I remember when my second child was born. It had been two years since our first was born and we had spent those two years as a family of three, getting used to each other, learning how to live as a unit, and my wife and I gave all of our attention to our son. There was no one else to infringe upon his time with us. He had 100% of us.
Then, our second son came along. While my first son wasn't angry, or at least didn't act it, he also didn't pay any mind to his new little brother. He ignored him. Over time, he began to realize that the time which he had easily monopolized had to be shared. He was no longer #1. The first time he really paid any attention to his little brother, my wife had his little brother in the swing and my oldest just stopped, stared at him, and began to laugh hysterically. We captured the moment on video, which is fairly priceless. That was the beginning of their relationship together.
From a biblical perspective, there are plenty of advantages to being the firstborn. The firstborn had the lion's share of inheritance, many times being the double portion. The inheritance would extend beyond simply finances as well, the firstborn would most likely carry on the family name and become the patriarch after the death of the father. There were, and still are, many benefits to being the firstborn.
Among the other places in Scripture where we see the relationship between the firstborn and younger brother is the parable of the prodigal son. If you have never read Henri Nouwen's "Return of the Prodigal Son," it is a must read as he takes the perspective of each character within the book. The most eye-opening and convicting section of the book for me was the section on the oldest brother.
Sure, the younger brother squandered his share of the fortune on hard living, gaining friends who cared for nothing more than his money, but grace meets us where we are when we come in repentance, which is exactly how the younger brother was returning to his father. But it wasn't fair, how could he tell his father, "I wish you were dead because I want my share of the family fortune," squander all that his money, and then return and think that there was still a place at the table for him? There are some limits to grace, aren't there?
It's always funny how we are happy and satisfied with grace when it is meted out upon us, but when it comes to extending it to someone else, they need to earn it. Why does that never apply to us? Do we earn grace? If we did, would it still be grace?
Lately, I have noticed that the trend of the firstborn happens in all different places in life. People are #1 for a while, they get everything that they want, all attention is focused on them, and then someone else comes along and they are not happy with sharing. They have done everything that they are supposed to do and then the "younger brother" comes along, is extended grace, and they aren't happy about it. How about me? they ask. How about all that I have done?
Another parable that strikes a chord, or even a "grace" note, is in Matthew 20. The workers are hired throughout the day and at the end of the day are all paid the same amount. It just doesn't seem fair. But the landlord did nothing other than what he promised, he paid them all exactly what he had promised, but the ones who had done more work thought it was unfair.
I'm a second born, but there have been plenty of times that I have acted like a firstborn. I've been selfish and stubborn. I have demanded things my way and cried out "foul" when things don't go the way that I want. I want grace but when it comes to extending it elsewhere, I want people to earn it. I have been the old brother, how about you?
The surprising thing to me is that some of us can go our whole lives and act as if we are only children. Everything has been handed to us on a platter, served up fresh and on time, and when someone else comes along, cramping our style, we react harshly. Why can't things be the way they were when it was just me? I guess that basic principle of sharing that we were supposed to have learned in pre-school was somehow overlooked.
I don't want to act like the older son, it just kind of happens though. I need to be reminded every day that grace happens, it's not earned, it's extended freely, otherwise, it wouldn't be grace. Think about it. Check out Nouwen's book. Next time you start feeling lofty as if you deserved something, maybe you can remember exactly what you would deserve if it hadn't been for God's grace extended to you.