Then the father invites him into his joy – to celebrate a reconciled relationship – much like the reconciliation the older brother can enjoy if he just comes into the room.
Perhaps why the older son’s story is lingering with me is because we do not know how he responds to the father’s invitation. The story ends with the ultimate cliffhanger that does not let you know whether the older son remains outside the party or comes inside the party. Certainly the father’s desire is for him to come in, but we do not know whether the son chooses rightness or relationship. I have wondered what would happen if the older brother went into the party. What if the younger brother fell at his brother’s feet too, saying those three hardest words, “I am sorry.” What if the two men simply embraced – saving words for later. What if the joy and laughter of that room cracked through the older brother’s tough exterior, and warmth began to seep into his heart. What if…
In many ways, I think the story ends openly to remind us that we too have a choice. We too can choose to be right – to hold on to the things in life about which we are justifiably angry and disappointed. We have every right to protect ourselves and even our family and friends from the kinds of behaviors that hurt us emotionally. We can be guarded and keep our distance – standing out in the darkness of rightness. Or we can choose to come into the party, and see what happens. We may not be able to say “I am sorry,” or even, “You are forgiven,” but we can at least step through the door, into the warm glow of a room that is bursting with abundant grace and love for us and for all – that place where all are forgiven and all are loved. Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Evils of Pride and Self-Righteousness,” Living Pulpit, vol. 1, no. 4, O-D 1992, 39.
[ii] David Lose, “Preaching the Prodigal,” as found on http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=672 on March 8, 2013.
[iii] Leslie J. Hoppe, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 119.