An excerpt from Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church (pp.66-70):
One story has become for me a narrative backdrop
against which I remember my own story. Jesus tells the
story of a father with two sons. [See Luke 15] The story is
more about the father than the sons, about a compassionate father
who gave the younger son what he asked for,
knowing that it might be wasted, knowing that the early
dividing of the inheritance was not according to the rules.
In this story we encounter a father who compassionately
welcomes his son home after the son squandered every
thing and brought shame on the family name by his
Perhaps the story is more about the older son than
the younger, the son who stayed home and worked hard
and remained respected in that town. The father compassionately
went out from the party celebrating the
younger son’s return to remind the angry older son that
everything the father had was his and that there was love
enough for both sons.
THE OLDER SON
I am the older son in the story. The older son was
loyal, dutiful, moral, religiously observant, but without any
depth of feeling for others. He was anxious, angry, and
unforgiving toward this brother who dared to come home
after all he had done. I am the older son who knew what
was wrong and right, who observed the religious morals of
the day, who did all he was supposed to do, and who
expected to be the honored son.
At least I was that older son for the first 50 years
of my life. I did what was expected of me, stayed within
the moral and religious boundaries set for me, and exhorted
others to do the same. And when people broke the
rules, and lived outside the boundaries, I knew they were
wrong and that they should suffer the consequences and
answer to God.
I was not a sinner. I was among the righteous. Or
so I thought in my heart. I tithed, I went to church, I kept
the rules. And now this brother of mine comes back and
my father welcomes him with laughter and food and gifts
and celebration? What about me? What do I get for all I
have done? Where is the celebration of my life, my
faithfulness, my loyalty, my hard work?
I know his heart, for his heart and mind were
mine. I was confident of my own righteousness, confident
that my beliefs and values were right, for I agreed with the
mainstream tradition which had always taught these things.
I was confident that I knew right from wrong, and my
“brother” was wrong.
I lived in the religious community of the older
brother. We have to live by principles, we said. We have
the scriptures, and they are clear that what my brother did
was wrong. If we don’t live by the rule of law, we will have
anarchy in our religion and in the society. Or so we said.
Principles and law were more important than people.
If people broke the rules, they were to be condemned.
If they acknowledged that what they did was
wrong, they could come back but would have to prove
themselves before they could be fully accepted and trusted
again. If they had a different idea of what was right and
wrong, and refused to acknowledge they had done wrong,
the door remained closed. There would be no welcome
home, no party, no celebration. They were still lost. This
was the community of the older brother.
It was my community for a long time.
WHEN MY LIFE CHANGED
Then my life changed. Our 20-year-old son died in
a car accident, and my wife and I divorced after several
years of the relationship coming apart. How can I speak of
these things only with stark words on a page? I felt that
my life, as it had been and as I had hoped it would be, had
come to an end. The darkness of sadness and grief felt like
death to me, like a sudden dying and a slow coming back
I came to understand what Paul said about his own
experience: I have been crucified with Christ and I no
longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the
body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me
and gave himself for me. [Colossians 2:20]
Before all that happened, I remember saying to
someone, many times, that I could do whatever I decided
to do. I spoke not as a rebel or lawbreaker, but in an
overly-confident and arrogant way.
As a child I learned self-control and was so good at it as a young
adult that others considered me rigid and controlling. My choices
grew from a root of fear of being embarrassed if I did not
maintain control of myself and my circumstances. But my
circumstances, of course, included other people, whether
my wife, my children, or the members of the congregations
I served as pastor. To others my decisions to do whatever
I thought best felt dominating. I persevered in my belief
that life could be controlled. For years I failed to realize that
controlling life’s circumstances meant molding other people
into my image of what they should be. If it were not so tragic, it would be
laughable that I thought I could decide what other people
should be and how they should live. Yet that is the world
of the older son in Jesus’ parable.
OLDER SON COMMUNITIES
The older son community believes life can be
controlled and that we know best how to do it. We are
confident in our understanding of moral values, of what
behaviors and beliefs are correct and right in the eyes of
God. Religiously, our confidence comes from how we
read the scriptures of our religion and how we understand
our tradition. (Every religion has its own older son
The leaders of religious communities often come
from this older son tradition and so their confidence also
grows out of their place of authority and power in the
organized religious community. In most cultures, including
traditional Christian cultures of the western world and the
United States, this authority and power interweave with
the male-dominated social and family communities as well.
Men have been in charge at home, at work, and at church.
That kind of confidence, rooted in positions of
authority granted by the religious tradition, too often
becomes arrogant and proud, sometimes even abusive
toward people who disagree or are on the fringes of those
communities. This is where the older son tradition often
leads us. I know because I was there.
Older sons often preach compassion as an essential
moral value, but the practices of the community often
deny its primacy. For example:
• Compassionate conservatism which makes principles
more important than people and sacrifices
respect for individuals to maintain the principle
• Preaching that proclaims the love of God for all
people, then says that if we don’t accept certain
beliefs God will send us to hell
• Insisting that the way I interpret certain texts of
scripture is the absolute truth and that anyone who
disagrees denies the truth and is opposed to God’s
will, insisting at the same time that “I love the
sinner and hate the sin”
Even though I never went to an extreme, I know
I was part of a larger community which often did. My
journey of the past decade has moved me out of that older
son community, but the inner tendencies still surface.