Once in a while, I make myself enjoy a Saturday that involves zero makeup and yoga pants. This was one of those Saturdays. I was lying on the couch enjoying my third Netflix movie, my sister was sick with a cold upstairs, and the doorbell rang. On the other side of the door stood my sister’s boyfriend with soup in one hand and roses in the other. For me? No, no, for my sister who my family often refers to as the “prodigal daughter.” I thanked him and took his offerings to my sister, as she refused to see him in her state of sickness.
As I walked up the stairs to give her the delivery I began to think to myself, “No one has ever brought me soup. She doesn’t deserve this.” This was the first symptom of what I like to call “other brother syndrome.” These thoughts slowly turned into: “Don’t you see me, God? The church going – bible reading – ministry-mined – never gone to a drunken party – all-around good daughter of yours? It’s me who deserves the boyfriend, dream job, soup and flowers, and (insert blessing here).”
If you have grown up in church, you may be familiar with the story of the prodigal son and might even be able to act out the story on a flannel board if I asked you to. In this story, we often focus on the big moment when the prodigal son returns home to his father and turns away from his life of sin. We awe at the climax of the story when the father runs out to meet his wayward son and kisses and embraces him. If it were a movie, this scene would be the part where dramatic music is played and the world around these two characters freezes. The crowd goes wild. It’s a beautiful story of grace and redemption. The father throws the biggest party and spares no expense. He kills the fattened calf, he brings the finest clothes, and he invites everyone to come and celebrate the return of his son.
When I let the gospel sink deeply into every part of me, I see the fight has already been won.
Somewhere in the background, the other brother of the family hears the music and dancing and his response is marked by bitterness that is far too familiar to me. Luke 15: 28-30 tells us, “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
Though my story of soup and flowers is a far stretch from the fattened calf and the prodigal son, the words that the other brother spoke sting just a little bit when I read them. Those words sting because they act as a mirror into something ugly and destructive inside of me. There was a time in my life that keeping the rules and living a life that looked “good enough” on the outside was where I placed my identity. I tirelessly fought for the approval of God and others around me. I fought so hard to be good enough for God, that I never actually allowed myself to truly need him. When I let the gospel sink deeply into every part of me, I see the fight has already been won. I see a type of grace that smashes the calculator that I have been using to keep track of my rights and their wrongs.
When we shift the story of the prodigal son and shine the spotlight onto the other brother, we see a story that tells us much more than the redemption and return of a wayward child. This story shows us the ugliness of pride and self-righteousness. When Jesus hung on the cross he leveled the playing field for both brothers, the sinner and the saint alike. He saw that both brothers were in need of grace that would supercede any list of good deeds and clean up the dirtiest of sinners. How sweet the cross is when I come back to this reality: I, the older brother, need God. Though my sin may not be as visible, I need God just as much as the brother who ran away.
When Jesus hung on the cross he leveled the playing field for both brothers, the sinner and the saint alike.
There are still moments when I want to sit in the corner and pop the proverbial party balloons that have been filled for the return of the prodigal brother and scream at God, “Why not me? Don’t you see me?” These are the moments when I must remind myself that no matter how hard I try, I could never try hard enough to win God’s approval on my own. I know I am not alone in this. The church I see today is filled with many “other brothers” and “other sisters” stacking up their list of accomplishments and accolades and reminding God what they deserve.
If you are tired, frustrated and bitter from the pursuit of being good enough, I would ask that you rest in grace and that you cease your striving. I pray that God reminds you of your depravity and your need for him, and the words “he was lost but now is found” would ring just as sweetly for you. Older brothers and sisters, may we join the party and run after our brother that has returned home. Let’s be the ones who are cheering the loudest as our Father goes running after him. Let’s serve ourselves a big ol’ piece of fattened calf and dance in the goodness of the grace that has drawn both the prodigal and the older brother back home.
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Image credit: Craig Sunter (Thanx a Million!), Creative Commons