Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Oh, No--Prodigal Brother Breath

I've got prodigal brother breath. Pray for me?

I sometimes find myself skipping over certain passages in the Bible, such as Jesus' tale of the prodigal son. Are you familiar with the story of the masculine mess? I am, too. Because I’ve read it so many times, I’ve obeyed a pompous voice of presumed Christian maturity in my head that says I should skip over it nowadays. But because recently I wasn't entirely certain it was, in fact, the voice of maturity, I decided to slow down and pay attention. After all, the letters are in red.

In Jesus' story both brothers are a mess. But if I had to wear the shoes of one or the other for a week, frankly, my choice would be the elder brother's Nikes. To me, it’s an easy call. It's not difficult to imagine the ungodly and bad-boy scenes of carousing and raucous laughter embraced by the wandering younger brother. Not good. And as far as messing with the pigs, my sense of decency would be putting on rubber boots and gloves long before I even got near the pen. Count me out. Besides, I'm already acquainted with the first part of his trip—my days at college attest to it—so my personal body guards of been there, done that are working overtime to warn me against the choice.


Working in the field seems the right choice, doesn't it? Almost holy in comparison. Lots of friendly sayings come to mind in support of my decision: Work hard and keep my nose clean. Provide for my family. Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Yeah. That's the stuff.

Trouble is, the Prodigal's end was better than the elder brothers'. Way better. The awful younger brother knew he was a derelict in the truest sense; no home, no job, and a resume full of proven greed, disloyalty and desertion. And what does he get from the father? Congratulations! You're the Grand Prize winner! Let's have a party to celebrate YOU!

Oh, come on. I, the elder brother, would grab a slab of filet mignon and a bottle of cabernet from the buffet (I deserve it more than he does!), and ditch that scene for the fields. At least out there I know how to get stuff done and don't have to go along with this pathetic bunch of free-loaders, living off the gravy of dad's idiotic grace. You can have your party—I've got work to do.

All too often, that's how I live. I don't want to need grace, and work hard to avoid it. Over the last few weeks I have worked slavishly in the field to raise a crop of an efficient and inviting web site, a well-positioned book, and a sparkling speaking tour, all the while ignoring the plea of my Father to come in and party a while. Oh, I've flirted at the edges, well aware of the feast and festivities inside, but there's so much work to do—the delights and pleasures provided by Dad will have to wait.

And shouldn't they? Parties are for when I've succeeded, not for when the work is yet to be finished, or for when I've failed, as the case might be. I'll party when I deserve it—I want to earn my party. I'll stay at arms length from dad until I'm proud of my report card. No party for now.

Isn't that crazy? But that's the elder brother's approach—a quiet pledge of perfection. He assumes that he has dad’s approval and that dad is happy enough with him out in the field, working within earshot of the party.

As far as I know, the prodigal son never said a word in protest, but likely soaked-up and marveled at the largesse of his father, who so enjoyed making a scene of his love. Really, what else would that boy ever be but a spectacle of his father, a walking billboard of dad's staggering grace? What a freeloader.

But not me! No way. I want to satisfy my fleshly cravings to make something of myself. As if there's something better than what Dad makes of me.

In the fourth chapter of my book, Better Off Than You Think, I wrote: the flesh is that part of us which suggests a course for living which results in living without the life of God. Oh, how that haunts me today. Is it normal to be haunted by one's own book? Shouldn't I have learned and gotten a good grasp on what I've written by now? I should be something of a master, shouldn't I?

Maybe you hear the elder brother in me. Make something of yourself. Don't take time to enjoy what God has lavished upon you, there's work to be done! Get after it, and when you've finished it perfectly, you can take time to enjoy God—you know, a little luxury and leisure time, quaffing a few bottles of cool grace. When you've got the servants in line, the fields plowed, and everything in its place, then you can hang out with dad. That's the honorable approach.

The Prodigal brother approached dad like he was going to make a deal with him. "If I confess my sins and promise to be good, if I re-commit and re-dedicate myself, can I have a bit of grace?" The father virtually ignored him! "Oh," he might have thought, "my son is going to do that ridiculous 'I'm really bad, but I promise to be good' thing. What a needless and laughable bother. Let me see if I can overwhelm him with my goodness, and once and for all get rid of his let's-make-a-deal-for-grace syndrome."

It must have worked.

Today, the elder brother writing this is going for some of that. I'm reminded of what Paul wrote: "For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ." (Rom 5:17, italics mine.) I suspect my Father will love helping me get used to being a receiver.

Because it's difficult for many of us to lay down our tools of self-righteousness, I think we should come up with an elder brother injection. Call it, OhGetOverIt, or LearningToReceive booster shot. Perhaps we’ll include something powerful and chemical in it—way beyond herbal—that will induce us to quickly believe that not only can we not live without the grace of Dad, we’re set-up to live off it! Maybe we could invent pocket breathalyzers for when, having halted an elder brother suspect, we could have him breathe deeply into the mouthpiece to see how long he's been out of Dad’s party. Can you see it?

"Ah-ha! Let’s have a double dose for this prodigal brother breath."


  1. Anonymous8:51 PM

    It seems like the only thing worse than trying to be bad is trying to be good. What a crazy mixed up wonderful journey.
    Terry Phillips

  2. Anonymous10:07 PM

    Yeah, ugh! I agree with this Terry above me. Darned if you do and darned if you don't. I need some grace vitimins...then it won't matter.

  3. Anonymous10:08 PM

    Be haunted by my book, why don't you. Ha! I don't believe the elder son thought the father gave him more than a passing thought, which is why he worked so hard to be noticed. I still have that problem, but I've learned to ignore it and just say, "Please bring that ring and some calf fat" (also known as pork rinds).
    Sue Thompson