“The older brother became angry and refused to go in.”

Anger and Superiority

Jesus often speaks of sin and salvation under the metaphors of being “lost” and “found.” Chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel contains three parables that Jesus tells to the religious leaders. The first is about a shepherd who discovers that one of his sheep is lost. The second parable is about a woman who discovers that one of her coins is lost. As we have seen, the third parable is about two sons who are, in different ways, both lost. Elsewhere, Jesus summarizes his ministry as a rescue operation, coming “to seek and save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10).

What does it mean to be spiritually lost? In the parable, the younger brother’s lostness is clearly seen when he ends up in the pigsty. He has run out of friends, money, and resources because of his self-indulgent, undisciplined, and foolish behavior. It has led to a complete life collapse. At that point, the younger brother realizes that he has “lost his way” and returns to try to rebuild his life.

However, in this parable Jesus wants us to discern another, more subtle, but no less devastating form of lostness. Once we have Jesus’s deeper definition of sin we should be able to recognize it, and it is crucial that we do. We will call it “elder-brother lostness.” It brings as much misery and strife into the world as the other kind. A closer look at the elder brother helps us discern its features.

We see that the elder brother “became angry.” All of his words are dripping with resentment. The first sign you have an elder-brother spirit is that when your life doesn’t go as you want, you aren’t just sorrowful but deeply angry and bitter. Elder brothers believe that if they live a good life they should get a good life, that God owes them a smooth road if they try very hard to live up to standards.

What happens, then, if you are an elder brother and things go wrong in your life? If you feel you have been living up to your moral standards, you will be furious with God. You don’t deserve this, you will think, after how hard you’ve worked to be a decent person! What happens, however, if things have gone wrong in your life when you know that you have been falling short of your standards? Then you will be furious with yourself, filled with self-loathing and inner pain. And if evil circumstances overtake you, and you are not sure whether your life has been good enough or not, you may swing miserably back and forth between the poles of “I hate Thee!” and “I hate me.”

Elder brothers’ inability to handle suffering arises from the fact that their moral observance is results-oriented. The good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment.

Elisabeth Elliot recounts an apocryphal story (not in the Bible!) about Jesus that conveys the difference between a results-oriented selfishness and a faithfulness born of love.

One day Jesus said to his disciples: “I’d like you to carry a stone for Me.” He didn’t give any explanation. So the disciples looked around for a stone to carry, and Peter, being the practical sort, sought out the smallest stone he could possibly find. After all, Jesus didn’t give any regulations for weight and size! So he put it in his pocket. Jesus then said: “Follow Me.” He led them on a journey. About noontime Jesus had everyone sit down. He waved his hands and all the stones turned to bread. He said, “Now it’s time for lunch.” In a few seconds, Peter’s lunch was over. When lunch was done Jesus told them to stand up. He said again, “I’d like you to carry a stone for Me.” This time Peter said, “Aha! Now I get it!” So he looked around and saw a small boulder. He hoisted it on his back and it was painful, it made him stagger. But he said, “I can’t wait for supper.” Jesus then said: “Follow Me.” He led them on a journey, with Peter barely being able to keep up. Around supper time Jesus led them to the side of a river. He said, “Now everyone throw your stones into the water.” They did. Then he said, “Follow Me,” and began to walk. Peter and the others looked at him dumbfounded. Jesus sighed and said, “Don’t you remember what I asked you to do? Who were you carrying the stone for?”

Like Peter, elder brothers expect their goodness to pay off, and if it doesn’t, there is confusion and rage. If you think goodness and decency is the way to merit a good life from God, you will be eaten up with anger, since life never goes as we wish. You will always feel that you are owed more than you are getting. You will always see someone doing better than you in some aspect of life and will ask, “Why this person and not me? After all I’ve done!” This resentment is your own fault. It is caused not by the prosperity of the other person, but by your own effort to control life through your performance. The strong undertow of anger this causes may not turn you into a murderer, as it did Salieri, but it will constantly cause you to lose your footing in various ways.

We also see that the elder brother has a strong sense of his own superiority. He points out how much better his own moral record is than the lover of prostitutes. In disdainful language (“This son of yours …”) he won’t even own his brother as a brother anymore.

Elder brothers base their self-images on being hardworking, or moral, or members of an elite clan, or extremely smart and savvy. This inevitably leads to feeling superior to those who don’t have those same qualities. In fact, competitive comparison is the main way elder brothers achieve a sense of their own significance. Racism and classism are just different versions of this form of the self-salvation project. This dynamic becomes exceptionally intense when elder brothers pride themselves above all for their right religion. If a group believes God favors them because of their particularly true doctrine, ways of worship, and ethical behavior, their attitude toward those without these things can be hostile. Their self-righteousness hides under the claim that they are only opposing the enemies of God. When you look at the world through those lenses, it becomes easy to justify hate and oppression, all in the name of truth. As Richard Lovelace has written:

“[People] who are no longer sure that God loves and accepts them in Jesus, apart from their present spiritual achievements, are subconsciously radically insecure persons.… Their insecurity shows itself in pride, a fierce, defensive assertion of their own righteousness, and defensive criticism of others. They come naturally to hate other cultural styles and other races in order to bolster their own security and discharge their suppressed anger.”

Elder brother self-righteousness not only creates racism and classism, but at the personal level creates an unforgiving, judgmental spirit. This elder brother cannot pardon his younger brother for the way he has weakened the family’s place in society, disgraced their name, and diminished their wealth. He highlights the fact that the younger brother has been with “prostitutes,” while he has been living a chaste life at home. “I would never do anything as bad as that!” he is saying in his heart. Because he does not see himself as being part of a common community of sinners, he is trapped by his own bitterness. It is impossible to forgive someone if you feel superior to him or her.

If you can’t control your temper, and you see someone else losing theirs in exactly the same way that you do, you tend to forgive them, because you know you are no better a person than they. How can I hold this against them when I am just as bad? you think. However, because elder brothers’ sin and antipathy to God is hidden deep beneath layers of self-control and moral behavior, they have no trouble feeling superior to just about anyone. If they see people who lie, or cheat on their wives, or don’t pray to God—they look down on them. If such people wrong them, elder brothers feel their spotless record gives them the right to be highly offended and to perpetually remind the wrongdoer of his or her failure.

A classic example of this is the marriage of an alcoholic. The alcoholic repeatedly lets down his family in dramatic ways. As a result of her suffering, the addict’s wife often develops an enormous amount of self-pity and self-righteousness. The spouse bails him out and yet holds the record of his sins constantly over his head. This leads to more self-loathing on the part of the alcoholic, which is part of why he drinks. It is a seductive, destructive cycle. It may be that the elder brother, to bolster his own image of himself, needed a chronically wayward sibling to criticize, and the smug older brother only made it harder for the younger to admit his problems and change his life. When the younger son comes out of his denial, and the father welcomes him, the elder brother realizes that the pattern is being broken, and his fury is white-hot.

If the elder brother had known his own heart, he would have said, “I am just as self-centered and a grief to my father in my own way as my brother is in his. I have no right to feel superior.” Then he would have had the freedom to give his brother the same forgiveness that his father did. But elder brothers do not see themselves this way. Their anger is a prison of their own making.

Keller, Timothy. 2008. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. 1st ed. New York: Dutton.

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