(Photo: Brad Johnson)
I've been all over the board about him. My emotions have ranged from anger to apathy to compassion. He's equal parts rational, cold and notorious. He's the Prodigal Son's older brother.
An early reading of the Prodigal's story prompted me to quietly whisper to myself, "I am so glad the Prodigal encountered his father first when he returned home, rather than his brother."
I know, as do you, that had he encountered his older brother first, the Prodigal would have never made it home. His brother would have rejected him and turned him back to the 'far country.'
I know this intuitively and also empirically. I have been the Prodigal. I also made the long, arduous journey home to God. And since then, I have met many others with similar stories.
Though we all rejoice at the remarkable grace that God and many of His children extended to us, eventually, we each confess encounters with the spirit of the elder brother. And we each confess that the journey back to God was made so much harder because of the hurtful behavior of Christian brothers (and sisters).
Earlier, I expressed my belief that among other attributes, the older brother was rational. In an 'eye-for-eye' world, in a 'if-you-hurt-me-I-will-hurt-you' world, the angry rejection by the older brother made sense. After all, the Prodigal did so much wrong. This is Rational.
It was also rational for the older brother to believe that he had earned his own place in the family by good behavior and that the Prodigal should no longer be in the family because of his poor behavior. The concept of earning your way IN has merit and makes sense.
It must have seemed irrational to the older brother for the Father to call the Prodigal, "son" and throw a feast for him. It must have seemed irrational to discover that good behavior, after all, is NOT what "earns" a place in the family.
It must have been confusing for the older brother to learn that belonging to the family is a gift of grace, is the prerogative of the Father and that His love doesn't diminish when hurt and doesn't increase when pleased. He loves at all times.
The older brother obviously didn't have a clue what his Father's heart was like; how gracious, forgiving and loving.
I would suggest that though the Prodigal traveled far from the Father's house, the older brother traveled far from the Father's heart.
It's insightful to see the lavish love poured over the returning Prodigal. But don't miss the Father's love for the older brother. Realizing that His oldest son was not at the 'Welcome Home' celebration, the Father went to retrieve his first-born. He wanted him included in the feast and festivities, too.
God has been lavish in His love toward me – a former Prodigal. And there are some who refuse to join me in the joy of my home-coming. Some in the Christian family, avoid me in public, shun me from their activities, and don't celebrate my return. With such "siblings," I must keep my heart pure. I must show the mercy I wish I had been shown. I must sincerely want them to experience God's festivities, too, in the way I had hoped they'd want to include me.
We are quick to conclude that Jesus' story in Luke 15 is about the behavior of the Prodigal. That misses the point. It's really a story about the behavior and heart of the older brother.
Brad Johnson is Pastor of California Community Church, Agoura Hills, Calif. On the Web: www.californiacommunitychurch.com.