The Elder Brother Speaks

How many of us are tired of hearing the redemption testimony? You know the one I am talking about. The allegedly former reprobate stands up in church and delivers a long drawn out speech about how much fun they had until God took a hand in affairs and made them see the light. It gets tiresome when you watch people dry their eyes and shout amen and praises to the almighty during these times. One gets the impression that such folk are really just sorry that they missed out on something good.

Some years ago, a class member brought up how annoying it is to hear someone who spent his or her life doing wrong being praised when a person (like me) has been struggling to do the right thing and receives nothing in return.

Now perhaps you will say something to the effect of, “you did the right thing/virtue is its’ own reward/what you want a medal?” or scold this person for being uncharitable. But, before we dismiss goodness let us consider the point of our teaching and actions.

We want people to act in righteous ways. We do not want people to act in unrighteous ways. We want people to repent of unrighteous ways. And we teach that repentance involves doing new righteous things. This includes acting in humility. We do not want a person to make a spectacle of him or her self in giving details of past unrighteousness (and heaven forbid even smiling at fond memories). Many congregations in different denominations practice “testifying” as part of our revivalist heritage. Such activities serve a cathartic purpose for us. We get into the emotional tug of the person’s story. And yet, that is all it is. No one wants his or her child to grow up in such a way that it takes a near disaster to bring that person to God. Yet, that was the message my friend got in her upbringing in church.

The elder brother is almost always condemned open-ended when we tell the story of the prodigal son. However, Jesus left the story . Did the elder brother go in to celebrate? Maybe not. Did the father’s patient work continue? Likely so. It is impossible to teach compassion as one would teach mathematics or any academic subject. Compassion is a virtue of maturity. It is a virtue of practice. It is based on the virtues of courage and humility. It is an outgrowth of love. It is also a recognition of these attributes in the person needing forgiveness. The prodigal does not come home demanding forgiveness and restoration. He does not share his bad actions with his father. He merely wants a place to live and eat. He will serve in order to have those things.

The elder brother is the one who wants to give the father an accounting of what the younger son did. The father has tried to teach his son the practice of charity and patience. The younger son remembers the servants in his father’s house are well cared for. The elder brother has not learned this yet. The crisis of the story for the elder brother is that the father’s compassion is not understood and is offensive to the elder brother (perhaps it is even offensive to the servants). The elder brother is right in that he has been an obedient son. He misunderstands that the father’s charity has been practiced toward him all his life. He has yet to see it.

The practice of testifying negates the intended effect of this parable. The prodigal son does not seek to be a spectacle. He already is one. He does not want it any more. The person offering a testimony to drag everyone else through the muck of his sins has been encouraged by the congregation (and clergy) that loves spectacle to be the spectacle. It is better to not tie that millstone around someone’s neck for our entertainment. Such actions lead to pride and not humility.  We are not our past sins. We are forgiven and encouraged to do better. In the Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne became a blessing to her village. Most people conveniently forgot what her letter A originally meant.