And [the father] said to him, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.
— Luke 15:31-32
The older brother was hacked off because the father’s grace won out over karma. This guy had spent the months while his younger brother was away focusing on the past. He replayed the younger brother’s transgressions over and over in his head, feeding his bitterness toward his own flesh and blood until it overtook him. Maybe he spent a little time fantasizing about the future, too. He probably dreamed of the day when his little brother dragged his sorry self home and begged for mercy. I’ll bet he conjured up dozens of scenarios that all ended with his brother being punished and shamed. Bitterness will do that to you. It’ll make you violent in your own mind.
It also does something else. Bitterness blinds us to the blessings of the present. All the time that the older brother spent resenting his younger sibling, he was missing what was right in front of him. All that time, he was in his father’s presence. He never had to feel all alone. He was well-fed and never felt the gnawing ache of intense hunger. He slept peacefully, never having to make his bed outside where he couldn’t fall too deeply asleep because it made him vulnerable to all kinds of predators. He didn’t know the devastation of abandonment by folks he’d thought were his friends but really only liked him for his money. He was always secure in his relationships with his family. He enjoyed continual access to all the father’s wealth.
Bitterness robbed the older brother of the ability to enjoy his present circumstances. It also stole his ability to celebrate and be glad. If all the father had was the brother's all along, he could have had a party with his friends. But it sounds like he never asked. Maybe he hated his younger brother so much, he refused to do anything that would make them seem similar. So he stayed far away from fun, dutifully working day after day while refusing to enjoy all that he’d been given. What a miserable existence!
What an amazing contrast with the character of the father! I am sure the father was hurt by his younger son’s requests. I’ll bet he was embarrassed after his son left home. Don’t you know that the people in town whispered about the father behind his back? Can’t you imagine how the news spread like wildfire until everyone knew what the father’s younger son had done? They probably called the father weak, impotent, a fool. But the father knew something those other people — and his older son — didn’t know. The father knew about the power of forgiveness. He refused to allow his hurt to fester until it robbed him of his enjoyment of the present, of his ability to sleep peacefully and have fun. Instead, he chose to forgive his younger son, even though the son didn’t deserve it. He chose forgiveness over bitterness.
Because the father chose forgiveness, he was free to miss his son. He was free to pray for his safety. He was free to wait watchfully for his son’s return, and on the day that his son did come back, he was free to run toward him. He felt warm compassion instead of the burning poison of bitterness. He opened up his arms and embraced him. The father was free to celebrate because he chose forgiveness. The older son viewed himself as a slave to his father, but he was really a slave to his own bitterness. This kept his arms shackled so he could not celebrate.
You can’t live too long in this broken world without being wounded. Some of us have been betrayed in extremely painful ways, which makes us feel hurt, angry and terrified to risk opening up our hearts ever again. This is totally understandable. But, through forgiveness, we have been offered a precious gift. We did not choose to be injured, and we were powerless to stop it. But we can choose to forgive, so that we are not powerless to the bitterness that wants to consume us. We have been given the ability to forgive in order to take hold of the peace and freedom that awaits us. Once we are free, we will be able to live gratefully in the present. We will be able to celebrate. We will be able to enjoy closeness with the Father in a new and open way.
If you have been wounded and have come to recognize that bitterness has robbed you of your peace and joy, then it is a good day. If you are tired of carrying around a weight of resentment, stumbling around with shackled feet when all you really long to do is dance, today could be the day. As a Christian, you have received an inheritance in Christ that includes the gift of the Holy Spirit. This same Holy Spirit can give you the strength to begin choosing forgiveness over bitterness. You have been placed into the Body of Christ, the Church, where you are surrounded by fellow believers who are also (hopefully) seeking a life free from resentment. I encourage you to use both of these resources to help you begin to forgive. You are not alone! Don’t give up until you have tasted the freedom that forgiveness brings. And when you have, CELEBRATE! It is only fitting.