The Older Brother

The_church_of_St_Peter_and_St_Paul_-_stained_glass_-_geograph.org.uk_-_715050

I was very young when I first tasted the bitter pall of resentment. My first clear memory of its beginnings was when I was about six and my sister was three. Our family went to a gathering at another family’s farm — the lovely kind where there are lots of adults sitting around and talking, more food than we could all eat in a week, and bunches of happy children with plenty of room to run around.

We children began a game of tag, running around an open field. I was “it” a few times, and had a hard time catching anyone, but I played the game and did my best. And I think the older children probably let me tag them just to keep the game fun. There came a time when my sister was tagged and it was her turn to be “it”. Her response was to run to my parents, crying all the way, tattling on the older kids for their “meanness”.

My dad came stomping out and scolded us for treating her badly. He told us that she could play, but she didn’t have to be “it” at all.

As an adult, I realize that the poor kid was only three. Practically a baby. But what my six year old self saw was that my sister didn’t have to play by the same rules. Whereas I had to work hard to be part of the fun, she got the fun without the work.

This episode probably stands out in my mind because it was part of a much larger pattern. My sister is mentally ill, and there were signs from when she was very small. But it was a different time then, there were no resources for things like that, and it certainly wasn’t something that was discussed openly.

Growing up, I never knew something was wrong, I just knew that my sister was given a different set of rules to live by than I had. Over and over these moments dipped my heart in resentment. I felt slighted, like the game was set to my disadvantage.

Because of this, the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) has always been a hard one for me to swallow.

I totally understand where the older brother was coming from. He did all the right things! He stayed, didn’t ask for his inheritance early. He was working while his younger brother partied! And if the younger brother was back on good terms, that would mean that he would probably have to split his inheritance with him again. Maybe that is just speculation, but I know in his place that would have crossed my mind.

Any time this story comes up as the gospel reading or in bible study, I get a little grumpy. How does the older brother end up being the one in the wrong? Sure, he has kind of a chip on his shoulder, but who wouldn’t?

I try to remember that I am really the younger brother here. I do things all the time to waste the grace that was poured on me. I am a sinner and doing things that should lose my inheritance each and every day. It helps a little to think about that, but it doesn’t really fix the heart issue going on here. I still know so deeply the resentment the older brother felt. It clings to me, and I am afraid I sometimes cling to it as well.

I don’t even remember where I read it, but there came a time when I stumbled upon a discovery about this passage that changed my perception of it completely. The older brother refused to come in the house when he saw the big celebration that was being thrown for his brother.

“He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. – Luke 15:28

Did you catch that last part? His father came out and pleaded with him. He went out to him in much the same way he had gone out to meet his younger brother.

Oh.

When I am feeling the part of the older brother, I have to look around and see the gifts and graces that are mine, and remember that the Father has come out to me, to welcome me and invite me in. I have the choice to stay angry and cold or to let my heart melt and accept His love. Sometimes that is much clearer than trying to connect myself with the younger brother, knowing that the older one is standing to the side seething. The older brother has his moment of conversion and humility too, and so do I.

Originally posted at Catholic Stand 5.29.2014

Comments

  1. Steve Grant says:

    Jenni: Great observation about the father coming out to the older brother! I had never seen that myself. There is a great spiritual book about the Prodigal Son written by Henri Nouwen. If you haven’t read it, check it out.

    • Thanks, Steve. That book has been on my list for a while now, it’s about time I ordered it! I found a used one on Amazon. I’m looking forward to it!

  2. Beautiful. Good reminder to let my heart melt a little more often!

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