September 10, 2016
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in.” (Lk 15:28)
I may have resented my little brother from the day of his birth, before he made any of the poor choices I could chide him for. At that moment I ceased to be the undisputed queen of the universe, and spent the rest of my days trying to reclaim the limelight. It would like to picture myself as the Prodigal, welcomed into the arms of his father’s unconditional love, kissed and dressed in finery and celebrated with feasting and merriment. But it’s the older son, faithful and true, angry and resentful, who attracts my pity and identification.
It is easier to accept unquestioningly the forgiving and forgetting of my sins than those of others. There arise in my mind questions of justice, of wanting to make sure they learn their lesson, of ensuring that they remain humbled by their failure and submissive to direction. When another person finds God through repentance, it can be palpable. It should be cause for celebration, but too often I find myself uncomfortable, resentful, and envious. My experience, my relationship with God is normative – this other experience offends me because I find myself on the periphery.
I am Big Sister: taller, stronger, smarter, wiser, and always in charge. He is Little Brother: docile, submissive, always in need of guidance and instruction, not to say correction. And if he – or whoever unwittingly steps into this role in my life – should fail to be the blank slate in which I may write whatever I wish; should such a one dare to manifest his own mind and will, have a better idea and go his own way, then let him suffer my wrath.
The parables of the lost sheep and lost coin are picturesque and consoling enough, but the story of the lost son takes this to another level when it turns to the other son. Now the unspoken subtext of so many other parables and encounters in the Gospel is made explicit: do not be too quick to assume that you are the one sheep, lost and found, the one coin, searched for so diligently, or the favored younger son. I find more challenge than consolation here. My inner Pharisee is challenged by the outpouring of mercy on the undeserving. What about me? Haven’t I served you uncomplainingly, haven’t I borne the heat of a full day’s labor? My desire has always been to be close to you, and this has not been without cost to me, but am I now to be made out a fool by this unfaithful one who has not tried, has not sacrificed, and yet has become your favorite?
It is not the desire to be close to God that is at fault here. But perhaps the expenditure of energy in pursuing that goal has convinced me, wrongly, that I have earned for myself a special place in the kingdom, a seat at Jesus’ right. Unconsciously, I have been counting the cost of my discipleship, and now I find God to be in my debt.
“When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’” (Lk 17:10)
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (Lk 15:31)
There is great joy in being lifted out of one’s misery by the felt embrace of God’s mercy. This is a peak moment, characterized by a burst of transformative energy. Then there is the more subtle joy of quiet fidelity, of pouring oneself out day by day without the drama of great loss and redemption. This is characterized by duty, routine and ordinariness, at risk of boredom and resentment, but open to growing in appreciation of God’s hidden inner gifts. What is called for now is to receive the gift of joy in another’s salvation, and to receive it like a child – without having earned it. Then, at last, I can join the party.
My little brother has become a man. He is tall, lean, bearded, wears dusty work boots and a wedding band on his skilled carpenter’s hands, as he stands beside his two young sons. Now he is the taller, stronger and probably wiser one, and he brings great joy to our parents, and to me.