Alfred: "I followed all of the rules, man's and God's. And you, you followed none of them. And they all loved you more. Samuel, Father, and even my own wife."
My daughter related to me, in impressive detail, the entire plotline of the 1994 movie Legends of the Fall, starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, and Aidan Quinn. As far as she was concerned, the whole film was just a building up to the above quotation, spoken by the oldest of three brothers, Alfred, to the middle brother, Tristan.
I was struck by the similarity between the oldest son in the tale of the Ludlow family of Montana and the elder son in the tale we know from the Bible as the parable of the Prodigal Son.
In both cases, the storyteller (director Edward Zwick for the movie, Jesus Christ for the parable) saves the revealing line for near the end of the story. Thus we the viewer experience many days, as it were, of watching the elder brother do good and live commendably, and we are impressed with his virtue.
We may feel outraged at what seems to be the perverseness of the universe-that scoundrels come out on top (Tristan in the movie and the Prodigal in the parable-though not really) while the good, law-abiding brother can't catch a break (Alfred in the movie and the stay-at-home brother in Luke 15).
It is at this point that the omniscient director and Director spring the epiphany-that the older brothers who had seemed to be so unswervingly virtuous had never been virtuous out of pure love of righteousness. Both elder brothers had smuggled in a quid pro quo, unaware to us and probably to themselves: "If I do all the right things, God, You need to give me what I want!" Tragically, the two elder brothers had fallen into a common trap-"imagining that godliness is a means of gain" (1 Timothy 6:5).
The moral of the story is, of course, not that it is better to be a bad person, but that it is better to repent of being a "good" person for a bad reason. Selfishness is sin, whether it wears the wild get-up of Tristan or the respectable garb of Alfred. Both directors, mercifully, leave the tale open-ended, giving us hope for all elder brothers, including us.