Growing up, I often heard the story of the prodigal son. In the story, a man has two sons. The younger son says to his father, “Give me my inheritance now,” and goes off and spends it all. Meanwhile, the older son dutifully stays behind, working diligently. Soon, the younger son regrets leaving and decides he’ll return and beg to be accepted as a servant. However, as soon as the father sees the son, he runs to meet him, hugs him, and they have a party. But that’s not where the story ends. The older son distances himself and resents the forgiveness his younger brother receives after being so awful. The father approaches the older son, explaining himself and saying, “Your brother has returned. It was like he was dead, and now, he’s alive.”
I’ve encountered various interpretations of this well-known passage. One pastor said that when the younger son asks for his inheritance, he’s basically saying, “Just die already,” to his father. I even read Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal G-d, which explores how the father in the story is more lavish than the son, even at the height of the son’s inherited wealth. However, most of what I’ve heard focuses on identifying with the younger son. We’re asked to think about the times we’ve wanted the reward without putting in the work, when we’ve put created, material things over the creator in our minds and hearts. We are told to remember even small moments in our lives when we turned away and were reminded that G-d comes running to embrace us.
However, I wasn’t raised in a church of prodigal sons, recovering addicts, people with criminal records, or anyone with a notable history of “riotous living.” I was raised by a family and a church of older brothers. They have had faith since they had words, have never lost it, and have never journeyed far. Honestly, I think they close the book after that story and pretend they’re the younger brothers, because that reading requires less of them. They know the story is really more about G-d and about people who resent G-d’s love and grace for the world. And they feel convicted.
Here’s what I think the storyteller here is pointing to: if you can’t be happy in this moment and celebrate it with your father, then you actually care less about your father than your brother did the moment he asked your father for all the money. In other words, sure, you’ve been on the farm, working hard—let’s say, spiritually, that translates to regular religious practice. However, if the moment something good happens to someone else, you’re asking, “Why not me?” then you prove to the world that all that religious practice was only about yourself. If you’re too obsessed with the ways others are sinning to consider your own failings, you’re the older brother.
I will always be the wayward son, the black sheep, the backslider, the one prayed for at every mealtime because I am not straight, and my parents believe there is no way for LGBTQ people to pursue love and commitment and family that is not inherently sinful. Despite my firm place as the black sheep, I still find a way to feel morally superior and thus feel like the older brother.
Even on days I’m not sure G-d exists, I barter with the trees, “Haven’t I aspired to live ethically? Haven’t I treated others with compassion? Why is everyone around me being celebrated, while I continue on, working?” Of course, the trees stay quiet. But deep down, I know: If any of this is about me and my own imagined spiritual growth, if anything is ultimately serving my interests, it will never be successful.
There is no such thing as spiritual liberation of the individual—we are all liberated, or we are all washed away by the weight of our resentment, violence, and hatred. We must walk arm in arm, older brother and younger alike, out of the suffering we inflict upon each other.
Yes, Jesus’ story is about G-d’s wild generosity. But it ends with a mirror, angled our way. “Here you are,” Jesus says, “resentful, hurt—causing your father to suffer because of your own selfishness.” But in the diagnosis, the path toward healing is found.
I want to stop identifying with a son—either son—and start identifying with the loving, generous parent. I want to give and give and give, and when a lost friend, a wounded bird, or a sibling who dehumanizes me comes over that hill as the sun sets, I want to jump up and say, there they are—a bit of the universe coming to meet me—and I want to run to embrace them.