In most movies we can identify the hero. And the villain. The protagonist and antagonist are pivotal characters in a story. But I have spent the last several years pondering a Biblical story where, hard as I try, I do not most naturally identify with the hero or the villain. I identify with a lesser character. While I long to be most like the hero, I see my natural orientation in a character adjacent to him. Let me explain.
The Biblical story of the prodigal son is a tremendous source of insight into the heart of our loving Father, the nature of the rebellious heart and the tragic consequences of the younger son’s actions. If you are familiar with the story that Jesus told in the midst of judgmental attitudes by religious leaders about his fraternizing with messy people (Luke 15:11-32), you have had your heart poked in the pain of the arrogant and destructive attitudes and action of the younger son. You have imagined the broken heart of the loving Father and wondered why He did not run after the younger son. You have heard about this story and been saddened at the chaos and hopelessness of the younger son as he sits in his pig pen of despair. And we rejoice at the moment where the repentant son slinks his way back to the family estate in expectation of a punitive greeting only to be embraced by a waiting Father (how did he know?) and swept up into a party of full acceptance and restoration!
This part of the story is known, celebrated, and rehearsed. I love it! The amazing heart of the father is a type of our heavenly Father who longs for our repentance and restoration. The Father redeems and restores, waiting and seeking for the wayward son to be returned to his rightful place with acceptance and joy. The prodigal son is showered with gifts and celebrations, and the larger community of the family and surrounding area is invited to join in the life lesson and supernatural reconnection that has occurred. I LOVE this story, celebrate it, and consider as a core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. While I have never personally experienced prodigal behavior in such external fashion, I know that I have a prodigiously prodigal heart and I have witnessed thousands of divine restoration projects where prodigals like me and others are fully restored to the household of God. I long to manifest the matchless love of the Father and bring multitudes of prodigals to His welcoming arms.
But, the part of the story that has been increasingly settled in my soul these past many years revolves around the elder brother (Luke 15:25-32). There are half as many verses in the story that revolve around the elder brother as around the prodigal and father, but those verses are troubling to me. The elder brother is doing what he has always done. He is out working in the field. The noise of the emerging party reaches the elder brother’s ears while he works. The discovery of the source of the sound (the emerging party for his wayward younger brother) is not only ironic, but angering to him. He is incredulous that even more of the family’s resources are now being spent on this rebellious laggard (I can hear the elder brother screaming these words in my mind!). His plea to the father includes the wail that he has never once been able to have a party with his friends and yet he has “done all the right things”, in sharp contrast to his disgusting younger brother.
The response of the father to the elder brother contains some of the most sobering revelations in all the pages of Scripture. The father is clearly in deep pain as he realizes the emptiness of his oldest son’s soul. Everything that has belonged to the father has always belonged to the son. The son has never been able to access, receive, or benefit from the wealth and resources of the father. The son has worked his way into a fever, but his very efforts have kept him from entering into joy and rest.
Further, the father is clearly saddened that the elder brother has missed the most joyous of life experiences; his own brother has been lost and virtually dead and now has life and hope and peace. The eyes of my own heart have often grappled with how I might have responded in this story. My conclusion? I long to be the merciful and compassionate father, I recognize and believe in the power of the father’s redemptive love for the prodigal, but my “natural” state is to be like the elder brother. And while that recognition makes me profoundly sad, I also gratefully recognize the transforming work of the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life so that I can live and love like the father.
So, how can I explain the past several years of pondering? I think my brooding over this story and passage relates to what has been called, an “orphan spirit” (see here for an article that explains some of Jack Frost’s work on this from the early 2000’s: http://www.reviveus.org/do-you-struggle-with-an-orphan-spirit/). The first time I heard that phrase in 2006 and saw a listing of characteristics, I had a troubling inner groan. The groan was the revelation of truth and the conviction of the Holy Spirit. That moment was in the stream of a journey that continues to this day, though thankfully from the perspective of a son and not an orphan. During these past several years, I’ve been exploring the prodigal son story and thinking consistently and from different perspectives about the elder brother. If you come from any form of religious family or Christian past, you may be carrying an orphan spirit or confused perspective like I did.
All my religious training and foundations were a glorious inheritance. But it would be many years before I would realize that I had learned to “do good’, but not to “rest in Him”. Verses like Romans 14:17 which describe God’s reign as “the Kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” were largely absent from my life. I knew what “rightness” was, but had very little space for “peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” in my life. By the way, you can measure righteousness (or at least I thought I could…it is a list of do’s and don’t’s and the corresponding moral superiority), but how do you measure “peace and joy” in the Holy Spirit? Seems to me like so much of my Christian life, and the Christian life of others, tended towards an externally oriented faith. In another context, I would even describe my pastoral leadership as helping people to fulfill the purposes of God without ever enjoying the presence of God.
The journey to “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” is a daily adventure in relationship to the One. I’m not finished yet (and may never be!), but here are a couple of things I’ve learned and lifted up from the story as I have been musing over it these past years:
1) It is the heart of the Father to redeem. Always.
2) The prodigal has to return in order to receive the fullness of the Father’s embrace
3) The elder brother keeps score and knows the score and will gladly tell you the score
4) The elder brother is all work and no joy…and he’s mad about it.
5) The elder brother is angry when other people receive grace he is unable to receive or give
6) The elder brother lives in abundance and is unable to access it or receive it
7) The Father longs to give, but the elder brother is unable to receive (at least at that time)
8) The Father’s heart is saddened that the elder brother misses life’s most profound moment of joy; the resurrection of what was dead to life and the finding of what was lost
9) The story ends in Luke 15 without telling us how the elder brother responds. The challenge of every generation of followers of Jesus is to be full of grace and truth to those outside the family of God.
These 9 observations are not exhaustive, but they have surely helped me reflect on my life, my loves, and my leadership. I want to love like the Father and long for the prodigals to return. I want to lead my life and exercise my leadership in ways that honor the One who first loved me (1 John 4:19). I’m praying for a Church that loves our world like the Father loved the prodigal. I want to be “that guy” in the story, and not the elder brother. However, knowing about the elder brother reminds me of what comes “natural” and I know that surrendering to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is the only path to living “supernaturally” in the Father’s love.
Thanks for listening; I hope it helps you on your journey in this world of prodigals.