Virtuous Elder Brother

“‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.’”

Luke 15:25-28

Now if I had to choose a title for my reflections on Jesus’ parable of a father and his two sons, it might be the phrase my youngest daughter used to mutter when things were not going her way: “It’s not any fair!”

Because as this parable unfolds and reaches its culmination, the elder brother’s reaction might be summed up in those words: “It’s not any fair!”—and I think many of us would readily agree with him!

And I have to admit it’s the elder brother in this story who, more than anyone else, captures my attention and my sympathy.

And the more I consider him and his plight, the more I feel that down through the centuries he’s been given a bum rap.

The elder brother has often been viewed as flint-hearted and sanctimonious, callous and self-righteous, haughty with an attitude, but it seems to me this is quite undeserved.

A careful reading of this parable suggests there is much about the elder brother that is worthy of our admiration and applause—that in many ways, he’s a model citizen with the very qualities we hope our own kids will exhibit.

And I believe that if we are to prepare ourselves for the wallop that this parable packs, we must first appreciate the elder brother’s real virtue and strength of character.

So for the next few minutes, let us praise the elder brother.

First of all, I would suggest we should view the elder brother as really, truly virtuous.

As I read the story, he seems to be a genuinely decent, honorable fellow, the sort of individual we would be delighted to have as a neighbor.

He probably would have made an excellent Boy Scout—think of him as one of those precociously serious youngsters whose dedication to being “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, etc.” is more than skin deep.

Think of him as a teacher’s dream—the boy who’s an eager learner, respectful, never gets sent to the office, turns in his assignments early, something of an over-achiever.

Imagine him as a child following close at the heels of his dad, mimicking his mannerisms, day by day soaking up the know how of tending to crops and animals.

Imagine the elder son as a teenager whose highest aspiration is to be like his dad, to some day take over the family farm and every morning walk the land inspecting everything with an eagle eye just as his dad has done for decades, checking on a wounded animal or how the freshly sprouting wheat survived a storm—imagine him as a son who savors every ounce of praise his father bestows on him.

I don’t think it would be too far off the mark to see the elder brother as the embodiment of those stellar American middle-class virtues—industriousness, follow through, dependability—those virtues that all fly under the banner of responsibility—those virtues without which no parish, no business or enterprise, no community or nation, can long stay afloat—those virtues that keep the wheels turning, the lights on, the doors open, the books balanced—those virtues that shovel the sidewalk, deliver the mail, and make sure a restaurant passes the health department inspection.

And now consider the elder son as a young man who has already assumed the lion’s share of responsibility for running the farm, who has labored long and hard to learn the finer points of the business, who has put in his time and paid his dues, who has worn himself out trying to please his dad and show him he’s got “the right stuff” to take over the reins.

This older boy’s the worrier, the one who’s strung a little tight, who’s conscientious bordering on perfectionism. Picture him as the one who plays by the rules, who, as we like to say nowadays, has “a good work ethic,” who’s steeped in the family code of honor—picture him as someone who would have a perfect ten year attendance record at Rotary, a supporter of good causes, a volunteer at the local literacy center—in short, he’s a good boy.

With this image of the elder son in mind, is it any wonder that when he comes in from the fields, he is understandably put out and bristling with resentment when he discovers that the whole family compound has been turned into a party zone and that the joint is jumpin’ and it’s all because his dad is so delirious with joy over this errant, wayward, useless, playboy son slinking back home that he has ordered an all-out bash, the likes of which have never been seen before?

Is it any wonder that this elder boy is furious, pushed out of shape, hurt to the quick, when he gets an eye-witness report that when this foolish younger brother suddenly showed up unannounced, this brazen kid who has blown every last cent of his inheritance on reckless carousing and flings with prostitutes, his father dropped everything, ran out to meet him, ecstatically embraced and kissed him, and immediately decided to throw a big shindig in his honor complete with music, dancing, and, to top it off, the roasting of a fatted calf?

Is it any wonder that the elder brother is indignant, goes a little berserk, stomps and fumes, when this irresponsible, low-life bum of a brother comes straggling home and is given a hero’s welcome, this same younger brother whose last disgraceful adventure had been groveling in the slop with pigs which for observant Jews was unthinkable contamination.

And we should note that, surprisingly, the father doesn’t do a sincerity check on his vagabond son before welcoming him back—we don’t know if the son has had a change of heart or if he’s putting his dad on, faking remorse, playing his father for a sucker.

It’s as if the father is saying, I don’t care why he came home—let the festivities begin!

Meanwhile the elder brother is seething and refuses to join the celebration—and when the father comes out and pleads with him, his son launches into a tirade: “Look, I’ve worked around the clock for you, I’ve done everything you asked me to—and you’ve never given me and my friends so much as a goat roast—and then this miserable son of yours comes back after throwing away his whole inheritance on floosies—and you reward him with a feast fit for a prince!”

But the father doesn’t give up—he says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Now this parable of all parables invites us to consider that there are many ways of being lost.

One can be lost by leaving home ill-prepared and half-cocked—one can be lost in defiance, rebellion, youthful arrogance and impulsiveness, infatuation with a walk on the wild side, as seems to have been the case with the prodigal son.

This is an obvious, conspicuous way of being lost.

But there are other, more subtle ways of being lost.

One can be lost by staying home—one can be lost in conformity and doing what’s expected—one can be lost in the pursuit of security and approval—one can be lost in responsibility and virtue, in being a good boy—or girl, the way the elder son was lost.

Virtue seems to be a tricky thing for us mortals.

We seem to be habitually prone to the delusion that we are the sole authors and creators of our own virtue—that out of our own personal fund of will and determination we have single-handedly fashioned our virtues and talents—and thus we have every right to take credit for the motivation and perseverance that have served us well and to feel a certain moral superiority as we compare ourselves to those noticeably deficient in such virtues.

There’s a New Yorker cartoon by William Hamilton in which two robust, fashionably attired gentleman are conversing over cocktails—and one says, “To me, a have-not is someone who just doesn’t have what it takes.”

I was talking to a physician at a party one evening—he told me he had been born on the wrong side of the tracks and through his own initiative and stubborn persistence had surpassed the expectations of relatives, teachers and peers by not only graduating from college but going on to medical school—and thus, he said, he had little tolerance for those who fell back on excuses and ended up, as he put it, “being a drain on the system.”

Ah, yes, I thought—but what assets and resources was he overlooking that had blessed him on his way—had he had crack-free pre-natal care with adequate nutrition?—was his DNA laden with certain talents waiting to be tapped?—had he been held, rocked, and cared for as an infant?—was his upbringing free of abuse?—what relatives, friends, and mentors had encouraged him to do his homework, apply for a grant, etc.?—what were the countless forms of unexpected help and assurance—we call them grace— that had fortified and sustained him?

In one of his letters, Paul writes, “What do you have that you did not receive?”

Paul seems to be saying that whatever our virtues might be, they are always preceded by gifts that enable their fruition.

If we’re able to show up for a job every day, which means enduring a goodly amount of drudgery and frustration, is it not because others have taught us how, usually from a very early age on?

If we find ourselves wanting to be honest and generous, is it not because various crucial figures in our personal history have embodied these qualities and have nurtured and cultivated them in us?

Yes, of course, we are accountable for our choices and decisions—but the very ability to choose realistically, discerningly, wisely, is also a gift.

So if we take our lead from Paul, we might say that to the extent that we’re able to be trustworthy, the appropriate response is not, why can’t he or she be more like me?, but rather, “Thank God that wanting to be trustworthy has somehow been born in me.”

The elder brother in our parable is lost in his own sense of virtue.

He feels morally superior to his ne’er do well sibling—whereas, if he were following Paul’s advice, he might just feel overwhelmingly grateful that he had the good sense not to wander down that same blind alley.

Maybe he thinks that his kid brother got away with something—that while he was slaving away at home, the little punk went off and had a high old time making whoopee.

But actually the prodigal son didn’t get away with anything—he paid for his little adventure in spades—it sounds like he had about as much fun as that character in the Bill Cosby skit who’s clutching the toilet bowl after an all night drinking bout and, in the midst of retching, says, “This is what I worked all week for!”

The elder brother thinks his virtue, his superior moral performance, has earned him a reward, a pay off, special recognition, preferential treatment—that he deserves to be the sole object of fatherly affection.

But he’s got this all wrong—the only bona fide reason for being faithful, for being generous and compassionate, is that it’s the way of abundant life for oneself and others—the only reason for being faithful is that it’s intrinsically rewarding and life-giving to oneself and others.

And this is where that old Latin saying, “Virtue herself is her own fairest reward,” actually applies, a lesson lost on the elder son.

In this parable that we can never fully fathom or exhaust, Jesus casts a wide net of forgiveness for all who are lost.

The younger son who went away and was lost in rebellion and debauchery is forgiven and a feast is given in his honor.

The elder son who stayed home and was lost in his virtue is also forgiven and invited to the feast.

And not only they are forgiven and invited—as we say in the General Confession, “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

Each of us, it seems, has a way of getting lost, of pursuing the wrong dreams, of getting caught up in foolish and misguided entanglements, of becoming alienated from siblings or children or parents or colleagues or friends, of “following too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

Jesus seems to be telling us that the kingdom of God is like a feast, a dance of great revelry and merry making, to which everyone who is in any way lost is invited—and to step on to this dance floor and join the whirling, swirling throng of jubilant dancers is to be both forgiven and found—or maybe better, to join this dance is to know oneself as both lost and found.

The NCAA basketball tournament, as many of you know, is referred to as “the Big Dance.”

Actually that’s a misnomer because the real “Big Dance” is the dance of the kingdom, the dance of forgiveness.

Did the elder brother finally relent and throw himself into the celebration?

We don’t know—but he has a standing invitation and so do we.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
4 Lent
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio


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