By Katie Hill
“And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:31-32)
I grew up essentially filling the role of firstborn in my family, even though I technically wasn’t. My older brother, Chris, is profoundly developmentally disabled, and due to the high level of attention that he needs, he has lived in the care of others since age 3.
IT WAS JUST MY IMAGINATION
I vividly remember aching to have a big brother in my life in a real, day-to-day way. You know how little kids have imaginary friends? The perfectly healthy version of Chris filled that role for me. I didn’t obsess over it…it’s more like I entertained it on occasion. For example, I’d make sure there was an extra toothbrush in the bathroom for him, or save him one of my cookies, which I’d eat later because he would say it was cool if I did, being the awesome, generous brother he was. If I had a bad day at school, I’d daydream about what it would be like to vent to him, confide in him. When I screwed up I would long to have his protective arms around me, even though with only 15 months between us we surely would have had our share of fights. Yep, in a way, Chris was the perfect elder brother I never had.
WHO’S THE PRODIGAL, REALLY?
This is where the Parable of the Prodigal Son comes in (Luke 15:11-32). Trust me, there’s a connection. I think it’s probably one of the most well known and even beloved of the parables. As we read through it, our focus tends to be on the forgiveness of the father toward his son. It resonates with us. We know it’s an amazing picture of how our Father in heaven also forgives us sinners. It’s the ultimate feel-good story.
As we think a little more about this parable–c’mon, admit it–we often tend to see the younger son as the big problem. He’s the real sinner, the one we are supposed to learn to NOT be like. This story is called the “Prodigal Son,” after all. He is the one who demanded his part of the inheritance without his father’s even being dead yet. That takes some serious nerve! Then he proceeds to spend it all recklessly, AKA wastefully, AKA prodigally. That’s just crazy.
Perhaps you’ve even heard this parable turned on its head a bit by learning that God Himself is a prodigal with regard to His love for us. This is true, too! He forgives us lavishly, AKA generously, AKA prodigally. That’s one of the cool things about parables. They have lots of layers, but all of them have one goal in common: to point us to Christ and His redeeming work for the world.
THE ELDER BROTHER YOU DON’T WANT
I’d like to zero in on the elder brother in this story. On the surface he appears to be the “good guy”: He’s followed all of his dad’s rules his whole life and what thanks does he get? Nada, niente, zilch. Certainly not the fatted calf nor the fancy robe nor any of the out-of-the-ordinary festivities. He lets his father know how unfair that is. And it doesn’t matter how persuasive you think his father probably is, this elder brother doesn’t want to hear any of it. Yes, he’s certainly self-righteous, we might even conclude…self-righteously. Who does he think HE is? Mr. Goody Two-Shoes, that’s who.
As surface-y good as this older brother is, his righteousness is barely skin deep. And we know this, not only due to his negative response to his brother’s return and father’s celebration. We also see his hypocritical righteousness exposed when we ask and answer these questions: What if he had been the example of the perfect elder brother? What would that look like? What if, when his rebellious younger brother ran off, he went after him, to protect him, to warn him, to bring him back, to rescue him, to remind him how much his father loves him, to see him redeemed and restored? No, he was a downright despicable older brother.
THE ELDER BROTHER WHO’S GOT YOUR BACK
Good news! There is a Perfect Elder Brother out there and He’s yours and mine!–Jesus. We are the profligate, rebellious younger brothers, wanting something for nothing, wanting it all RIGHT NOW, and more often than not, diving headlong into sin. We, the self-righteous, think-we-have-it-all-together, entitled older brothers–just as lost in our sin–were sought out by Jesus (Luke 19:10). He lived His life as our perfect brother so that His righteousness might be ours (2 Corinthians 5:21), and He died and rose again to restore us to the Father (Colossians 1:19-20). Because of this, Jesus calls us His brothers and consequently we are adopted sons of the Father (Romans 8:14-17).
So remember how at first glance we tend to focus on the forgiving actions of the father when we read this parable? It’s actually a whole family that welcomes us. We can see our Father who runs to the younger son (us) in mercy, but also consider the difference between the older brother of the parable and our Brother, the Son of the Father, who makes us children of God, brothers and sisters in Him. He shares His inheritance with those who have squandered their own. He makes sure we have a portion with Him, no matter the cost to Himself.
IT’S A FAMILY AFFAIR
There is a place where this Parable of the Prodigal Son comes to life, where we can be tangibly reminded of our younger-older-brother sinful selves yet see in even greater abundance the absolution of all our sin: Divine Service. It’s where the Father Himself wraps us up in a robe of Christ’s righteousness (Baptism) and invites us to partake of the Lord’s Supper–a preview of the awesome welcome home party we’ll experience in Paradise–embraced in the Father’s love. You don’t have to totally imagine the festivities…you get a foretaste every Sunday!
I adore my older brother…in fact, for 35 years God has placed me in the vocation of being his guardian. The normal familial relationship seems to be turned on its head. Yet it’s not. Because Christ is my Perfect Elder Brother, I am free to love Chris and see that his needs are met. Not only that, I rejoice in the resurrection to come, when I know Chris’ redemption will be realized in full.
Katie Hill is the managing editor at Higher Things. She enjoys fostering and fine-tuning the writing of authors who deliver the sweetness of the Gospel to Higher Things readers and beyond. A Lutheran convert for 17 years now, Katie has been working for HT in some capacity for nearly that same amount of time. She relishes life in a small town in northern Arizona with her husband, Jeff, and five children, four of whom have left the nest.