Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Return Of The Prodigal Son: The Elder Son Returns

 "The elder son...was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in...

The father said 'My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.   But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.'"


For Henry Nouwen (and he argues, for Rembrandt) the possible conversion of the Elder Son remains the great question of the story of the Prodigal Son and of Rembrandt's painting; the crucial question, as Nouwen says.  Neither the parable of Jesus nor Rembrandt's interpretation leaves us any clue as to what the final outcome would be.

The question, says Nouwen, is critical because it becomes clear that "...the father does not love the younger son more than the elder.  In the story the father goes out to the elder son just as he did to the younger, urges him to come in and says 'My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.".  The father, Nouwen notes, has shared everything with the elder son just he did with the younger son who took his and left:  "He made him (the elder son) part of his daily life, keeping nothing from him.  'All I have is yours' he says.  There could be no clearer statement of the father's unlimited love for his elder son.  Thus the father's unlimited love for his elder son.  Thus the father's unreserved, unlimited son is offered wholly and equally to both sons."

Nouwen notes that the Elder Brother complains to his father about his Younger Brother, to the point that he no longer sees his Younger Brother as his brother - or by extension their father as his father:  "Here I see how lost the elder son is.  He has become a foreigner in his own house.  True communion is gone.  Every relationship has been pervaded by the darkness.  To be afraid or to show disdain, to suffer submission or enforce control, to be an oppressor or to be a victim:  these have become the choices for one outside of the light.  Sins cannot be confessed, forgiveness cannot be received, the mutuality of love cannot exist.  True communion has become impossible."

I know, says Nouwen, the pain of this predicament:  Everything becomes suspect, self conscious, full of second-guessing, calculated, lacking trust.  Move calls for counter move; each remark must be analyzed and each gesture evaluated for meaning.  This, he says, is the pathology of darkness.

Can he - or I - get out?  Not by ourselves, suggests Nouwen.  He - and I - are as lost in the the darkness of judgement and lack of true communion as that Younger Brother was lost in sin.  We cannot find our way out - but God can find us:  "The story of the prodigal son is the story of a God who goes searching for me and who doesn't rest until he has found me.  He urges and he pleads.  He begs me to stop clinging to the powers of death and to let myself be embraced by arms that will carry me to the place where I will find the life I most desire."

What can we do to make the return of the Elder Son in us possible?  Recognize, says Nouwen, not only that we are lost, but also be prepared to found and brought home.  And while we cannot liberate ourselves from our "frozen anger", Nouwen proposes that through trust - the inner conviction that the father wants me home, that I am worth finding - and gratitude - the opposite of resentment, the effort of acknowledging all that we have and all that we are is a gift of love given to us, a gift to be celebrated - we can position ourselves to receive God's love.

When we tell ourselves we are not important enough to be found, we make our complaint so internally loud that we drown out God's voice calling us.  And by choosing gratitude over resentment, we choose against dwelling the darkness where we are and focusing completely on us and our suffering and how we have suffered.  Instead, we can look into the "eyes of the One who came out to search for me and see therein that I am and all I have is pure gift for gratitude."
As he did with the Younger Son, Nouwen finds in Jesus the Elder Son as well.  He is the son that lives in communion with the Father in total trust and gratitude.  In the parable of the wicked tenants and the vineyard, it is the true Son - Jesus - that ultimately goes to the vineyard and is recognized by the tenants as the heir.  There is no difference between him and the Father:  "The true son obeys his father, not as a slave, but as the Beloved, and fulfills the will of the Father in full unity with him."  

In the end Jesus is the Elder Son that does the Father's will without any hesitation, seeking out the resentful children as much as the children caught in sin


  1. Anonymous7:49 AM

    The question of the older son is the problem that we see in America today. He has always been within the safety of his father's house, he has always had food and shelter and saw none of the pain and suffering that finally broke the pride of the younger son. He also apparently did not suffer the heart wrenching pain of loss that the Father suffered.
    He was free from these trials and they did not affect him.
    His response to a Glorious Blessing of finding the lost son, and the redemption of his sonship and the relief and Love of the Father is completely Lost on the older son as he has made his own situation the center that the rest of the world must revolve around.
    I Pray for the older son, Salvation is harder for those who see no need for it, even as an outsider can see that such an attitude invites.
    In America we see a land filled with Plenty, and riches, and indulgences of every kind.
    We also see a people who are intensely Unhappy, our children and suffering as they show more mental Illness, crime and moral starvation more so than any other time in History.
    A land of plenty with no threats have produced the most suffering, the most indifference and the most selfishness than anyone could have imagined.
    My good friend preached a sermon that struck a note with my soul: "Don't waste your valleys"
    I thank God for my trials, my suffering, my pain. It is not that I am masochistic, or that I Love these things. But I have seen time and again, that I am not the same person that entered that valley.
    God grew me in my trials and pared away those things that were harming me, so that on the other side I could appreciate the Blessings, the Love of the Father, and even the Son who went astray.
    God Bless you and your family, may we appreciate all of our Blessings, even the hard ones.

    MSG Grumpy

    1. MSG Gimpy - As I have thought about it (thanks to Nouwen's book), the Elder Brother one becomes the one that the story turns on. The Younger Brother at some point realizes his sins and returns; the Elder Brother remains smug in his self-righteousness and does not realize he is equally as lost.

      When we do not suffer as either the Younger Brother or the Father did, we tend not to have empathy. Empathy, to be clear, is not the same thing as unmitigated support for sin, but at least an understanding of the suffering. Those that have truly tasted the harsh aftereffects of their own choices can empathize, even as they do not endorse.

      Do not waste your valleys seems like a very valuable piece of advice.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Filthie12:02 PM

    As usual, another dimension to a timeless story that repeats all too often with dismal results.

    I think it is wisdom like this that permits Christian families to survive and thrive where others fail.

    Hope you guys are having a great long weekend down there!


    1. Glen, it is trite to say "Christianity gives the ability to manage crisis that other systems do not", but I would argue that it gives an individual additional resources. I have seen in in my own life.

      Hope you are doing well also - were you at all impacted by the fires in Alberta? I am always vague as to where you live in reference to the larger geography.

    2. Filthie10:31 AM

      Errrr…that’s kinda what I tried to say…but perhaps it is trite from your vantage point. You have to remember I have spent the bulk of my life as an atheist, TB. It may shock you…but they don’t talk about this kind of stuff. That’s why It blows me away: all the characters in this episode are viewed through a Christian lens. They all get a fair shake. They are all understandable in their stances, conflicts with the others, and animosities and resentments. Even so, all the characters are called upon to settle.

      An atheist would view something like this through the lens of a narrative. Depending on which one is used, some characters will be heroes, others villains. Their selected heroes must prevail, and the villains punished. This is the way all their morality stories play out. There can be no peace, only victors and losers. It is a dangerous way to think and we see the fruits of it today. I have never seen people more angry and divided than they are today. It’s getting worse too.

      But…whadda I know?

    3. Ah, I get it Glen. That make sense. You are right - one of the great (to my way of thinking) things about the Bible is that it does not sugar coat any of its characters. They are shown with all their flaws - but to your point, are all expected to settle up at some point.

      I had not thought about the narrative as you present it, but you are precisely right. And to be fair, that is how I have often viewed the story as well - there is so much of the Elder Brother in me that I still need to let go of.

      I had also not thought of the view of the world as a Morality Play, but that is really true. There are only two sides and one is 100% right and one is 100% wrong.

      We are more divided in so many ways than ever. I think even churches are grasping this now as well, but I do not think they know how to do anything with it.

  3. MSG Grumpy hit something that I've been working through. The times in the fire, the betrayals, the just poor outcomes when they looked promising have made me who I am. Being thankful for that was a hard thing to set my mind to. Being thankful for the valley is a way not to waste it.

    Reading and thinking about Bible passages "I will meditate on Your precepts and regard Your ways" Ps 119 It's like a filter cleaning to me. Helps get the pook out of my head and clears my vision to see more clearly.

    1. STxAR - Much like a hammer on a piece of metal being forged, I suspect the force and pain of the blows, while intense at the time, are what force us into the ultimate desired shape of The Master Smith.

  4. Consider that as a parable, Jesus was speaking of the upcoming reconciliation of humanity under the New Covenant.
    The gentiles would be accepted as returning from their sinful pursuits and be celebrated for it leaving the elder brother (the Jews) to learn how to deal with it. To accept the gentiles as brothers.
    Happy Pentecost!

    1. Indeed Ed - He was speaking with the religious "experts" of his day when he spoke this parable and that is one aspect at well. The parable is deep on so many levels.

      Happy Pentecost Indeed!


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