Some people–as DC Talk lamented in the early 90’s–gotta learn the hard way. They have to find out for themselves. As a firstborn, compliant child with an average amount of ambition, this was not my story. I was relatively content to take my parents’ word on most things, which translated into taking God’s word on most things. If the stove sign said “Do not touch,” I did not need to burn my hand to discover why. I was the elder brother, not the prodigal.
But elder brothers can have serious issues. Underneath all of the compliance is a persistent, if muffled, nagging sense that maybe there is something they are missing in the far country. Maybe the tales of life let loose really do have substance. Maybe operating within the box is a waste. Maybe they were wrong.
This is only stoked when elder brothers read the postcards from the far country. The prodigal life, like every life, has an arc to it. The “reckless living” trajectory of the arc in which wealth is devoured with prostitutes (Luke 15:13, 30) is the one that advertisers use to sell anything from beer to sports cars. When elder brothers read the postcards from this part of the arc, it only exacerbates the gnawing regret of playing it safe.
But then come the subsequent postcards, after the arc has peaked and the only direction to go is down. Money is running out. So-called friends are bailing. Food is scarce. Now everything is pig slop and desperation. Upon reading these postcards, the elder brother gloats. His discontent does not transform into contentment but smugness. He was right after all.
For the past week I have been reading the postcards of a particular prodigal whose stories have sparked these meditations. Stories I Only Tell My Friends is the autobiography of Rob Lowe, whose characters on The West Wing and Parks and Recreation are some of my favorites. Before Lowe portrayed a presidential speechwriter or a city manager, he was an 80’s heartthrob, part of the Brat Pack that embodied the excesses and bald selfishness of that decade. Unlike the prodigal son, Lowe’s income stream never ran out. He devoured wealth not with prostitutes but with princesses and sex symbols. He was mobbed by fans in public and ran with a who’s who list of entertainers. Externally, his life could have sold anything.
What Lowe did not find amidst the sex, booze, and fame–indeed, what is not peddled at all in the far country–is intimacy. He discovered that his desire to be known was at odds with his other passions. So, bereft of any personal integrity and true connection with others, he left L.A. for rehab in Tucson and a more meaningful life.
This is the postcard elder sons need to read the most, because they need intimacy as deeply as their prodigal brothers. Jesus captured this in the parable through the father’s words to the disgruntled elder brother: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). Just as the prodigal’s partying kept him from intimacy with his father, the elder brother’s oscillation between being resentful and right distanced him from enjoying what was there all along.
God has created us to know him and be known by him, to love him and be loved by him. As his image bearers, we thrive when we know him in community with his children. So whether we are prone to throw caution to the wind or be the responsible one, let us give attention to this deepest of creature needs. Let us draw near to our Father who runs to us and welcomes us into the constant party of his faithful love.