Sunday, May 21, 2023

The Return Of The Prodigal Son: The Elder Brother Leaves

 "Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing.  Calling out one of the servants, he asked what it was all about.  The servant told him 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we have been fattening because he has got back to him safe and sound.'  He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, 'All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends.  But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property - he and his loose women - you kill the calf we had been fattening."


We are all familiar with the Elder Brother of the Prodigal Son:  The brother that remained with his father when his younger brother took half of the estate and left town.  We know of his response:  when confronted with the return of his younger brother, he is angrily mystified at his father's response and sulks outside, refusing to join in the festivities.

In Rembrandt's interpretation of the The Prodigal Son, he takes a liberty that the story does not specify:  he has The Elder Brother appear at the moment of the Younger Brother's return. He is, as Henri Nouwen points out, the main observer of the Young Brother's return:  the Father is consumed with the Younger Brother, the Younger Brother with his father.  The Elder Brother dominates one side of the painting, sanding above both, looking down with hands folded:

"But what a painful difference between the two (father and son)!  The father bends over his returning son.  The elder son stands stiffly erect, a posture accentuated by the long staff reaching from his hand to the floor.  The father's mantle is wide and welcoming; the son's hangs flat over his body.  The father's hands are spread out and touch the homecomer in a gestures of blessing; the son's are clasped together and held close to his chest.  There is light on both faces, but the light from the father's face flows through his whole body - especially his hands - and engulfs the younger son in a great halo of luminous warmth; whereas the light on the face of the elder son is cold and constricted.  His figure remains in the dark, and his clasped hands remain in the shadows.

The parable that Rembrandt painted might well be called "The Parable of the Lost Sons", suggests Nouwen.  Not only did the younger son, who left home to look for freedom and happiness in a distant country, get lost, but the one who stayed home also became a lost man. Exteriorly he did all the things a good son is supposed to do, but, interiorly, he wandered away from his father.  He did his duty, worked hard every day, and fulfilled all his obligations but became increasingly unhappy and unfree."

We can prone, suggests Nouwen, to looking at those who engage in behaviors and secretly wish we could engage in them.  We remain dutiful and obedient, but unhappy: our obedience and duty can become "characterized by judgement and condemnation, anger and resentment, bitterness and jealously".  And we can at some level understand the Younger Son who, having rebelled and found nothing but misery, decides to return home and ask for forgiveness.

But the Elder Brother... when confronted with his younger brother's return and his father's joy "a dark power erupts in him and  boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years."

"Looking deeply into myself and then around me at the lives of other people, I wonder which does more damage, lust or resentment?  There is so much resentment among the "just" and the "righteous".  There is so much judgement, condemnation, and prejudice among the 'saints'.  There is so much frozen anger among people who are so concerned about avoiding 'sin'...The lostness of the resentful 'saint' is so hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous."

I stand condemned in this statement.  I identify with Nouwen - I have come to complain "from a heart that never feels like it has gotten what it was due....It is a complaint that cries out: 'I tried so hard, worked so long, did so much, and still I have not received what others get so easily.  Why do people not thank me, not invite me, not play with me, not honor me, while they pay so much attention to those who take life so easily and casually?"

Thus the Elder Brother's rejection of his brother's return.  The resentment he felt all this years has boiled over.  His complaining at his brother's actions - perhaps only to himself - became self-perpetuating and thus counterproductive.  The more he complained, the more he resented him and the more he resented him, the more he became unapproachable. Were one to ask the associates or friends of the Elder Brother, one would likely hear that he himself was not the model he perceived himself to be:  always in the back of his mind he would have the example of his brother.  He was at war with someone that was not even there, and had fought battles for years within his own mind.

Nouwen ends:  "Here, I am faced with my own true poverty.  I am totally unable to root out my resentments.  They are so deeply anchored in the soil of my inner self that pulling them out seems like self-destruction.  How to weed out these resentments without uprooting the virtues as well?.....Indeed, something has to happen that I myself cannot cause to happen.  I cannot be reborn from below; that is, with my own strength, with my own mind, with my own psychological insights...I can only be healed from above, from where God reaches down."


  1. Anonymous6:15 AM

    Thank you for this examination of the Prodigal Son, though to be honest it is the most difficult for me.
    Mine own personal sin is one of Righteousness. I read the news every morning and it touches a very deep part of me that Demands that the people who have done such bad things be Punished, that I my hatred justifies my thirst to avenge the mountains of injustice I see.
    I have made some progress as I do recognize the Hypocrisy of my sin. I am well aware that while those scoundrels whom I feel justified to judge may or may not know the capitol crime they commit against God, I know in my bones that that Jesus himself stated that my Self-Righteousness is in fact Premeditated Murder, and it is that conviction that helps me die to self and grow in Him.
    I still have a long way to go, but each step closer to Him does more for my personal Peace than I have ever known.

    PS - Thanks for you prayers of comfort for me and my son, He is quite young only 14yrs old.
    Previously I may have not clearly stated our trials...
    My son is alive, He is currently institutionalized but seems to be showing some improvement over the last few weeks.
    My prayers are for continued healing and my Hope is that he will mature and grow out of these problems and closer to God.

    1. You are more than welcome. Like many of my posts, I am speaking to myself first and most of all.

      I find myself all too often - even today, when I am well into my 50's - still struggling with need to be recognized and rewarded for my good behavior and effort. When I am not, a smouldering resentment comes to consume me, even though like the Elder Son I can hide it beneath a veneer of diligence and obedience.

      I do not have the words for your predicament, other than to offer my prayers. There was a period where we tangentially dealt with some issues involving institutions of a perhaps similar nature. It was incredibly painful and disorienting. Many prayers for the healing of your son and yourself.

  2. I'm praying for you Anon. I, too, have a son that has been in an out of facilities like that.

    The biggest realization I had of the older brother, is that he didn't know who he was. He didn't understand his position. HE had the double blessing, probably 75% of the inheritance. He had access to whatever he wanted. He didn't have to ask his dad for a goat for a luau. All he had to do was pencil it in on the work calendar, and it was as good as done. OB was stuck as a son in his head, he didn't realize what was available to him.

    Much like us, when we are given our new life in Christ. We tend to hang around the jail of our past sinful living at times. The door is open and chains are off, but we don't know where to go or what to do with the freedom He has given us. So we just hang around in the "old ways". We don't understand the power that indwells us and the gifts available to us for the asking. So we moan about everything. Ignorant of the sweeping changes that have occurred.

    OB seems pretty normal to me. He has the ability to be offended "for" his dad. Seems like dad didn't know to be upset about the waste of perishable goods, but seemed to think the younger's "come to Jesus moment" was more important. I'm guilty of that too. He doesn't realize the position he holds in the family. He has fostered inward self-justification, like a bathtub vortex, it spirals tighter, circling the drain. Guilty as charged. He reminds me of the rich young ruler. Jesus told him to sell all he had, and follow Him. And he couldn't bring himself to do it. The stuff had him, not the other way around.

    This story seems to be about everyone BUT the kid. He is a kind of foil, the black velvet backdrop, so the diamonds of truth stand out clearly. So they can be really examined and understood.

    1. STxAR, it is not (I would posit) only that we do not remember who we are. We remember parts of who we are far too much. We act as the gatekeepers of God's forgiveness. We become offended on God's behalf, not only for those times that He truly says He is offended but for those times that He says He forgives. His self-righteousness has made him immune to actual forgiveness.

      It certainly seems that the story is just as much about others as it is about the Prodigal Son himself.

    2. We see from our own perspective. I, too often, forget the totality of the work of God in me, and act like the flesh monster I was before I met Him. Not a good look. "Gee pastor, why did you use that particular word? Mom says that...." Oh boy. For this reason, I like accountability. Knowing church members will be seeing me around town helps me live deliberately.

      This is some of the glory of God in His Word. It beats (meets?) us where we are, where we struggle. His Spirit uses the Word to convict of sin, and encourage in righteousness. Truly all things to all people. It is a wonder.

  3. Sorry but I've read the story in Luke 15.

    I don't "see" where all this hullabaloo about the elder son:

    "The parable that Rembrandt painted might well be called "The Parable of the Lost Sons", suggests Nouwen. Not only did the younger son, who left home to look for freedom and happiness in a distant country, get lost, but the one who stayed home also became a lost man. Exteriorly he did all the things a good son is supposed to do, but, interiorly, he wandered away from his father. He did his duty, worked hard every day, and fulfilled all his obligations but became increasingly unhappy and unfree."

    Maybe I am misunderstanding this post?

    1. Michael, I cannot fully speak for Nouwen, but I believe his point is that the Elder Son had departed just as much as the Younger Son had. The Younger Son took his inheritance and went out and sinned until he had completely had his fill. The Elder Son remained and did all the right things, but internally departed just as far as the Younger Son did, becoming so convinced of his own morality while resenting that he did not feel he was recognized for his staying that he became both unforgiving at the sign of true repentance and ungrateful towards his father and all that he had, just as the Younger Son had been ungrateful once upon a time. The Elder Son's words reveal it: "You never gave me a kid to celebrate with my friends" he cries - eliminating any responsibility for his feelings (after all, his father did not give him anything, although his father will indicate the final passage that "all that he had was his son's as well") as well as effectively acting as the agent to determine the Younger Son's degree of repentance. It seems to me that it was the father that was sinned against, not the Elder Son.

      I have seen a great deal of this in churches and individuals as well, including myself. I (to pick on me, the only person I have the right to do so) too often question the repentance or redemption of others. To STxAR's point above, I am offended more on behalf of God - I, who am undoubtedly just as sin ridden - than He is. I become locked in the shell of my own self-righteousness, never realizing that I have cut myself from God just as much as the one I am offended against.

    2. As your newest post says crossroads with fog.

      Life has enough challenges before the self-harm of excess thinking.

      Even Solomon 2nd Son of David (Mother Bathsheba worth a read) could have kept himself in naval gazing and second-guessing God that He was born second Son of an adulterous woman but apparently didn't.

      Once he finished Ecclesiastes, that is.

      Ecclesiastes 12: The Fear of God is Utmost
      …11The words of the wise are like goads, and the anthologies of the masters are like firmly embedded nails driven by a single Shepherd. 12And by these, my son, be further warned: There is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the body. 13When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is this: Fear God and keep His commandments, because this is the whole duty of man.…

      About the Fear of God, many scriptures.

      Majestic Is His Work
      …Psalms 111: 9He has sent redemption to His people; He has ordained His covenant forever; holy and awesome is His name. 10The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow His precepts gain rich understanding. His praise endures forever!

      Anon 6:59 has it right "As I read the book *and* your post on the older brother, I was struck not as much that the healing must come from God, but that I must be willing to both seek and accept it. Yah... Knowing is not the same as doing..."

    3. Honestly (and I may be alone in this), Solomon has never been the great example that he was generally (in my era) held up to be. He was a greatly flawed man that at the end of this life had gone badly astray and essentially insured the creation of the Divided Kingdom period - Great start, poor finish.

      Realization (something that Nouwen does a lot of in this book) needs to come prior to action - but yes, we definitively need to take action and do. Nouwen mentions his struggles in this regard in the book as well.

    4. 2nd Timothy 3:16 New Living Translation
      All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.

      Plenty of flawed people in the Bible, when I was younger I wondered WHY all the rape, incest, murder and failed people in the Bible.

      Because God's word was intended for REAL PEOPLE (tm), and most of us (honestly all of us) fail, sometimes badly to do the right think(tm).



    5. Agreed Michael - And one of the reasons The Bible rings more true than so many other religious documents; it presents its characters warts and all and shows how God still uses them.

  4. Anonymous6:59 PM

    As I read the book *and* your post on the older brother, I was struck not as much that the healing must come from God, but that I must be willing to both seek and accept it. Yah... Knowing is not the same as doing...

    1. One of the things I appreciate most about Nouwen is that the things he discovers are entirely focused on him. There is a never a sense of "You need to do this", only a sense of "this is what I have discovered about myself". The fact that in discovering it about himself, I learn as well, is the mark of a great teacher.


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