The Lost Son Who Never Left

Imagining the Older Brother’s Return

I have a story I want to share with you, based on another you likely know. Jesus tells the original in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, and many have called it “the parable of the prodigal son,” though it’s actually about two rebellious sons.

Jesus’s parable requires no literary embellishments. The more I’ve meditated on this story over the decades, the more of Jesus’s brilliance I’ve seen in the parable exactly as Luke records it. I wasn’t moved to write my story by some delusion of self-grandeur, but as an attempt to enter into the parable, something I believe Jesus invites all of us to do.

As we age and our roles and relationships evolve, we are likely to see ourselves and others in the parable’s different characters. Whether we see ourselves more in the younger brother or the older brother, Jesus is calling us to think deeply about what it means for God to be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8) — not only as it relates to us, but as it relates to how we judge other younger or older brothers.

A lot of teaching is contained in this one parable. It is part of what makes the parable of the two sons, in its profound simplicity, a work of genius. I wouldn’t want to change a word. That said, I’d like to share with you the way I’ve sought to engage my imagination as a means of meditation by putting myself in the parable. In the following story, I imagine myself primarily as the older brother, who is trying to come to terms with the seriousness of his own sin.

The story takes place the day after the younger brother’s homecoming, sometime in the early afternoon. The older brother (whom I’ve named Judah) is standing on a small rise at the edge of the family property, gazing down the road that had guided his younger brother (whom I’ve named Benjamin) back home the day before. Ben has kept his distance from Jude, knowing how angry his older brother had been the night before. But wishing to somehow own up to his disastrous sin, Ben seeks Jude out and tentatively approaches him.

Prodigal’s Point

“Hey, Jude,” Ben said. “Am I interrupting anything?”

Judah glanced at his brother, then returned his eyes to the road. “Just my thoughts,” he said.

Ben was trying to get a read on his brother. “I can connect with you later, if this isn’t a good time,” he said. “I’d like to talk for a few minutes — if you’re willing.”

Judah shifted his gaze to the ground. “I guess this is as good a time as any,” he said.

Ben had rehearsed this moment many times in his mind. But now, nerves and the palpable tension muddled his thoughts. “I . . . um . . . I’m sure I’m not going to say this right, but I’m going to try. I know how angry you must be with me, and God knows you have good reason to be angry with me. And I know that nothing I could say will ever undo what I’ve done. I should be kicked out of the family. So, if you want to disown me, I understand. But I still . . . somehow . . .” Ben paused to quiet the sobs that wanted to come. “I want you to know how sorry I am for what I’ve done to you and to Dad and to the family’s honor through my . . . my terrible selfishness.”

For a few moments, Judah said nothing. Then, looking back down the road, he said, “The day you left, this is where Dad stood, watching you till you were out of sight. And he came back here so often that I started calling this place ‘Prodigal’s Point.’ If someone couldn’t find Dad, I’d say, ‘Check Prodigal’s Point.’ He never stopped hoping he’d see you coming back home.”

Ben squeezed his eyes, but still had to wipe the tears.

Judah glanced at him again. “Yeah, I know. Our poor father and his prodigal sons.”

“Prodigal son, you mean,” replied Ben quietly. “Only one of us fits that bill.”

“A few weeks ago, I would have agreed. Yesterday morning, I would have at least pretended to agree,” said Judah. “But not today.”

Disoriented, Ben asked, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, Dad has two prodigal sons,” said Judah. “One who sailed off down that road to sow his wild oats in worldly fields, and one who stayed home to sow his wild oats in more respectable fields.”

“I’m not following you,” said Ben.

Sinful Secret

“You just apologized for all the damage you did to me, right?” said Judah.

Ben gave him a perplexed nod.

“Well, the truth is, I didn’t feel damaged by what you did; I felt vindicated,” said Judah. “I thought I was so much like Dad. He worked hard; I worked hard. He was careful with his money; I was careful with my money. When you took off to blow your inheritance on whatever your heart desired, you didn’t damage me; you made me look good. You were a scandal. But me? I was the upstanding, responsible, faithful, diligent son — a chip off the old block. You didn’t damage me. You embellished me.”

“Well, it was deserved,” said Ben. “I mean, obviously you’ve been a better son to Dad than I’ve been.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too,” said Judah. “At least at first.” Then, looking at Ben, he said, “But here’s the secret: it wasn’t true. It started to dawn on me before you came home. I started noticing how not like Dad I was. I’d have my hand to the plough, and then I’d see him up here gazing into the distance, hoping to see you. It used to really irritate me. You know why?”

Ben shook his head.

“If you had asked me at the time, I would have said it was because Dad staring down the road wasn’t going to bring you back. That he was wasting valuable time. But that wasn’t the real reason. It made me angry because when I saw Dad longing for you, it felt to me like he missed you more than he appreciated me. Like he didn’t value all I was doing for him. Like he didn’t think our relationship was special, like I did.” Judah paused, looking at the ground.

Ben said, “Jude, there’s no doubt that Dad valued —” Judah cut him off. “No, let me finish. It’s just embarrassing to say out loud. You know, Dad asked me a few times to join him up here so we could pray for you together. That irritated me in the same way. At first, I made convenient excuses, but finally I told him what I really thought. I told him he could pray for you if he wanted, but I wasn’t going to waste another minute on you. And that if you had squandered all that hard-earned money, I never wanted to see you again.” Judah closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “God . . . have mercy. What a horrible thing to say.”

Loveless Anger Can’t Be Righteous

“I can understand why you felt that way,” said Ben.

“Well, Dad couldn’t,” said Judah. “What I said grieved him deeply — because he loved you. And his grief made me angrier, because — I’m ashamed to admit it — because I didn’t love you.” Judah paused and dropped his eyes. “In fact, I don’t think I loved Dad, at least not like I should have loved him. I loved me, though it still took a while for me to see this. I still thought my anger toward you was justified, righteous even.”

“I’m sure it was, at least in part,” said Ben.

Judah shook his head. “I’m pretty sure none of it was. You know, I asked Dad once why he wasn’t more angry with you. He said it was because ‘the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Psalm 103:8). I took this as Dad avoiding coming to terms with what you did and trying to use Scripture to make it look holy. So I reminded him that other Scriptures clearly show that God gets angry over sin, and so should we. To which he said something like, ‘When men get angry, God’s righteousness is rarely seen.’

“I said to him, ‘So, we’re never supposed to get angry. Ben can walk off to only God knows where with all that money you worked so hard for, blow it on whores and whatever else, and we’re not supposed to get angry? We’re just supposed to bow our heads and meekly pray that God brings him back home? I don’t think so!’

“Dad said, ‘I’m not saying we shouldn’t be angry. But the Scriptures say, “Be angry, and do not sin”’ (Psalm 4:4). I wanted to pull my hair out. ‘Tell me what you think that’s supposed to mean, Dad!’ I don’t think I’ll ever forget his answer. He said, ‘Jude, I’ve been trying to figure that out for decades. And, honestly, I don’t know if I’m getting the balance right with Ben. But what I do know is this: if God’s mercy and grace and steadfast love make him slow to anger toward his sinful children — of which I am one — then when my children sin, that’s what I want them to experience from me.’”

Both men were quiet for a moment. Then Judah said, “That’s when I realized loveless anger cannot be righteous anger. It’s also when I realized just how not like Dad I was, not to mention just how not like God I was.”

The Other Prodigal

After another pause, Judah said, “But you know, at least I hadn’t blown my inheritance and ruined my reputation, right? That was something! Maybe I wasn’t as godly as Dad, but I was still better than you! Or so I thought . . . till you came home. Then Dad threw you your big party and invited everyone, and everybody was celebrating the dead brother who came back to life. Everybody except me. I was angry — at you, at Dad, at God, at everyone at the party. I knew my anger wasn’t righteous, and I didn’t care. When Dad came out and pleaded with me to join the party, I lashed out at him. I was mean. No way was I going into that house. I wasn’t happy to see you. And I wanted to make Dad feel bad.”

Ben couldn’t help but cringe at these words. They were hard to hear. But they were harder for Judah to say.

Judah went on. “It wasn’t until Dad had gone back in the house and I was alone with myself that I saw the whole ugly truth: all my efforts over the years to please Dad, all my hard work, all the time I was pouring into everything I did — none of it was really for Dad’s sake. Or for God’s sake. It was all for my sake. My anger toward you and toward Dad, it was all about meme not getting the recognition I craved and me having my shameful selfishness exposed. And it suddenly hit me: I was as much a prodigal as you had been. I was blowing my inheritance on myself as I chased my heart’s desires. I was doing it in more socially commendable ways, but they were just as selfish at the core. And I was as distant from Dad as you had been.”

Returning Home

Ben wanted to say something, but no words came. This conversation had gone wildly different from the ones he’d rehearsed.

Judah wasn’t quite done though. “Now look at us, you and me. How fitting: two prodigals standing here on Prodigal’s Point. But how ironic: the wandering prodigal has come home, while the homebound prodigal has not. That’s why you found me here, Ben. I’ve been trying to get up the nerve to return home.”

Ben, simultaneously laughing and crying, said, “Well, Jude, if you’re looking for an experienced guide, I’m your man — having recently become something of an expert in returning home. But I should warn you: when you speak to Dad, you won’t get more than a few words out before you find yourself swept away in a current of fatherly affection.”

“Yeah, I know,” Judah said, smiling. “Our father and his prodigal sons. But before you so expertly guide me home, I need to say something to you, and I’m probably not going to say it right. But forgive me, Ben, for what I’ve done to you through my terrible, sinful selfishness.”

Ben’s wordless bear hug was all the response Judah needed.