The Sour Saint

John McKeelEveryone is familiar with the beautiful story of the Prodigal Son – the young man who leaves home angry, and squanders all his father’s money. Then “he came to himself” (Luke 15:17) and returns home to find forgiveness and redemption. You may not be so familiar with the story of his older brother from the very same parable (Luke 15:25-32).

It is said that when the older brother learned his younger brother had returned home and had received forgiveness from his father, the older brother became “angry and refused to go in” (verse 28). Now before we begin condemning the older brother, let’s remember he was the good son. He was faithful, hard working, and did a good job keeping the family farm in order. The father promised the older son “all that is mine is yours” (verse 31). The problem was the older son’s anger. Why was he so upset?

Physiologists tell us anger feels good. It’s part of our “fight or flight” response. Something happens and we just react. We don’t think about it and our body releases chemicals into our body to reward us. Dr. Jean Kim observed in Psychology Today (August 25, 2015): “anger can lead to similar ‘rushes’ as thrill-seeking activities where danger triggers dopamine reward receptors in the brain, or like other forms of addiction such as gambling, extreme sports, even drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines.” The problem is anger has a way of side stepping our rational thought processes and it can override our moral and emotional brakes causing us to act in very uncharacteristic ways. We might feel good when we’re angry, but no one around us does!

Yes, but why was the older brother angry in the first place? The Bible says, “He answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’” (Verses 29, 30). The older brother’s underlying feelings of weakness and insecurity made him angry. He was unwilling to deal with his brother so he just exploded. Sometimes it’s easier to become angry than to patiently deal with the issues. Likewise, did you ever think the older brother might have been a little jealous of his younger brother? We don’t often admit it, but the lure of the “grass on the other side” is strong!

Finally, I also think the older brother was tired. While everyone else had gone to the party, he was still out in the fields working. We can easily imagine him up before dawn and home after dark toiling on the farm, but do you believe his father demanded all of the older son’s busyness or again, did his weakness and insecurity lead him into overwork and exhaustion? Was he overwhelmed by the responsibility and trust of his father, so the older brother drove himself to the point of exhaustion and consequent anger? Anger is often just tired trying to get out. We’ve all seen babies turn red and angry when they get too tired. Adults can be like that as well.

Whatever the reason, the older brother’s anger was keeping him from a relationship with his very own brother. His anger kept him from that most precious of relationships: family love.

So I’d like to imagine the same love that restored the younger brother to the family, restored the older brother as well. I can see the tears in both brother’s eyes and the beautiful smile on the father’s face to see both brothers’ restored. There is a little taste of heaven in this parable.

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