The Older Brother Got It Wrong
But he’s important in my faith journey. Maybe yours too. Or of someone you know.
Looking back over the decades, I have to wonder how a teenage boy with thoughts of the priesthood could, in less than a decade, become an atheist and remain there for 25 years. It’s a dramatic 180 degree turn.
A while back I described my journey away from and back to the Church in Jenny duBay’s blog The Prodigal Parishioner. I focused mostly on how secular society’s presuppositions, which I bought into without even realizing it, stand in opposition to the Gospel.
But maybe there’s more to it than that.
Faith and doubt are not merely intellectual positions. There’s an emotional element interwoven and inseparable from this. Often, this is the more difficult part to face because it can be painful.
I recently read a book called Rediscovering Jonah that really struck a chord. The big fish aside, late Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller claims that Jonah is a microcosm of the entire Bible.
In chapter one, Pastor Keller makes an interesting observation: Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) parallels the book of Jonah, and not by accident. The younger son and the older son from the parable are Jonah from different parts of the Old Testament story.
In Christ’s parable, the younger son runs away from God, like Jonah at the beginning of his adventure. The older son obeys his father but is insincere, like Jonah at the end of his journey.
Pastor Keller connects this to St. Paul’s letter the Romans where St. Paul writes that those who reject God and those who legalistically obey all the rules are both running from God.
In a way, the latter is more destructive. As Keller puts it,
We think that if we are religiously observant, virtuous, and good, then we’ve paid our dues, as it were. Now God can’t just ask anything of us—He owes us. He is obligated to answer our prayers and bless us.
But what happens if we don’t get what we want?
The inward distancing from God that had been going on for a long time becomes an outward, obvious rejection. We become furious with God and just walk away.
Jonah, tasked with taking the people of Nineveh to task, first tries to flee in the opposite direction and then becomes upset when Nineveh repents. You'd think that Jonah would be happy that his preaching was successful, but he secretly hoped that Nineveh would be condemned. The older brother in Christ’s parable also hoped against God’s mercy.
In both stories, the self-styled pious man judges others as if they don’t deserve God’s mercy because he fails to see that he too is a sinner in need of mercy.
Returning to the Church after two and a half decades, I should feel like the prodigal son. But in a way, I feel like the older brother because of the way I left. My life in my mid-20s wasn’t what I thought it should be, and I wasn’t on track to where I thought I should be by age 40. My excursions into publications by the Jesus Seminar—which was never really about the “historical Jesus” but rather was an attack on Trinitarian theology—was, in retrospect, the search for a rationalization to reject the god—really an idol—who didn’t give me what I wanted.
Now at age 50, I have to learn what I had been told so many years ago, but didn’t listen to. It was never about what I want to do with my life. Healthy boundaries are about knowing what is mine and what is not mine. And my life is not, and never was, mine.
In retrospect, my religious journey has been like Jonah, running away from God because I’d rather see my will be done. And as Pastor Keller points out, the storm at sea—which Jonah tried to sleep through before the sailors tossed him overboard—is like the storms of life that our sins create. Keller also notes that not every storm is from our sins—we are often caught in storms created by other people’s sins.
And that is a sobering thought. A life of running from God is a life of running to sin time and time again. It’s easy to lament, “woe is me” when the storm arrives. But even when we realize that the storm is our own fault, and thus we have no reason to complain, the realization that we have created stormy seas for those closest to us, and perfect strangers as well, is worse.
These people didn’t deserve the storms we blew into their lives. But here, too, is an opportunity for forgiveness. The resentment we may feel toward those whose storms flooded our lives subsides when we realize that we are no different from them. “Forgive and ye shall be forgiven” is as important for one’s soul as it is for the souls of others.