Why the prodigal son needed his older brother

Monday night I watched the season three finale of “Better Call Saul”, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s wonderful prequel series to their incomparable “Breaking Bad” series. Through consistent simmering narrative, we gradually learn what is pushing the likable elder-law lawyer Jimmy McGill towards becoming the amoral scumbag Saul Goodman who protects and defends Albuquerque’s criminals. Naturally, it has to do with his relationship to his brother. His older brother, Charles McGill, a brilliant and well accomplished attorney, has bailed his younger brother out of more trouble than he’d like through the years. After years of frustration and resentment towards Jimmy for bending and breaking the rules to get ahead, as well as for being their mother’s favorite, Chuck uses his career and knowledge of the law as a way to hold Jimmy to a higher standard. But when Jimmy makes an honest effort to do better in life by becoming a good lawyer and man, Chuck’s resentment spills over as he believes his brother doesn’t deserve either. He grows dismissive of Jimmy, hindering his every honest effort, while condescendingly explaining he only wants what’s best for him.

In Monday night’s season finale, his journey to the dark side got a big push. When Jimmy tries to make amends with Chuck over a recent discord, in a moment where Chuck’s own life is falling apart, Chuck goes off. He tells Jimmy “Why have regrets at all? What’s the point? You’re just going to keep hurting people. This is what you do. In the end, you’re going to hurt everyone around you; you can’t help it. So stop apologizing and accept it, embrace it. You don’t have to make up with me; things are fine the way they are. The truth is, you’ve never mattered that much to me.”

The sad irony is that for all of Chuck’s speeches of how the law is something to be respected and handled by good people to keep the world in check, his own resentment and disparagement may be precisely what drives Jimmy to become the criminal lawyer who would enable so much pain and sadness.

Why am I going on about a TV show? It made me think of the “prodigal son” parable. You know the story. Having demanded, then wasted his father’s inheritance on frivolities, the younger son realizes his mistakes, is ashamed, and returns home simply hoping for the mercy of a job. Instead his father gracefully restores him to sonship, celebrating with a feast. The older brother refuses to participate, telling his father that all this time he stayed, worked, and has never been celebrated like this. His father tells him “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”

Obviously the father wants his older son to understand grace, but why? To simply enjoy a party? Perhaps, but for a much broader purpose. How the older brother reacts to his younger brother would set the tone for all that would happen after. The father has already set a public tone of grace; if the older brother’s reaction contradicts that grace, it will have a damaging impact on the tone his father set, as well as the already damaged younger brother. If we were to let the story play out logically, one day when their father would no longer be there, the whole estate would belong to the older son and the younger brother’s fate would greatly depend on his older brother. How would he then treat him? His father wants him to get grace now so he’ll give grace later; that by the time comes when his younger brother is at his mercy, he’ll have chosen to embody the grace they both learned from their father by building him up rather than breaking him down.

Like the younger brother we all feverishly want something that’s ours, something that gives us meaning, a place or group to belong, a chance to become someone that others value. The younger brother would come to eventually find all those things at home, through a reality perpetuated in the grace given by his father. Would his brother continue to build on that? Jesus never says, perhaps because he wants our lives to be the answer to that question.

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