There are only two kinds of men: the righteous, who believe themselves sinners; the rest, sinners, who believe themselves righteous. (Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Thoughts), 1660)

With that thought, I return to my general identification with the older, rather than younger, son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As the one that made a decision for Christ early on and mostly appeared to do what was “right,” I knew I should see myself, as Paul did, as the “chiefest of sinners,” but never really did. This is not to say that I thought I had any righteousness of my own, but throw a returning “prodigal” or one “missing sheep” in there, and I’d have to check myself on wondering why so much effort was put into the one and not those of us who’d dutifully stayed at home and not gotten ourselves lost.

God has certainly worked on this with me at different points in my life, and perhaps never so much as right now.  As we discussed self-control in Sabbath School last week, I was reminded that the spiritual being is just like the physical in that it needs exercise. I can no longer take for granted those areas in my life in which I used to be strong if I have not had to exercise control over them of late.

The challenge, then, is not to take God for granted, as both the older and younger sons did in their own ways in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is to continue in a meaningful relationship with the Father, neither abandoning (younger son) nor simply going through the motions day in and day out (older son). It is in finding the relationship to be an end unto itself, neither taking and squandering our godly inheritance before our time (younger son) nor being so concerned about the inheritance in the end that we neglect the relationship with our Father and our brothers (older son). It is allowing the Holy Spirit to continue to work His fruit in and through us, transforming and replacing our stony hearts with hearts of flesh, full of the love and mercy of our Father.

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As I reflected on the importance of God’s faithfulness in our lives, I was reminded of a prayer of Soren Kierkegaard:

Father in Heaven! You have loved us first, help us never to forget that You are love so that this sure conviction might triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the inquietude of the soul, over the anxiety for the future, over the fright of the past, over the distress of the moment. But grant also that this conviction might discipline our soul so that our heart might remain faithful and sincere in the love which we bear to all those whom You have commanded us to love as we love ourselves.

You have loved us first, O God, alas! We speak of it in terms of history as if You have only loved us first but a single time, rather than that without ceasing You have loved us first many times and every day and our whole life through. When we wake up in the morning and turn our soul toward You – You are the first – You have loved us first; if I rise at dawn and at the same second turn my soul toward You in prayer, You are there ahead of me, You have loved me first. When I withdraw from the distractions of the day and turn my soul toward You, You are the first and thus forever. And yet we always speak ungratefully as if You have loved us first only once.

And so we see again, the inextricable relation of love with another one of the fruit of the Spirit. And we see again how God’s first action should result in our own proactiveness in relation to others. Let us love the unlovely, offer joy amidst sorrow and depression, bring peace in turmoil, be patient with the restive, be kind to the unkind, repay evil with good, and prove faithful in this ever-changing, fickle world.

This transformed life we are called to live by the power of the Holy Spirit is not simply for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others. It is for those that we encounter, and for those that will follow behind us. As the Steve Green song says, “May those who come behind us find us faithful.” Just as we stand on the shoulders of the faithful from Hebrews 11 through those who we have been blessed to encounter in our own lifetimes, so we must be found faithful for those God has placed within our sphere of influence.

But what happens when “The Older Brother Syndrome” kicks in? When one gets tired of being the dependable, honest, loyal, faithful one? As someone who made a decision for Christ at an early age, I’ve always tended to sympathize with the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But here we come full circle, for the Father is faithful in His restoration of all His children. While the younger son’s complete severing of relations is overt, the older son, in his anger, similarly distances himself:

“The prodigal is no longer his brother; he is “this son of yours” (v. 30).  The pejorative “this” (Fitzmyer 1985, 1091), “son” instead of “brother,” and “yours” instead of “mine” bespeak the radicality of exclusion….The older one will not be the “brother-of-the-prodigal” and hence for him the prodigal is not “my brother.” …For the first time in the whole story, in the older brother’s explanation of his anger, the father is not addressed as “father.” He has become just another “you” (vv. 29-30)….

…But though the older son “un-fathers” the father, the father not only holds on to him (as he held onto the prodigal while the prodigal was in the distant country), but states clearly that the relationship has not been broken….

…For the father, the priority of the relationship means not only a refusal to let moral rules be the final authority regulating “exclusion” and “embrace” but also a refusal to construct his own identity in isolation from his sons, He readjusts his identity along with the changing identities of his sons and thereby reconstructs their broken identities and relationships. He suffers being “un-fathered” by both, so that through this suffering he may regain both as his sons (if the older brother was persuaded) and help them rediscover each other as brothers. [Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Miraslov Volf, pp. 156-165]

Let us, then, draw on that faithfulness of God, knowing that in every moment, it is He that loves us first, transforming us through His love that we may be found faithful, and that our relationships might be restored not only with our Father, but with our brothers and sisters.