Have you ever watched a Disney movie and sympathized with the villain? Something in you is like “It’s okay Scar, you’re just misunderstood… I see you and your hyenas boo. You ain’t that bad.”
When I assigned this week’s theme (“Which character resonates most deeply with you in Christ’s parables/stories?”) to your Hopers, I was more than a little bit jazzed to write about it because something in me was excited to share with you the hard work of conviction and transformation that had been stemming in my heart as I’d chewed on it for a long while.
WELL GUESS WHAT!? NOW I DON’T WANNA TALK ABOUT IT.
Insert crossed arms and furrowed brow of annoyance.
I don’t wannnnaaaaaaaaa.
Because, frankly, I don’t feel like letting you in under my skin and into the transparency of truth-telling this whole thing is going to require… damn devotional website that champions authenticity she mumbles under her breath.
OK OK. It’s the prodigal son.
Remember that one?
So, as we see in Luke 15, Jesus is on earth roaming and teaching, and at this moment the tax collectors and sinners and such are all drawing near to him for some story-telling. The Pharisees and the scribes are grumbling, but hopefully most were listening…
Well as youngins most of us heard that tale time and again, always cautioning us against the likelihood that as upper-middle class white kids we’d grow up to be ungrateful jerks like the prodigal son. Ad naseum I heard this story – in youth group, high school chapels, Bible college lessons, etc. But that wasn’t my issue. Oh sure, absolutely there have been moments where I’ve demanded what I didn’t earn, squandered it, faced consequences, and also sometimes been shown grace, but these days that scene of two brothers makes me itch for a different reason.
“And he said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
Maybe we’re supposed to look at the older brother and see his bitterness, jealousy, and anger and we’re supposed to shake our heads at his obvious sin. But I don’t. I can’t. Because I am the older brother. Maybe we have different parts under our bathing suits, but apart from that – every bit of him mirrors me.
I am the oldest, with three younger brothers, and over the years I’ve watched them get stuff and praise and love and affirmation and good things that I haven’t gotten. I’ve rarely been glad to see them on a pedestal. I’ve sulked and cried and stormed off. It’s been ugly on more than one occasion. Because I’ve always tried to be the good kid. I was the only 14 year old I know who grounded myself when I thought I’d misbehaved. I got a Ford Taurus, the only car I said I specifically really didn’t want, and my brother got a black BMW. I had to pick a school in either Indiana, Illinois, or Ohio. All three of my brothers went to school in Southern California. My parents flew across the country for a sports game or competition and I sat alone in my room when I couldn’t get them to drive the 55 miles to visit.
And I repeated these stories over and over and over in my brain to convince myself that I was not only less-loved, but unloved and unwanted.
Here’s the problem… when you’re fully convinced, rightly so or not, that your earthly parents don’t love you and don’t want you – it’s neigh on impossible to believe a ‘Heavenly Father’ loves you mightily and perfectly.
And then it gets worse! You read verses that say things like “Ask and it shall be given unto you.” “Seek and you shall find.” “He delights in giving His children good gifts.” “He will give you the desires of your hearts” … and all the other watercolored graphics you see splashed on Pinterest.
So you ask. And you don’t get.
You seek. And you don’t find.
AND THEN IT GETS WORSE!
Those desires of your heart?
Not only do you not get them, someone else does!
And it’s someone you know!
Someone who hasn’t asked as boldly or as loudly or as often as you have. Someone who hasn’t begged and pleaded as long as you have. Someone who hasn’t hurt or suffered as much as you have.
SO WHAT THEN!?
I don’t know.
I wish I did.
I have people in my life that love Jesus who have never suffered and it makes me angry and I have people in my life that have only suffered a little bit for a little while and they get everything they’ve ever wanted quickly and in abundance.
I’ve been scooping up shit in the barn, way past overtime for that week’s work, and watched the fatted calf rolled out for a brother or a friend and instead of dropping my shovel to run out and celebrate their good news – I’ve sulked until the shit smells better than my attitude.
Unless! Unless in my finite brain I’ve determined that they ‘deserve it’ … if they’ve actually walked through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ or had hopes die more often than mine have, well then I am the first to unroll the streamers and toss the confetti.
I’ve made myself God and I’ve given myself the grand appointment of determining who deserves what gifts – when and how much.
It certainly hasn’t helped my relationships – I’m always on the lookout for someone getting something I should be getting. It certainly hasn’t helped my walk with God when I have extra ‘reasons’ to think He’s a bad dad. It certainly hasn’t helped my state of hopelessness when every good thing or good answer provided for His other kids ‘proves’ my unworthiness.
And I don’t have an answer.
I don’t know how to make it better.
The last ten years I’ve disciplined myself to celebrate, and while it’s helped with my friendships it hasn’t helped me like my Father any more. Every celebration is a reminder that He doesn’t like me. Doesn’t want me. And that’s the narrative I’ve recited for twenty-something years.
Ugly to write about, scary to share, and frustrating to not tell you that I’ve fixed the problem.
When you read this story who do you resonate with? The hurting big brother who lashes out in bitterness? (But I don’t think he’s a bad guy…) The little brother whose greed almost ruins his family? The father who hands out grace freely and with abandon?
I hope that that father who loves so well is a Father whose robe we feel around our shoulders and whose kiss we feel warmly on our foreheads… whether we deserve it or have earned it and especially if we most certainly have not.