Yesterday, as I was driving into work a song came on the radio and about halfway through I realized it was this story. Something in it made me start to think and I realized that I’ve never heard anyone consider the relationship between the two brothers BEFORE the prodigal took off.
I am a first-born. Shocker, I know!
We “tend to be reliable, conscientious and perfectionists who don't like surprises. Although, firstborns are typically aggressive, many are also compliant people pleasers. They are model children who have a strong need for approval from anyone in charge.”
We want everybody to play by the rules.
Younger siblings tend to be potentially spoiled and given less responsibility. Often leaving the elder to feel the need to parent the younger.
Imagine with me back when these brothers were just young boys helping dad in the fields…
Day in and day out older brother, we’ll call him Sam, is asked by dad to look after his baby brother, whom we’ll name Ben. He’s given the chores he and his brother need to get done before they head in for supper. Day in and day out Sam strives to finish everything on the list, while Ben spends half the day playing instead of working. Sam so wants his father’s approval that sometimes he even finishes up Ben’s chores too. Inevitably, at the end of the day, dad says nothing of consequence – at least nothing of the praise Sam feels he deserves. And after supper, dad takes Ben on his lap while they share a moment with Sam off to the side.
Let’s go back a little further…
Sam is the pride and joy of his father as the first-born son. Dad is thrilled that the family lineage will carry on. He plays with him, pulls him up on his lap and begins to teach Sam all he knows. As Sam gets older, he wants to be respected as a man and pushes his father’s affections away. Every day he raises the bar for himself a little higher, waiting for his dad to take notice. He is desperate to prove himself and sees this as the way to achieve his father’s love. It’s the only place he’s looking for it.
In order to understand the end, it helps to know the beginning. Our reactions and emotions are not static and instant; they are connected and influenced to all our previous emotions and experiences.
Now we get to the story in Luke 15…
See, while Sam loved Ben, he also began to feel burdened by him. He felt replaced and less loved by dad because of Ben. So when Ben asked for the money and ran, Sam was first enraged that once again Ben broke the rules and he would have to pick up the slack. Then he felt relieved. Perhaps with Ben gone, he could once again have the attention of his father.
But he still didn’t get what he wanted. He only saw dad watching day in and day out for Ben to come home…
The father loved both his sons, each for their differences. He was proud of Sam and his hard work, but he couldn’t seem to help him understand that his love wasn’t conditional on the amount of work. After years of being pushed away, he gave Sam the space he seemed to want. And Ben… he knew there was a recklessness about him. While he didn’t want to let his son go, he hoped and prayed the experience would help him grow up without too much pain and heartache. He also prayed that by letting Ben go, Sam might see the freedom love brings releasing him from his self made prison. After a long day of watching the road for Ben and turning around to watch for Sam, he goes in each night feeling the loss of both his sons.
Sam just doesn’t understand that he’s built walls that keep him from receiving dad’s love. They also keep him from experiencing joy, and intimacy, and grace.
Then the day comes when Ben comes home.
Sam wants justice. He wants dad to play by the rules, but just like Ben… he bends them. Dad offers love and forgiveness. While it rattles the walls around Sam’s heart, it doesn’t break through. Instead his pride lets loose.
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Sam is screaming, “I wanted to be loved, too, Dad.” And dad says, “You have been. You are. You are loved with everything I have but you just couldn’t accept it.”
That’s where Jesus ends the story.
We don’t know if Sam ever understood the extent of the father’s love. We don’t know if he went into Ben’s room later that night and whispered into his ear while he was sleeping, “I’m glad you’re home little bro.”
If it didn’t…
You can bet the father waited with hope every day for him to come home, too.