Relief for elder brother syndrome

New Year’s resolutions are the best aspirations of the morally deficient. What resolutions could there be for those rankled by the moral deficiencies of others?

I was recently preaching on the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15), better described as the parable of the prodigal sons’ loving father. For in fact, the hard-working elder son, who never left home and never squandered a penny of the family assets, is spiritually farther from his generous father than is his foolish brother. “You never once gave me a party!” he complains in a jealous rage and then refuses to go in and celebrate his resurrected sibling. He remains outside the father’s house. In Rembrandt’s painting of the scene (pictured here), the younger son is caught in an embrace with the father; the elder son, however, stands stiff, far off, with a dark shadowy abyss between him and the reconciled pair.

A busy parent who coordinates volunteers for her congregation asked me after the service: “How does an ‘elder sibling’ get over the resentment that wells up when others refuse to share the load?” She is not alone. We are told that 20 percent of church members do 80 percent of the work. The same can happen at home, at work and even on a sports team. Some people sacrifice while others take advantage of the responsible members’ dedication and sweat and go fishing instead. Self-righteous anger can begin to simmer and boil inside an elder sibling.

Ministers often feel this inner storm, even if they ought not show it. I was a chaplain and a denominational leader for a season. I have often felt like a good, reliable elder brother – the indignant one who works hard because the prodigals are off on private adventures. Especially when the community is not flourishing, this frustration is hard to avoid. When you expect all hands on deck and you feel all alone at the helm, it’s depressing and infuriating. Righteousness sows seeds of its own prideful destruction. What can you do to save your loyal but now sick soul?

For the responsible & resentful   
First I would suggest we realize it’s impossible to save such a sorry soul. Especially if our sacrifice has been substantial and the resentment has sunk deep into our identity, we are stuck. It’s a spiral of bitterness that is spiritually fatal and there is no human way out. Our only hope is divine aid and grace.

That grace may first move us to a place of humility. For me, some liberation came when I saw myself as the miserable elder brother. The man in the mirror looked angry, which is not the face of the “good” Christian. More significant, however, was when I saw that my mirror reflection resembled the younger son, too. Yes, I’ve been loyal and hard-working, but I’ve also been off to the far country, not rebelling perhaps, but still lost and almost hopeless, dependent on the hospitality of others, and by the grace of God, able to come home. In this sense, I am both prodigal sons, and I can fall before the father and welcome a homecoming party with deep gratitude.

Another idea comes in a beautiful sermon written by John Vannorsdall entitled “The Elder Son’s Defense.” It’s a creative letter written from the perspective of the elder son, and one of the things the elder son asks is that everyone else take some share of the responsibility for the family business. That will help cure any self-righteous plague. Think of that as a preventative measure.

Similarly, elder siblings can feel free to change roles and move on to other kingdom business. Take a sabbatical from the work that might lead you to resentment. Dare to let go and even let some program (or even a congregation or denomination) die. Maybe it needs to die. If the only thing that keeps it going is your excruciating effort, it may not be valuable enough to the community and ought to expire. Or maybe it just needs a different elder brother to carry it to another day.

Elder siblings can set aside their work-ethic in other ways: learn to splurge, celebrate milestones and party with good cheer. If we treat ourselves after work well done, we may not feel resentful in the end because we have savoured the joy of accomplishment. We’ve stopped to enjoy the beauty of the harvest, hired our own jazz band and BBQ’d a fattened calf for ourselves and some friends. Not in an irresponsible way, but certainly in order to enjoy the good gifts of God for the people of God’s family.

Finally, as Henri Nouwen’s book on this parable reminds us, our journey should not end at identification with the elder son or the younger son but with the loving father. We are all called to be grace-filled spiritual parents who invite both younger and older children to come home and enter into the joy of the family business, and thus nurture the next generation in faithful work and celebration. It’s a calling in which both our sordid past and deep resentments can play a redemptive role when we freely confess them. Having walked some of the road, we might be a guide for those unable to find the trail that leads to the Father’s home.  

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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