The Older Brother Syndrome

By Br Mark O'Connor FMS, 7 August 2019
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. Image: Wikimedia Commons.




Catholic writer Matthew Boudway a few years ago wrote a clever little piece in Commonweal entitled, “The Prodigal Son, Revised Version”. It’s well worth re-telling:

Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.

The servant said to him, “Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”

He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf. Aren’t you worried that if you treat him so well after the way he’s behaved, I might decide to leave? And where would you be then? I’m the only one who keeps this place running.”

And the father said, “My son, you have a point. I hadn’t considered your position. You’ve been loyal and steadfast. You’ve always done your duty. And no one can deny you lead an exemplary and objectively well-ordered life. As far as I know, you’ve never spent a denarius on prostitutes. In fact, you conspicuously shun them. Let me think this over.”

Then, having thought it over, he returned to his younger son and said, “Ahem. Listen, I’m afraid I may have overdone it earlier. It’s true I’ve missed you, and seeing you again after such a long absence got me worked up. I’d like to help you out, I really would, but my hands are tied. It would be unjust, unmerciful even, for me to pretend that your current situation isn’t a complete contradiction of everything I tried to teach you. And what would the neighbours think? They might imagine I approve of prostitution and improvidence. Even your brother might get the wrong idea. No, I can’t afford a misunderstanding like that. It would ruin everything. Why don’t you come back after you’ve recovered the money you wasted. Then we’ll talk. Until then, your brother and I wish you luck. We’ll be with you in spirit.”

I very much agree with Boudway’s pointed and witty reflection. It is spot on.

Some in our Church, these days, are indeed ‘suffering’ – from an acute case of the ‘older brother’ syndrome.

In my pastoral ministry experience, occasionally some of those souls write letters about others that are brimming with arrogance and self righteousness.  They can claim to be ‘progressives’ or ‘conservatives’ –  such labels hardly matter. The key is that they are really just ‘older brother ideologues’.  Almost always they are complaining and questioning other people’s ‘orthodoxy’ and/or good faith.

They claim to be worried about the transmission of the ‘Faith’ or a certain type of ‘reform’.  However, deep down they have appointed themselves as a parallel ‘Magisterium’.  Such people are convinced of their own exclusive possession of the ‘truth’ and exhibit a not so subtle contempt, even for Pope Francis and their local bishop. They narrowly try to limit the presence of our gracious and merciful God and end up coming across as mean spirited, bitter and divisive.

Of course, anyone with any self knowledge understands the real problem and what is at stake in these people’s  tragic ‘disease’.

God’s outrageous mercy threatens all of us sinful creatures.

We are all needy creatures, and act most basically out of insufficiency. Sadly, other beings often stand as our ‘competitors’. They, too, ‘need’. They want the same things we want. And their gain seems our loss.

Not for nothing did Jean Paul Sartre, claim that ‘hell was other people’. He must have met a lot people infected with the ‘older brother’ syndrome!

I suggest that a lot our primitive resistance to being merciful ( and our desire to ‘reform’ everyone but ourselves)  is all about how ‘original sin’ connects with our ongoing capacity for infantile ‘rage’.

The mercy of the Father to the younger brother was a threat to the ‘older brother’ and yes, it threatens all of us too!



Welcome to the ‘Good News’! – which is necessarily also ‘bad news’ for those whose hearts remained hardened.

We dare not forget that no one ever promised us that a Church of mercy – which confronts our burning desire to savour the ‘sweet delights’ of resentment – will be painless.

But we do know that the Gospel of mercy is above all a matter of grace. This life of the Kingdom is not a calculus where we ‘reason’ things out!

As Pascal so famously said: ” The heart has reasons, that reason itself does not know”.

Of course, it doesn’t make ‘sense’ to the older brother!  It’s all a bountiful gift.

Let’s be clear… this is not about wanting to ‘change’ Church ‘teaching’ or even legitimate reform and renewal in our sinful church.

But our hearts do need to change – and not in the direction of multiplying in the church any more ‘older brother’ clones than it has already got…

May all of us (myself especially) – turn to the Lord Jesus and cleanse ourselves of any traces of this ‘disease’, the ‘older brother’ syndrome.

May we listen again and again to the Risen Jesus and learn that our God wants mercy not sacrifice. (cf. Matthew 9:13)

Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.


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