Return of the Prodigal Son: Meet the Older Brother

Jason Hildebrand on the older brother

From Henri Nouwen on the older brother:

The more I reflect on the elder son in me, the more I realize how deeply rooted this form of lostness really is and how hard it is to return home from there. Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being. My resentment is not something that can be easily distinguished and dealt with rationally.

It is far more pernicious: something that has attached itself to the underside of my virtue. Isn’t it good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? And still it seems that my resentments and complaints are mysteriously tied to such praiseworthy attitudes. . . . Just when I do my utmost to accomplish a task well, I find myself questioning why others do not give themselves as I do. Just when I think I am capable of overcoming my temptations, I feel envy toward those who gave in to theirs. It seems that wherever my virtuous self is, there is the resentful complainer.

Here, I am faced with my own true poverty. I am totally unable to root out my resentments. They are so deeply anchored in the soil of my inner self that pulling them out seems like self-destruction. How to weed out these resentments without uprooting the virtues as well?

Nouwen’s keen observations into the elder son’s life:

  • As the first born, he wanted to live up to the expectations of his parents and be considered obedient and dutiful.
  • He wanted to please his father.
  • He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hard working.  But on the inside…
  • When confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface.
  • Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself…

Older Son


3 thoughts on “Return of the Prodigal Son: Meet the Older Brother

  1. Pride and envy – hard to combat for everyone, it seems. It took me years ( and years!) to equate to being like the younger son in terms of feeling like the older one, if you know what I mean. I could always understand why the older would be resentful and peeved. Then one day I realised I didn’t want to be judged the way I was doing of the prodigal nor the way the father could judge if he had a mind to nor the way the elder son did. I realised that, in the end, I want that mercy shown to me. It’s strange how many times we can hear or read something before new insights dawn. Yours is yet another analysis in depth. I guess we can all be like both sons – human characteristics inherent to us all. Maybe another lesson is that we should all show more mercy and compassion when offended or we perceive to have been.
    Thanks for the visit to my place. I clicked on this link in the email notification. And, although it’s an older post, I’m glad this is the one I linked to. It must be time for me to take another lesson from what always seems a too simplistic parable and yet has many depths. I even did a modern-day version of this a few years ago so it seems apt that I linked here!
    Thanks for the insights.x


    • I love “the heart” in your words. I love the revelation. I read into your words what I know about Christ’s words, and that is that some of His most simple words are the most profound. But, not only this parable, the whole, old and new, are given to us to return to time and again for new insight, new wisdom, new thought and new hope resulting in new life.

      Thanks for your words.


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