How far would you go to know the reality of unconditional love in your life? Belonging is a basic, human need on par with water and air, something every child must have to thrive in the world, something many adults still hunger for. One survivor of the Jonestown Massacre, where more than 900 people died in a cult-related mass suicide, told reporters that it could happen simply because, “We are all looking for a place to fit in” (interview on The Today Show, 4/4/17). The despair which comes from never quite finding that place can also show up as frustration, isolation, competition and bitterness. I think that’s what happened to the elder brother in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son.
Most of us can bring to mind a mental picture of the angry, arrogant young man depicted in Luke 15:11-32. Moreover, those of us who are familiar with Tim Keller’s eye-opening Prodigal God book and sermon series realize that the older sibling is actually the focus of the story, and we have scanned our own hearts for our elder brother sin. Elder brother resentment, elder brother selfishness, elder brother pride, these we know. But in this post I mean to suggest that those sins grow out of another, hidden problem that you might also find inside your heart: elder brother sadness.
The prodigal’s stay-at-home sibling never left his father’s side. He lived in his house, shared his resources, ate dinner with dad every night, enjoying his own inheritance day after day. And yet, when his lost brother returned to the family, his reaction was to accuse their father of favoring the one who strayed. He refused to join the party because, deep inside, he thought it should have been thrown for him.
The father’s response to his refusal is often thought of as a rebuke. Yet his words are tender, his tone inviting: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” The father seems to be comforting rather than confronting his older child, the child who didn’t realize he always had everything he wanted.
How SAD that he lived all those years with the Father and never felt – really felt – that he belonged. And the fear that he never would robbed him of any generosity or compassion he might have shown to others. When I think of the Pharisees to whom Jesus was preaching, it is easy to be judgmental. But when I think of the abiding sadness which drove the elder brother out into the night alone, it gives me a new perspective on his sin and mine.
One of the things Keller says the elder brother should have done is to stand beside the Father as host of the party. What if he had understood that all those years of faithful service were never about earning a fatted calf? What if he had spent those years believing he was enhancing the beauty of his own household instead? Might he have taken the same joy as his parent in preparing a huge feast, inviting others to share his table? What would it be like for me to serve with an attitude of giving away what is already mine instead of subtly trying to earn something for myself?
The elder brother thought that a party in his honor would have made him feel loved. I often think that, too. (If only I were more affirmed, more noticed, more lauded!) What if he had realized that every day at home was a party in his honor? Might he have lost his fear of never belonging? Every day I live in the favor of my Father, in the company of His family, in the righteousness of Christ, is a party in my honor. O, Lord, let me live each day in light of this sweet truth and never confuse some temporary, superficial affirmation for Your means of grace.
Don’t cry too hard for the elder brother; he fled blindly from sadness and fear into sin. But see him with new eyes, as a warning of what we might become if our eyes are not opened and our hearts not grounded in the unconditional love which is ours every day. I have a necklace given to me by a good friend which reminds me, “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” I am going to try to believe this harder. No party in the world will ever cast out my sadness, loneliness and fear, but God’s love is able to do it. I want to remember: there is a warm and beautiful place I can never be kicked out of, and I already live there.
Some things to think about:
- The elder brother thought that a big party in his honor would fix his emptiness. What is it that you think would fix your emptiness? Would it really?
- What are the things God has already given you to show that you belong? Are there ways you could believe those a little harder?
- How would it be different if your service was never about earning, but truly about giving away something you already have?
- The elder brother’s fear drove him to pride and selfishness instead of driving him to the Father’s love. What sins do your fears drive you toward?
- How can we respond in faith to those fears? (Think about things like identifying and embracing your spiritual family, practicing gratitude, creating reminders of God’s love, encouraging yourself with the truth, looking to God for affirmation, etc.) Please share any practical ideas you have!