Everyday Awe

A Fresh Look at a Familiar Story

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt Source: WikiPaintings

Familiarity often breeds assumptions.

Whenever we have heard a story more times than we can count, our memories of the story being told mix with the story itself, until we are no longer able to separate one from another.

This happens especially with well-known Bible stories.

After hearing about these narratives ad nauseam from children’s ministry through Sunday sermons, there comes a point when we stop reading them for ourselves. They are old hat. We know them.

Perhaps one of the most common is the story of the prodigal son. It is that most common illustration from Luke 15, about the boy who goes off in sin and squander, a father who is so happy at his return that he runs to greet him, and a son that is so judgmental and arrogant that he misses the party.

You know the one.

The one in which we all despise and look down upon the older brother for being so full of himself.

Yet, the text does not say he was judgmental. It says he was angry. I think there is a big difference.

Judgment comes from a place of pride. It is the feeling that comes when we think we know better than someone else about what should be done in particular situation.

Anger comes from a place of hurt. It is the emotion that rises when we feel we have been wronged in some way.

The only other time the Greek word for angry used here (orgizo) is used in the book of Luke, is in the parable of the dinner in Luke 14, when the landowner becomes angry that none of his guests accepted his invitation. He is feels hurt and overlooked; anger is his emotional response.

In all my years of being exposed to the parable of the prodigal son, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the older brother painted with the brushstrokes of compassion.

I wonder if we read the text ourselves, without the preconceived notion of his arrogance, would we hear we hear his words differently? Would we hear the pain and tremble in his voice as he says to his Father,

“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” – Luke 15:29-30

I wonder, did the older brother avoid eye contact with his Father as he spoke these words, for fear that he could not hold back the tears if forced to look into His eyes?

If I put away my judgment, if I stop assuming I already know the heart of this cruel and shrewd brother, I am able to hear myself in his words.

We like to talk about how much we love God’s grace. That’s easy to say when we feel how deeply we ourselves have been the recipients.

But I have sometimes been  hurt by God’s brutal grace. That’s right, I called it brutal. Can we be honest and admit that’s how it feels sometimes? That it stings when we watch others receive what we always longed for, and we feel left behind?

When we see a friend receive, without asking, and maybe without even wanting it, the thing we have prayed to have for more years than we care to admit. When we watch seemingly undeserving people get thrust into the spotlight while our hard work seems to be unnoticed. Or when God seems to show up so visibly, so tangibly, for everyone except us.

Have you ever wanted to scream at God in hurt and anger, “When is it going to be my turn? I have followed you faithfully. I have sought You. I have read Your Word. I have tried to obey. I have asked forgiveness when I failed. I have let your Spirit lead me the best I could. So why is my life here, and that other person’s life is there? When is it going to be my turn?!?”

Grace is not fair. The younger brother did not deserve a party. The older brother did. That is what fairness would have looked like.

I can understand why the older brother would be hurt to the point of anger.

Somehow, his relationship with his Father had to break open to a place it had not yet been. He needed to trust his Father not on the basis of His equality, but on the basis of His love.

That is a harder place to get to than we sometimes admit.

Until we are ready, God remains sitting next to us on the step of that porch, patiently waiting for us to hear His words of grace for us.

“you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” –Luke 15:31

  • Aneta Coulter

    Great post! We miss so much in the stories we ‘think’ we know, because we’ve heard them so many times. I could relate.. I think that we all have a little bit of the older and younger brother in our stories, to varying degrees. Equally loved by God.

    • http://everydayawe.com/ Stephanie Spencer

      Thanks for the comment, Aneta. I think you’re right- we both have a little bit of both brothers in us.

  • Mark Allman

    I have longed felt bad for the older brother. I admit I thought he was not treated fairly as if I could judge fair. I still hurt for his hurt for I have felt it as well. While on one hand we want what is fair on the other we need so much grace. I agree that anger is hurt manifest alot of the time. Most all of my anger comes from hurt. I can only address my anger is I address my hurt. I think we not only need to take care of the prodigal son but we need to rejoice in the son that on the surface continually did that which is right. I still have a problem that we tend to ignore that which is not making noise. Those that are faithful should have a calf too I believe so I still struggle with God over this story at times. I want people to rejoice over me not because I was found after being lost but because of just me being me. I hope that is worthy. I want to do that for others as well. So the struggle Stephanie continues for me.

    • http://everydayawe.com/ Stephanie Spencer

      Sorry for the delay in replying, Mark. Thank you for admitting that you struggle with this story. I think few too many see that side. And many of us live our lives more like the older brother than the younger. Grace is amazing, but it is also difficult because by its very nature, it’s not fair. I’m wondering with God how the older brother might have found more of God’s grace and love in the midst of his obedience. Should he have asked for something he never requested? Should have have put down his shovel a little more often to have lemonade with his dad on the front porch? I don’t know what of who he was and what he did was actually what His Father wanted him to do and what was only what he THOUGHT His Father wanted him to do. I wonder how often my frustrations are the result of self-inflicted wounds.