The Older Brother

I offered a reflection on the Gospel at the Masses at Church of St. Thomas More in St. Paul this weekend.  The Gospel was Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son.  I invited parishioners to consider what they might learn from each of the characters in that story, starting with the older brother.

At some level, who doesn’t have at least some sympathy for the older brother, especially those of us who are oldest children, who feel like we do most of the work.  James Martin refers to the son’s complaint that he worked so hard for years and never got even a young goat to celebrate with his friends and writes

In one explosive sentence, the son vents the feelings of all those who have ever felt ignored or underappreciated for their hard work.  In my experience, most Christians are trying to lead good lives and therefore are more like the dutiful elder son than the wastrel younger one.  We are more likely to feel the older son’s emotions: resentment over not being appreciated, jealousy over the success of someone who does not “deserve” it, anger at what we deem as favoritism, and sadness at feeling excluded.

We do not always express our feelings as explosively as does the older brother, but we know his feeling; we often at least secretly harbor resentment that we are not treated as we should be treated, not rewarded as we deserve to be.  Even Henri Nouwen admitted in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son

Often I catch myself complaining about little rejections, little impolitenesses, little negligence.  Time and again I discover within me that murmuring, whining, grumbling, lamenting, and griping that go on and on even against my will.  The more I dwell on the matters in question, the worse my state becomes.  The more I analyze it, the more reason I see for complaint.  And the more deeply I enter it, the more complicated it gets.  There is an enormous, dark drawing power to this inner complaint.  Condemnation of others and self-condemnation, self-righteousness and self-rejection keep reinforcing each other in an ever more vicious way.

The older son is trapped by his resentment, and it is worthwhile for us to examine ways we can so easily resonate with older son’s point of view.

For example, it is good for those who have long been part of the church (who have been with the father always) to recognize aspects of own sinfulness, not just the sinfulness of those not part of the in-group.

It is important for us to ask: When does pride, jealousy, anger/resentment, self-righteousness get in the way of us rejoicing with God?

The older son embellishes his brother’s sinfulness (he speaks of prostitutes, which is not in the description of what the younger son does) – where are we guilty of exaggerating the shortcomings of those in our midst?

These kinds of questions are important because, as St. Ignatius would tell us, for those of us trying to lead lives of prayer, trying to live in the way Jesus invites us, the temptations to sin are subtle.  And so we need to be attuned to the kinds of feelings experienced by the older brother and where they lead us.

Note: You can listen to the entirety of my reflection here.