Based on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15: 11-32
by Mathew Swora
The scene was a room in a musty old church basement. Beige paint was peeling in flecks from the cinderblock walls, while knocking and banging noises were coming from a radiator. The floor: black-and-white linoleum tile, with a few holes and chips that have gradually grown in size, beginning when Nixon was President. In the corner stood a little table with a coffee pot, and little packets of creamer and sugar. About a dozen people were seated in a circle, some of them drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups, for their weekly meeting of EBA, or Elder Brothers Anonymous.
Like every meeting, it began with the group reciting the Twelve Steps of recovery from elder brother addiction. They are:
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over our need to compare ourselves with others and prove ourselves superior to them, and that our lives had become miserable and unmanageable as a result.
Step 2: Came to believe that only a Heavenly Father more powerful, holy and merciful than ourselves could restore us to sanity, serenity and humility.
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of our heavenly Father, through Jesus, the Father’s most gracious and ideal Firstborn Son.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, for a change, instead of everyone else.
Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our own wrongs, for a change, instead of everyone else’s.
Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all our own defects of character, for a change, instead of everyone else’s.
Step 7: Humbly asked God to remove our own shortcomings, for a change, instead of everyone else’s.
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and whenever we were comparing, analyzing and condemning others, promptly admitted it and stopped it.
Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, the ideal Firstborn Son, praying for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to other elder brothers and sisters, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Then, one of those present said, “Hi, my name is Michael, and I’m a recovering elder brother.”
“Hi, Michael,” everyone replied.
“Keep coming,” someone else said. “You work the program, and it works!”
“I’m an elder brother by birth to a younger brother and a little sister,” Michael added, “but I was born two years after my bigger sister Caroline. She’s the oldest of us four. So, we’re not really talking about birth order here, are we? We’re talking about how we relate to God and to other people. I first began to suspect that I was that kind of elder brother in Jesus’ story about the Prodigal Son, when my little brother came home for the Fourth of July a year and a half ago. He was the life of the party and everyone was ooh-ing and ahh-ing over him and his girlfriend, who was several months pregnant, everyone, that is, except for me. I was steaming out the ears, I was so mad.
“You see, that particular summer party was the first family gathering he ever attended after an absence of many years, when often we didn’t hardly even know where he was or what he was doing. In them years, whenever the family got together, we’d be talking about my little brother Norbert, not to him. Cuz he weren’t ever there. Come to find out he was in Las Vegas most of them years, of all places. Vegas, for cryin’ out loud, playin’ blackjack until he got too good and kept beatin’ the house. He was always gifted in math, could’a gone to college on a full scholarship. Instead, he wasted his time and his smarts on blackjack and other kinds of gambling. But after the house caught on and some casino goons roughed him up and told him to stay away, some tycoon thought better of it and put him to work runnin’ the blackjack tables so no one else does what he done. He also got to join occasional security details for groups like Cold Play, and Maria Carey. Him livin’ the life of the Prodigal Son in Sin City USA, and instead of starvint among the pigs like he deserved, he’s rubbin’ shoulders with the likes of JayZ and Beyonce.
And me, I work hard all my life, pay my bills, go to all the kids’ games, coach their teams, and I think I saw Al Gore in a motorcade once, when our high school marching band went to Seattle.”
That’s when somebody interrupted Michael to say, “You sound jealous, Michael. That’s a sure sign of being the elder brother of the Prodigal Son: when you’re jealous of the very people you look down your nose at.”
Michael smiled and said, “Ya nailed me on that one. Still shows, don’t it? Sure, I admit to being jealous, sometimes.”
“But all them years when my brother Norbert was missing and too ashamed to tell us where he was and what he was doin’, me and my mom and dad and my sisters were wringing our hands and worryint over him and waggin’ our tongues over the occasional rumors what come our way. Some years we would just get a Christmas card post-marked L.A. or Yuma, Arizona, or some summers just a post card, ‘Havin’ fun at the Grand
Canyon-wish you were here.’
“Isn’t all that obsessing over someone else and their sins another elder-brother symptom?” someone else asked. “Isn’t it really a way of distracting ourselves from our own problems, from what’s really our business, by making ourselves feel superior to someone else?”
“I’m sure it does,” Michael replied. “But in the long run, it hurts more than it helps. We thought we were holding Norbert down beneath ourselves, where he belonged. But really, we were holding ourselves and our own happiness hostage to him and his shenanigans. And instead a’waggin’ our tongues about Norbert, we shoulda’ been bendin’ our knees in prayer for Norbert, and for ourselves.”
A murmur of agreement swept through the circle of recovering elder brother types. Then Michael said:
“Like I was sayin’ so Norbert shows up at Mom and Dad’s with this woman he’s gotten pregnant, and he says they wanna get married and settle down here where it’ll be good to raise their kid. And instead a’ me bein’ glad for him, I’m steamin’ out the ears like a tea pot, thinkin’ to myself, ‘So now he thinks he can jus’ waltz back in here like the Prodigal Son and start his life over with dear old grandma and grandpa to babysit, and we’re all supposed to come to junior’s birthday parties and buy him Christmas presents and go to his basketball games like nothin’s ever happened?
“And that’s when my dear old mother throws her arms open wide and hugs both my brother and the woman he’s gotten in trouble, Trudy’s her name!
“‘ltm so glad to have you back,’ Mom says. And Dad says, ‘I’m glad to have ya back in one piece.’ Yeah, right. And then he just sits there wiping the tears from his eyes. And he used to coach high school football! You wanna know what it was like growin’ up with Hulk Hogan and Vince
Lombardi for a dad? But ever since his stroke five years ago, he’s really mellowed and gone soft and all teary.
“And Itm thinking’ Hey! What about me, stickin’ around all these years, working’ full time at the garage, harvesting the hay and the wheat these last five autumns now that Dad cantt anymore, and me missin’ out on one deer season after the other to coach junior high wrestling, even doin’ mom and dad’s taxes and their federal farm paperwork for free? Hello! And what do I get for all that? I’ve never even gone to Spirit Mountain, let alone Vegas.
“So that’s how angry I was all the way through last January, when I was talkin’ with Pastor Youngdahl after a church council meeting, out kickin’ gravel in the parking lot where the real business of the church gets done, and I says to him, ‘You ain’t planning’ to do Norbert and Trudy’s weddin’ are ya?’ They got married in February, by the way.
“And he says, “Of course. They’re doing marriage counseling and all the other right things.”‘
“And I says, ‘But they been livin’ together outta wedlock for two years.”
“And he says, ‘I know you and your parents teach your kids better than that. But St. Paul says that it’s the goodness of God that leads us to repentance, not the mean-ness of the saints. So, how can I not help your brother and Trudy when they wanna move in the right direction?'”
“And then I says, But doncha think that doint their wedding might encourage the kids in our church to think that it’s okay to do the same thing as what they done?’
At this point Michael’s story was interrupted by another member of the circle, Julie. She said, “That’s just what I was wondering. It’s one thing to forgive people’s sins. It’s another thing to reward them and enable them, isn’t it?”
Other heads nodded in agreement to her question. Then another member said, “Hi. My name is Fred, and I’m also a recovering elder brother.”
“Hi, Fred,” everyone replied.
“Ya know, once, that’s what I would have said, too. But my mentor once told me that, as you drive down the road of life, yeah, you gotta look in the rearview mirror sometimes, to see what’s behind you. I wouldn’t drive a car without a rearview mirror. But don’t we do most of our driving looking ahead, through the windshield, at where we wanna go? Instead of just at where we’ve been? And doesn’t that say something about how we look at other people, too? Not just at where they’ve been, and what they’ve done, but where they’re headed, especially whenever they wanna do better? Don’t that count, too? And shouldn’t we help’em along whenever they turn in the right direction, instead of just looking at what they got wrong in their past?”
“Ya know, that’s just about word-for-word what Pastor Youngdahl said,” Michael replied. “He says, ‘I wonder and worry too about what messages other people are getting from our actions, especially the kids. They should know where we stand on things. Of course, we’re all about covenant and lifelong commitment in marriage. But we’re also about helping people make fresh starts and get second chances and a new life whenever they’re finally ready. If somebody wants to misunderstand that as permission for cohabitation or whatever else, I’m not responsible for that. My job is to do the right thing, which is to give people the same guidance AND the same breaks that God’s given me.
“Besides, after they get married, Norbert and Trudy also want to join the church and have their baby dedicated. Or do you have a problem with that, too?” he asked me. “They’re taking the faith exploration class, you know.”
“I was so angry that I didn’t know what to say to that. Him askint me if I had a problem, when everybody could tell it was Trudy and Norbert and their baby Joshua what had the problems?
“I was just about ready to say so, when Pastor Youngdahl looks up and says, ‘A beautiful sunset tonight.’ And I says, ‘Yeah, but I hear it might rain tomorrow.’”
“And that’s when it hit me. That sunset wasn’t doin’ nothin’ for me, like it was for him. It had been a long time since anything had ever really touched me, or made me laugh out loud, or cry, like I did whenever Lucy Schmidt sang, “He Could’a Called Ten Thousand Angels” in church every year on Good Friday. But that was so long ago. And instead a’ laughing big belly laughs for joy, all ltd ever managed of late was those ‘Snarky, see? I told-ya-so’ kind a’ smirks, every time somebody else flubbed up. What kind of robot, or monster, was I becoming? I started to wonder.
“So, the next morning I went out to my work shed, started a fire in the woodstove, opened my Bible and read through the story of the Prodigal Son. I was thinking’ about how I should be like the dad to the younger brother, but I got ambushed by the elder brother instead. He was me- I was him! Here my younger brother is startin’ a new life, tryin’ to do right by Trudy and their kid, and I can’t appreciate it. All these years I’ve been makin’ myself and others miserable about my brother’s hard headedness, when I should’a been more concerned about my own hardness of heart. I’ve been confusing resentment for righteousness. I was every bit like that elder brother in the story, bitter, angry, unforgiving, judgmental, fearful, my heart as cold as ice and hard as rock, thinking’ all the time that it was only my younger brother what had any problems. My head’s been in the right place, not followin’ Norbert into the swamp. But my heart’s been all wrong.
“And that made me just as bad off as my younger brother, because I needed him to stay bad, like feelin’ bad about him was the only way I could feel good about myself. We’d been stuck together like that ever since I used to tattle on him whenever I was 5 and he was 3. That’s when I knew I needed as much help as Norbert did.
“Then I looked around to see if there was something for elder brothers like there is for alcoholics and drug addicts, which I thank
God I’m not-
“Making comparisons!” someone shouted. “That’s Elder Brother talk!”
“Actually, our problem is worse than alcohol or drugs,” Julie said, “because our unforgiveness and resentment get mistaken for virtue, responsibility and respectability. You can’t do that with drugs and alcohol, like you can with resentment and self-righteousness.”
Michael sighed and said, ‘I came here for comfort, and you guys keep nailing me on the head. I guess you could say that I’m an addict, too. I’m addicted to a superior image of myself. Anyhow, I went and saw Pastor Youngdahl and he recommended this group for me. Before I first came late last year, I read the Twelve Steps of Recovery from elder brother craziness. Recently I wrote my own version of the Twelve Steps of what it’s like whenever I relapse. I call it “The Twelves Steps of Elder Brothers Unanimous.
“Wanna hear’em?” Michael asked.
“Sure!” someone said.
“Okay, here goes, Michael said, reading from a piece of paper that he took from his pocket and unfolded:
“Step 1- admitted that everyone else is powerless over their problems, and that other people’s lives have become unmanageable, because they never take our advice nor follow our example.
“Step 2- came to believe that we have the power and the responsibility to restore everyone else in the world to sanity.
“Step 3- made a conscious decision to have everybody else turn their lives over to our care.
“Step 4- made a searching and fearless moral inventory of everyone else’ s conduct and character.
“Step 5- admitted to ourselves and others the exact nature of everyone else’s wrongs.
“Step 6- are entirely ready to remove everyone else’s defects of character. But honestly, we secretly prefer that they remain rebels and reprobates so that we can keep feeling better about ourselves by comparison.
“Step 7- want everyone to ask us humbly to remove their short-comings, so we can tell them, ‘told ya so!”
“Step 8- made a list of everyone who has harmed us, or gotten more than they deserved, or more than we ever got, and are holding our own happiness hostage, waiting for God and for them to make amends to us.
“Step 9- let others know, indirectly or otherwise, how much we suffer and pay and labor for their sins and how guilty they should feel until they apologize and make amends to us.
“Step 10- continue to take a personal inventory of other people’ s lives and when they were wrong, we promptly smirked and patted ourselves on the back for being better than them.
“Step 11- Sought through prayer and meditation to impress upon God how much better we are than others, praying only for God and others to acknowledge what saints and martyrs we are.
“Step 12- Having had a massive spiritual deadening, or a nervous breakdown, as a result of the previous 11 steps, we have continued repeating them, harder and harder, hoping that others will feel sorry for us and join our personal pity parties.”
Half a year later, at another meeting of Elder Brothers Anonymous, Michael said, “I can feel the ice jam in my heart melting. Last week, for the first time in a long, long time, I laughed, really laughed, until the tears ran down my cheeks. I was over at Norbert’s house when Trudy was feeding baby Joshua, and Joshua took his spoon and flipped a wad of mashed peas right into Trudy’s eye, and my brother Norbert said, “Sign that kid up for the Mariners!”
When Michael noticed that the others weren’t laughing quite as much, he said, “I guess you just had to be there. Anyway, it feels so good to get down off my high horse and join the human race again.”
I was there ‘ cuz Norbert had called me over,” Michael continued. “Norbert took me into his garage for a little talk, jus’ him an’ me. What Norbert had to say got me crying for the first time in many a year. He said a recent x-ray found some spots on his lungs, probably cancer, probably from being around all the smokers at the blackjack tables these last five years. He doesn’t smoke, but he says he might as well have, it was so thick in the casinos. He knows good odds from bad ones by feel anymore, and he says that his odds with this cancer are barely even, at best. So, if he doesn’t make it, he said, Would I be Joshua’s godfather and make sure he gets a good father figure, that he goes to Sunday School and through catechism, and doesn’t make some of the same stupid mistakes he did when he was younger? And if he does start to do somethin’ stupid, tell him his old man’s already been there, done that, and wishes he hadn’t? And that I told you that you could tell him so? And would I teach him to play basketball and to fish and maybe even hunt deer like we used to do with Dad before he had his stroke?
“’What about Trudy’s family?’ I asked. ‘She’s got family somewhere in Missouri. I don’t want to close the door on their privileges.’
“‘They won’t have nothing’ to do with her nor me nor Joshua,’ he says. ‘Her parents and brothers still refuse all calls from her, cuz’ of what all she done and how she lived in Las Vegas, including them years livin’ in sin with me, that’s why.’
“And that’s what got me to crying again. I was crying for Trudy, havin’ a family that’s just completely cut her off, that won’t acknowledge anything she does right from now on, no matter how hard she tries. Just what do they have for brains? Or a heart? Rocks?
And then I started to cry for Baby Joshua, who just might grow up without a Dad. I said, ‘Sure, Norbert, anything’ you want, anything Trudy and the kid needs, I’ll be there.” And then we hugged each other and started bawlin’ over each other’s shoulders, like we was little kids again, our noses running like Willamette Falls. I just got my little brother back! I can’t stand the thought of losing him again so soon.”
That was as far as Michael could get, before he choked up and his shoulders started heaving. He tried to stifle a sob, but failed, and put his face into his hands, tears running through his fingers. The person next to him reached over and started rubbing his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” Michael sobbed. “I seem to be coming apart.”
“No, it’s okay” said someone else. “Sometimes tears mean that we’re coming back together. It’s being hard and thinking we’ve got it all together, that breaks us into jagged little pieces. Keepin’ it all together is God’s job, not yours. Welcome home from your own faraway country, Brother.”