27 – The Angry Son of a Sad Father
“Then he became angry and refused to go in”
In an earlier chapter we took a very short glimpse at the Older Brother and underscored what was most important: He too is loved by his father. He is invited to share in the joy of life. He is not excluded from his home or the celebration by His Father. He still shares in the inheritance of the Father.
But we need to look at him more carefully, and notice the dominant thing about his responses to the return of his younger brother. He is angry!
The Joy And The Anger
Throughout this chapter, one of the dominating themes is “Joy”.
in verse 5 we have rejoicing shepherd.
in verse 6 we have rejoicing neighbours.
in verse 7 there is joy in heaven.
in verse 9 the woman and her neighbours rejoice.
in verse 10 there is joy among the angels
in verse 23 the father says, “Let’s celebrate!”
in verse 24 the servants & the family begin to make merry
in verse 29 the older brother complains that he never had the opportunity to make merry
in verse 32 the father says, “We had to make merry & be glad”
There is joy in the father’s house, and joy in the father’s heart. Joy cascades throughout these three stories as the normal response to finding the lost. In fact when this entire gospel is explored, it is seen to be one of the dominating motifs of St. Luke. Joy breaks out at the birth of John the Baptist (1:14, 1:19. 1:44. 1:58. 1:64.) and Jesus. (1:46-47, 2:10, 2:13, 2:20, 2:28,2:38) and continues to erupt throughout Luke’s entire gospel (6:23, 8:13, 10:17, 10:20-21, 13:17, 19:6, 19:37, 24:41) until it ends with the church heading out to its future “in great joy” in 24:52. For Luke it is the only appropriate response to the Messiah’s coming!
It is this context that places the response of the older son into sharp relief.
- verse 28. He is angry.
- verse 29. He is stubborn. He refused to go in, in spite of his father’s begging.
- verse 29, He is also vindictive and accusing. He places blame on his father for not treating him kinder. “You never gave me…”
- verse 29. He bears a long memory of injustices. “these many years” as though he had harbored hard feelings for years.
- verse 29. He is self-righteous in the face of another’s sin. “I served you… I never disobeyed your command!”
- verse 30. He is nasty. “When this son of yours” not “When my brother…”
- verse 30. He is presumptuous. “Devoured your living with harlots…” how does he know? The true story has not yet been told him. He may be guessing, but it blurts out as fact from his lips.
But the first word is the key word. “He was angry and….” the rest simply flowed from that irrationality called rage. He may not have intended being petulant or vindictive. He may not have intended to wound his father and castigate his brother, but anger has been smoldering for a long time, and his father’s glad response to the return of a lost son has been the breeze that brought the embers into a spark, and the spark into a flaming rage.
But before we are quick to blame him, as he blamed his father and brother, perhaps we should ask a question. Does he have a right to be angry?
He may have a right to be angry
Does he have a right to be angry? Does he have a right to feel this way? He certainly would have thought so!
His brother’s leaving probably did great damage to him. When the wanderer left, he left with a good share of the family income. This loss of income made life much more difficult after that. If it takes money to make money, then it may have been difficult to cope with the loss. Perhaps there had been no celebration for him and his friends due to the diminished circumstances of the family’s fortune. He may have a right to be angry!
When his brother left, he took not only money, but his labor, his leadership, his participation in the running of the farm. The older son had been required to pick up the lion’s share of the work. He may have had much longer days on his hands because the younger wastrel wasn’t around to help. At suppertime he was still “in the fields”. He may have a right to be angry!
But there may have been damage of a different kind. In the months and years that followed he may have watched his father gazing towards the highway looking for his absent son. In family prayers the father made frequent mention of the missing son, but hardly offered a prayer for him. He may have sensed that his father loved the son he didn’t have, more than the one he did. The father may have indicated that one in the bush was to be preferred to the one he had in hand. The lost one seemed to be at the center of his affection, not his diligent brother. He may have a right to be angry!
But our older son may have had one more cause for anger. In spite of the words of blame he spoke in anger to his father, he may have loved his father immensely. As a young child he may have followed his father around the farm, admired him and wanted to be a farmer, “just like dad”. His affection may have grown over the years until his father was the center of his life. Then his younger brother had come with that cruel demand that he didn’t want to wait ’til his dad was dead, he wanted his share now; he couldn’t wait. The older son may have seen the light of life go out of his father’s eyes in those moments. He may have seen the shoulders slump under the blow of those words. As the months and years go by, he sees his father growing older than his years and more disheartened the longer the lost son stayed away. He alone sees the great damage that was done to the father by the runaway, and there is no anger like that caused by hurting someone we love. And if you had asked that man if he had a right to be angry, he would tell you the story, and ask, “Don’t I have a right to be angry!?” and it would be hard to contradict him.
And throughout the scriptures there are other displays of anger that seem somewhat justified. If I had been Esau and had been ripped off by my brother, I might have been angry for a lifetime!
If I had been the victim of a Babylonian soldier, I too like the Psalmist would have prayed, “Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us. Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” (Psalm 137) And if you said, “You have no right to be angry,” he would have responded, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
The irrationality of anger
But anger is an irrational response. The son has finally come home. Now we can get some work out of the blighter! It will make life easier for his older brother.
The capital has been lost, but now that there is the return of that extra pair of hands, perhaps the loss can be regained. A good reason to forget the anger.
The father has come back to life again. That’s a reason to let the anger dissipate.
The young son has been a “ghost larger than life” that has displaced the older son. But now the “real” son has returned and that should make life easier for all, and another reason to drop the anger.
The tragedy about anger is that it will fail to see the good news in a good event. Anger is irrational! And irrational anger is a very dangerous thing. It does far more damage than we can compute.
It causes damage to the Father. He is now treated as the villain as his son accuses him of favoritism, of stinginess, of thoughtlessness. “You never gave me… you killed for him…”
It causes damage to his younger brother. The brother has come home, but with hostility in the home, he may never get to feel at home. He may feel only half-forgiven. He knows that his brother is avoiding him and that will drive the pain of his own guilt more deeply into his heart.
But most of all it causes damage to himself. He has lost the capacity to rejoice in all things, to hope in all circumstances. He finds himself estranged from his own home. He has lived there all his life, and now he cannot go in. Home is not home anymore. It has become an alien place. A place where he does not fit. He has estranged himself from his father, the father he has loved and served. It will be hard for both of them to forget cruel words spoken in haste. Unless something is done those words and attitudes may haunt that relationship forever.
Did you notice the sadness of this father? One moment he is rejoicing in the lost one’s return, and the next moment he is almost apologetic: “But it was right to make merry.” The father knows that a wet blanket has been thrown over the joy. It has rained on the parade. The ants have invaded the picnic. It seems as though the pain of this father is to have no end. Just as tragically, the father knows that his older son is estranged from his best self. He was the older brother who had an opportunity of helping a younger brother come to wholeness. But he cannot help because anger will cause him either to speak the wrong words, or suppress all conversation and live out their relationship in stony silence. His anger has caused him to abort his own sonship and brotherliness and unless repaired speedily, might become the permanent state of his heart.
Anger is a defense mechanism for the protection of self and loved ones. It is there as a gift from the creator God to help in moments of danger. It exists in animals and humans to help them face or flee from a crisis. Fear and threat cause adrenalin to be pumped into the system for a few moments until the crisis is over.
But in the human creature, anger is capable of being sustained. All we have to do is to coddle it, remind ourselves of every previous injustice ever perpetrated against us, fondle the grudge beads of painful memory, and anger can be maintained for a lifetime.
Is anger ever understandable? Oh yes! Is it every beneficial? It may have its moments. But it can do untold damage unless we get help to channel it in healthy directions.
But we need to explore this thing called anger. It is given, as already said, for self defense or the protection of ones we love. When we feel threatened, or that which we value is endangered, then anger bursts forth in defense. Being hurt, or the fear of being hurt, is always at the root of our anger. Those who nurse anger until it grows to be a disposition, usually suffer from a low self-esteem, or are aware of their limitations, and often feel like failures. They are people who live with significant frustration with themselves. Such people feel trapped by life, and much of the anger they feel is often hostility against self. Anger has been called “the aggressive defense of an injured self.”
When Dante in his Divine Comedy tells of his visit to heaven, hell and purgatory, he tells of his entering the 5th level of hell. There he sees muddy people in the swamp, all naked and hurt. They were hitting each other, not with hand only, but with head, and with chest, and with the feet, mangling one another piece meal with their teeth. Occupying this same level of hell were the 3 furies stained with blood, their hair was of serpents and horned snakes, and with their nails each one was tearing at her own self, beating herself with her own hands and crying out for self destruction!
That says to me that when I encounter someone dealing, or not dealing, with significant levels of anger, my first question should be, “I wonder what hurts so much in their lives to elicit this much rage?” And instead of being angry at the angry, I should be asking the second question, “how can I help?”