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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A helpful insight on the Prodigal Parable

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-sonI recently finished reading Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a dual contemplation of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name and Jesus’ parable upon which it was based.

Within his book, Nouwen shares many great reflections that are likely familiar to you from the multiple sermons, devotionals, and teachings you’ve heard through the years on the oft-taught parable—the younger brother discovering his father’s love, the older brother realizing he is not forgotten in his father’s love, the father throwing dignity to the wind to share with his sons his loving and joyful heart.  There were many fine and thoughtful insights throughout the book (and for that reason is well worth the read), but there was one I had never heard before that touched me very deeply.  Nouwen himself, having already spent years contemplating the painting, the parable, and what God conveys through them, hadn’t thought of it, either.

It was pointed out to him during a difficult season of his life while he wondered if he should continue ministering at a community for the handicapped.  While speaking with a friend of his, Sue Mosteller, he was postulating whether he was more like the younger son or the elder.  She eventually commented “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father.”

Nouwen said her words struck him like a thunderbolt.  She continued “You have been looking for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right.  The time has come to claim your true vocation—to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return.  Look at the father in your painting and you will know who you are called to be.  We, at Daybreak, and most people around you don’t need you to be a good friend or even a kind brother.  We need you to be a father who can claim for himself the authority of true compassion.”

For many years, I’ve also lived from a position of one who is seeking affirmation.  By trying to be the perfect son, a good older brother, or the best kind of friend, I’ve longingly searched for acknowledgment of my existence and the affirmation of my worth.  In the deepest sense, I long to be loved.  Oddly, I know that I am, and yet I frantically continue the search.  It’s as if continually living from a position of one who continuously needs affirmation repeatedly prevents me from being affirmed.  Like with Morpheus’ quip, it’s like I’m trying to draw strength from my weakness.  If I really wish to experience the strength of affirmation, I must experience it from the stronger position of one who gives it to those in need of it.  Therefore, while the short term result of Jesus’ parable is how two brothers reclaim their sonship in their father’s joyful presence, the long term outcome may be that of sons who grow up into fathers themselves, reflecting in their character the love and joy of the father whose compassion shaped it in them.

Such an outcome can be our own if we take the love we’ve received as God’s sons and daughters and through it step up to take our place as fathers and mothers from whose hands of blessing flows the compassion that welcomes back the hungry hearts who’ve been longing for their home.

Kingdom righteousness in the context of divorce | Matthew 5:31-32

In his continuing commentary on embodying kingdom righteousness, Jesus turns to the topic of divorce, saying “It was said ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’…”

This is a partial quotation of Deuteronomy 24:1 which says “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens if she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house…”

This was not a part of the original law God gave to the Israelites. When Moses repeated the law to the people near the end of his life, knowing their stubbornness, he made this allotment for divorce. Before Jesus’ time, a debate had developed around this passage as two leading Pharisees, Hilell and Shammai, differed on how to interpret. Hilell asserted “if she finds no favor in his eyes” meant that men could divorce their wives for any displeasing reason, such as burning toast! Shammai, however, stipulated that phrase was contingent upon her “indecency”, or sexually immoral or adulterous acts she may have committed. Hillel and Shammai’s differing interpretations framed this debate for generations; eventually prevailing opinion during Jesus’ time and the future sided with Hilell, asserting a man could divorce his wife for almost any displeasure.

In a sense, this popular interpretation modified Deuteronomy 24:1 with user-friendliness to enable men to get their way should their marriages not be working out how they preferred, making satisfaction of the self the center of how they understood marriage. It was an understanding Jesus would correct. He continued “but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Notice how Jesus shifts the conversation focus away from Moses’ allowance of divorce or the presumed cultural acceptance of divorce to the adultery or corruption it induces. Exactly what is it about marriage that divorce corrupts?

An extensive Scriptural discussion, of Ephesians 5:22-33 in particular, reveals marriages are designed to project the redemptive relationship between Christ and his redeemed people, the church. As God subjects all of life to his kingdom reality, which includes the redemption of roles and relationships, marriages are now portrayals and practicums through which kingdom reality is learned and understood. Husbands and wives are to embody their roles as depictions of kingdom righteousness, “so that He might sanctify her…that she would be holy and blameless.” Men learn to be husbands by loving their wives as Christ loved the church; women learn to be wives by responding to this Christ-centered love as those sanctified for Christ-centered service. Husbands and wives learn to serve Christ by serving each other; they learn to be the church by serving each other. Their marriage proclaims the redemptive reality of Christ and his church in how they serve each other. The sacred oneness in marriage is everyday covenant exercise for abiding in sanctified oneness with God.

Divorce corrupts this sanctification. Wives in this time and culture normally needed a husband in order to survive; being divorced by her husband would likely cause her to remarry, corrupting the sanctified oneness she had been cultivating in her first marriage. And if the husband remarried, he also would be corrupting the sanctified oneness he was to cultivate in his marriage to the wife he had divorced. To Jesus, corrupting the sanctification of a spouse or our own sanctification was reason enough to not get divorced.

This seems to be the only point Jesus wishes to underscore with his divorce comments. While this cultural debate fixated on divorce and what its legitimate reasons were, Jesus is restoring sanctification to the heart of marriage. The goal of marriage is not to avoid divorce; the goal is to embody kingdom righteousness in every aspect of your marriage.

We go into and through marriage with a lot of hopes and expectations, many of which either don’t work out or go a lot differently than imagined. We eventually come upon the realization that marriage does not completely satisfy. Sometimes we resist that realization, sometimes we adjust to the disappointments, and sometimes we begin to consider divorce as a gateway to starting anew. Jesus wants us to see our marriages in view of what God wants to do through them. Scripture frames marriage as a form of discipleship, a communal context in which we cultivate the holy character of Christ. Marriages are a wonderful opportunity to experience satisfaction, but they exist to bring us into sanctification.

Marriage teaches us how to be the church. Being the church starts and is sustained at home, when husbands and wives put Christ and his holy character at the center of how they actually do marriage. That means husbands letting their Self be crucified in order to lead and serve his family in the likeness of Jesus. That means the wife following the lead of her crucified servant husband, participating in the good works they live out together. As they do life together, sanctification shapes their relationship to proclaim the redemption Christ is cultivating amongst his church, the reality in which God wants all relationships to be rooted.