Tuesday, April 07, 2009
"The Elder Brother Syndrome"
Last week I wrote in my blog about the benefits that a certain amount of failure brings to our own and our children’s faith journey. I read a book a few days ago called “Prodigal God” by Timothy Keller that has reinforced that idea for me, as well as given me a new perspective on the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.
I think we have all been conditioned to read this story as a story that demonstrates God’s compassion and mercy for the younger brother. The younger brother is the one who selfishly squandered his wealth (younger brothers in that culture received half of what the elder brothers were entitled to) but after reading Keller’s book I believe that Jesus is aiming his story to each of us who have elder brother tendencies.
The two brothers represent two wrong ways that we try to find happiness. The younger brother represents self-discovery and the elder brother represents moral conformity. Our western society is deeply divided between these two approaches. The obvious foolish way is the younger brother’s self-centered, self-discovery. He told his father, “I don’t want anything to do with you. I don’t even want to wait for you to die. Just give me my stuff and I will go and do my own thing.”
But we are not able to see as easily the error of the eldest son, who really was the target of this parable. Remember one thing, that the elder brother had a “right” to be angry, in a sense. By the father taking back his brother and restoring him to full sonship after squandering his inheritance, he just got his inheritance cut in half! (Some of us can relate to that these last six months or so.)
In a very real sense his younger brother’s gain was his loss. He had done everything right and now he felt he was being unfairly treated because of his father’s forgiveness and welcome of his wayward brother.
The elder brother represents the religious, those who jump through all the hoops, people who believe that by being faithful and doing their religious duty God now owes them. At the end of the story the elder brother’s heart was revealed as just as self-centered as the younger brother with one important difference—he was blind to his own sin of self-righteous pride. He was blind to the heart of his father and the distant relationship he had with his father. He was blind to the fact that he had become a judgmental, critical moralist.
How do elder brothers respond when things don’t go their way?
• They feel cheated by God. They deserve better!
• They want A + B to = C. They want those who hurt them to pay NOW and they want their reward for doing good NOW!
• They feel insecure in being loved by God. They feel that other’s hurtful actions diminish them.
• They obey God to get from God not so they might know God Himself, to become like Him, to delight in Him.
Churches are full of elder brothers. That is why many younger brothers have been turned off to churches. They feel judged and criticized rather than supported and accepted. I believe that most of us have elements of both the elder brother and the younger brother in us. We can easily recognize the younger brother qualities but we tend to be blind to this “elder brother syndrome.” This blindness to our condition is what makes it so dangerous.
“But go and learn what this means, I desire compassion and not sacrifice, for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
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