“A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.” Luke 15:11-13
I’ve heard many different takes on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Generally, it is the older brother who comes in for the harshest judgement. The prodigal represents those who return to God, humbled by sin, while the older brother who stayed home is depicted as unforgiving and lacking in grace.
I have a more sympathetic view of the older brother. He reminds me of George Bailey from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” When we are first introduced to George as a young adult, he has saved up enough money to travel the world on a tramp steamer. Shopping for a trunk, he blusters to the shop owner “I want something for a thousand and one nights with plenty of room for labels from Italy, Baghdad, and Samarkand.” He tells his dad “I want to do something big and something important. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world.”
On the eve of George’s departure, his father suffers a stroke, and the board of the Bailey Savings and Loan elects George to replace his father. Loyal, responsible George postpones his world tour indefinitely to manage the Savings and Loan, the only place in town where working class people can get an affordable home loan. He gives his school money to his brother Harry and sends him to college.
Harry goes off to college on George’s dime, becomes a football star, marries a rich girl, becomes a WWII flying ace, wins a Congressional Medal of Honor and meets the president. George stays home, a nobody stuck doing what nobody else wants to do.
George doesn’t begrudge Harry his success, proudly handing out copies of the newspaper featuring Harry’s award to everyone he meets. And of course, the whole point of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is that George is“somebody” because he is beloved by all the people of Bedford Falls. Still, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for George. He never got to travel to all those exotic places, or go to college, or become an architect. He didn’t get to do something big.
And that is why I see George Bailey in Jesus’ story. Like George, the older brother must have had dreams. But he stayed home with his father and fulfilled his duty. Unlike the prodigal’s older brother, George doesn’t resent Harry, in fact he’s the one throwing Harry’s homecoming party.
Still, there is a hard little knot of disappointment that his life has turned out this way. We see it flare out when he comes home from the fateful meeting with the bank examiner and loses his temper with Mary and the kids. “Why do we have to live in this drafty old house anyway? Why did we have all these kids?” he rails. George was faithful. He did his duty. And yet his brother gets a Congressional Medal of Honor and he gets, what? Bills, kids, and a dull, predictable life.
It’s the reality of that dull, predictable life that makes the older brother blow his lid when he comes home and hears the music and dancing. The younger brother, the prodigal, runs off to see the world and comes back a rock star. The father runs out to meet the prodigal, gives him a special robe and a ring. That night, at the welcome home party, all eyes must have been on the prodigal as he told about the great caravan he joined in Samarkand, the colorful bazaars of Baghdad, sights and sounds his brother knows he will never experience.
No one is looking at the boring older brother. He doesn’t have anything interesting to tell. He’s never been anywhere.
I know, I’m embellishing the story. After all, the plight of the younger brother was pathetic. He didn’t win the Congressional Medal of Honor like Harry Bailey. He was so hungry, he was lying in a pig stye filling his belly with husks. I understand that the Lord is making a point about the rejoicing in heaven when a lost soul returns to God. But I also think He understands our tragic emotions so well, that he sees the empty heartache of the one who stays home and misses out on an adventurous life. He understands the sore longing in our hearts to do something big, the desperate ticking away of our humdrum lives.
And yet, in the midst of our dull duty, our boring routine, the day in-day out fulfillment of responsibilities we never really asked for, He whispers to us that something big, something important, was always right here. “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” Hear that? We are always with Him, and everything He has is ours.