Yesterday, we looked at the Prodigal Son. But he’s not the only son in the story. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always struggled with the older son. He seems to have it together: he was obedient to his father, worked hard, and did his best to do everything he was supposed to do when he was supposed to do it. Who among us can’t identify with him and with his anger and frustration when he sees the “reward” that his plucky younger brother has received for his disobedience? The traditional understanding of the older son is that he represents the Pharisees, the ones who obeyed the Law, somewhat strove for holiness, and vehemently condemned the less privileged in their society who were “sinners.” Others have suggested that the older brother was just as separated from the father as his younger brother. While the older brother remained in his father’s home and did his work, he was emotionally and spiritually separated because he served out of duty, not out of love. As a result, he was just as unrighteous as his brother.
I wrote yesterday that sin separates us from God and others, and I submit that in the older brother’s experiences, we see clearly how sin damages our relationship with other people. The father was hurt when his younger son left home. What father wouldn’t be? But the younger brother’s sin also deeply hurt his older brother. The older brother experienced the same sadness, anxiety, and grief at the younger brother’s departure as the father did, and who could blame him? The problem, however, is how the older brother processed his hurt. He separated himself from his father’s love and tried to bear his pain on his own. When the younger brother returned, the older brother’s seemingly uncharitable reaction to the feast is an expression of his deep hurt. Again, we return to the father and his relationship with his sons. The father loves both of his sons deeply and desires more than anything else that both of his sons be restored. Realizing that his older son is absent from the party, he goes looking for him, and upon finding him, calls him to rejoice at his brother’s restoration. The older brother can’t at this point, though, because he is still hurt. Joy must come from within and cannot be forced or commanded, and there cannot be joy in the older son until he is healed. The Psalmist speaks of this in Psalm 51; after begging the Lord for forgiveness of his sins (verse 3) and for restoration and cleansing (verses 9 and 12), he then prays that the Lord would “Restore to me the gladness of your salvation” (verse 14). Forgiveness leads to restoration, and then joy and gladness follow, not the other way around. Had the older brother brought his pain and sadness to his father in the first place, he would have been better able to rejoice with his father once his younger brother returned home.
Jesus ends the story of the Prodigal Son before we learn whether the older son ultimately opened himself to the father’s healing or remained engulfed by his hurt, but there is hope nonetheless. From the older son, we learn of our Father’s deep desire to pour out His love and mercy on all of his children, those who have sinned and those who have been hurt by sin. When we find ourselves in the older son’s place, we cannot let our hurt keep us away from the Father. Repressing the pain and saying we are okay or that our relationships with those who have hurt us are okay when we or they are not doesn’t help us move forward. Rather this façade and this false forgiveness actually further separate us from the Father (and from the ones who have hurt us). We must acknowledge our pain before our Father in prayer and allow His love and mercy to heal us and fill us with the joy of salvation. Only then can we forgive others for hurting us.
Here are some questions to ask yourself during your prayer/reflection time:
--How have I been hurt by others’ sin?
--Have I been open with my Father about the hurt I feel? Have I allowed the Lord’s love and mercy to heal me? Or have I sugarcoated my pain and kept it within me?
--(If you have the courage--) When and how have I hurt others by my own sin?