First person (imagined) narrative of the older sibling in the Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15:11-32), delivered during Soul Stories, Soul Food…
photo by the incomparable Roger Hutchison.
You must all be here for the feast—my brother’s feast. So you’ve gotten the news, he’s back! Isn’t that wonderful?
My dad aged so much when he left; when my brother asked for his inheritance a few years back, I didn’t think that Dad should give it to him, because I knew my brother, Josh, was just going to spend it all. He’s never had the self control or the wisdom or the foresight that I have to plan for the future, and to work hard for it.
Anyway, my dad did give it to him, because Josh is his youngest child, and the youngest child… well, I don’t want to offend any youngest children in the room, but, usually the baby of the family gets whatever he or she wants. Can you tell I’m an oldest child?
Well, what happened to Josh was really just too bad—he took his money, and he went out West. He bought himself a Mercedes roadster, and he drove all over California. Then, he went over to Las Vegas, “to really strike it rich”—he said in his postcards to me.
This was not how our father raised us. He raised us to be respectable. We did our homework–*I* got A+’s, of course, but Josh didn’t do so bad himself. We were raised to accept our responsibility, to make good on the investment that our father was making in us—to fulfill the destiny we were given with our good education and good upbringing, to join our father’s life in the family business, or at least become a doctor or a lawyer or a banker.
But that wasn’t good enough for dear Josh; he’s a dreamer. He plowed his own way, with his Mercedes and his bright lights. Eventually, though—you’ll remember, being that you’re father’s friends, here for the banquet—the postcards stopped coming. Josh’s leaving made father seem older, but the not-knowing, the mystery and pain of disappearance—that’s what really wracked him. He walked our long, long driveway himself every day to check the mail. Then, the worst—when he stopped checking the mail. He gave Josh up as dead.
He sent people to look for Josh, to see if we could at least recover his body, at least have some kind of closure, some kind of scrap of evidence to lay the whole messy, emotional debacle to rest. But no one turned anything up—nothing to confirm whether he was alive or dead.
Then, finally, you remember—we had that memorial service for him, if he wasn’t dead, he surely wasn’t coming home again, Father figured, and we might as well move on with our lives. I have to tell you, I was relieved. All this searching and not-knowing and walking down the long driveway was taking up so much of Father’s time and resources, so much of his energy, his money—I was running the business all by myself! I could do it, I was good at it, but it was exhausting. Further, it seemed like Father just assumed I’d always do it—I felt taken advantage of. Josh, who had always gotten more attention when we were growing up, was STILL getting more attention even though he was gone now.
And now—you know the story—he’s back. Yay… And here you all are, showing up to celebrate the prodigal’s return! I’ll never forget, I was bringing Father his tea on the porch, he was practically bedridden, when he pushed me to the side to get a better view of the driveway. I was taken aback at the strength he showed—I had no idea the old man had it in him still. He pulled himself up out of his chair, wobbly but resolute, and shielded his squinty eyes from the sun. He shouted, “Josh?! Josh! Is that you, my son?!” as he started down the porch stairs. I turned and squinted, too, trying to catch Father’s arm—the poor man must have been going crazy in his grief.
Father was already halfway down the long drive, already almost to this stranger who was hobbling up to our home. “What audacity,” I thought, “for someone so poor and stinky and flea-eaten to come through our beautiful gate and wend his way up to our house. What was this person thinking? Why did he think we had anything to offer him? Couldn’t he go to Trinity, to the homeless breakfast? Why would he come to our house—where we LIVE, where WE live?” It was inconceivable that anyone would try to invade our space.
Then, of course, I realized it was actually Josh—alive, coming home. Father was so, so excited, you could see the years of worry melt from him, he seemed as if he was as young as when Josh had left. Father’s eyes came alive, he practically danced a jig. He started yelling and shouting—the servants came, it was really a scene, I must tell you… It was all chaos and unkemptness—Father started pulling off his clothes to put them on Josh, who was practically naked, having gambled or given or lost everything he’d been given.
Can you believe that? All his inheritance—down the drain! He didn’t have a shred left. After he ate, Father sat him down, having not taken his eyes off of Josh the whole time, and asked him what made him come home. Josh said he’d been sitting on the street in a big city, begging, covered in fleas, trying to barter his clothes for some bread, and the realized that even the lowest worker here on Father’s estate had it much better than that, and perhaps he would be allowed to come back and to work here. Father laughed, slapped Josh on the back and said, “Nonsense! You are my son! You were dead, and now you’re alive again! I never thought I’d get to see you again! You are my son, you will be just as before, learning to manage the business, here, with your sister.”
I couldn’t believe it. I mean, of course, I’d missed Josh, too, and I was so grateful he was alive, but there are rules, there’s the inheritance, not to be crass—but now Josh got half of MY inheritance, too? And Josh gets all this?–this great big party with everyone from the whole town? I followed all the rules, and I haven’t even had a birthday party in years—I’ve been trying to keep the family together! I’ve sacrificed everything for this family, for its upkeep, to keep the business going, to make sure there IS an inheritance, and here Josh swoops in and is given it all back.
I wonder if my father even loves me at all. He doesn’t run to greet me when I walk down the driveway. It’s almost as if he doesn’t notice me at all—it’s just assumed I’ll always be here, I’ll always do the right thing, dutiful Emily.
I guess it’s up to me, though—this resentment, holding on to the past, keeping score, assuming I know what’s going on in Josh’s mind and heart, and in Father’s mind and heart—it could eat me up. I could spend all my time concerned about how much I’ve gotten in response to what I’ve given, and how much Josh has gotten, and what I think he deserves; but maybe what’s more important is Josh himself, and my father himself—looking for the good in them, trying to follow my Father’s example and enjoying the company of who ever comes across my path, never losing hope that our family will be whole again, as God promises us.