March 22, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Luke 15:11-32
This parable Jesus told is so rich in meaning that we could speak for hours about it and not exhaust its possibilities. Dont worry, I dont plan on keeping you that long. Just be aware that more has been written over the centuries of this story than of any other parable Jesus spoke. Connecting to the stories that preceed it in Lukes gospel, tales of a lost sheep and a lost coin, someone early on started calling it the Parable of the Lost Son, or the Prodigal.
However, this is much more than a narrative about someone who grabbed his inheritance and ran, who then reached the bottom of the barrel and returned home. The pivotal figure in this story is a parent who releases, waits, welcomes home and rejoices. As we hear the words, our thoughts are drawn toward God. Is this a picture of God that Jesus paints? Though nowhere does he actually say as much, that seems to be the implication.
As I said, though, this is a rich parable, which can be heard from so many perspectives. There is another character involved, you know, one who often receives less attention. This morning I want us to place our feet into the sandals of the older brother. I venture to say that these shoes may fit more snug for many (if not most) of us than the sandals worn by his younger sibling. Even those of us who have returned as a prodigal son or daughter can become like this older brother. Its sort like an ex-smoker who becomes extremely intolerant toward those who have yet to make that step away from tobacco.
In the first part of the parable, the older brother is all but invisible. We hear that there are two sons, but we know nothing of the older boy until the time comes for partying upon the younger ones return. The elder son may be missing from the action, but he certainly has not missed out. We should remember that, unlike how we might divide up estates nowadays, back then inheritance operated a bit different. When the soon-to-be-prodigal son asked for his share, the father would not have taken into account every asset he possessed, then divide it all down the middle and hand half to his youngest offspring. No, the lions share of an inheritance almost always went to the oldest son.
Do you recall the story of Jacob and Esau in the book of Genesis? They were twins, but since Esau entered the world first he was to receive the blessing of his Dad when the old fellow died, a blessing which was more than a mere pat on the back and an encouragement to keep the family going. No, the blessing included a bigger share of the familys wealth. Thats how things were done back then. As the story goes, Jacob tricked his father into thinking he was Esau as he lay on his deathbed. Isaac then gave the blessing, which rightly belonged to Esau, to the younger son, Jacob. Of course, Jacob soon had to run away from Esaus wrath without any of the familys wealth. He went penniless to a far country of his own, where he took care of his Uncles sheep and goats (no pigs in that story). Esau may not have received his fathers verbal blessing, but he made out quite well financially in that deal. In the end, upon Jacobs return, there was a reconciliation between brothers, unlike the story Jesus told.
In our Lords parable, the father would probably have given the younger son but a fraction of the estate, perhaps one third of the cash on hand (so to speak). This younger brother, however, did receive his rightful portion, by the way things were done in that day. Maybe this was partly why he decided to head off on his own in the first place. Since he wasnt the oldest, his prospects at home werent as good from the start. Who knows why a prodigal runs away? The reasons given by those who have done the same down through the years could probably fill several books. However, this morning our focus is upon the brother who stayed home.
We first encounter him after his sibling returns home. You know the story. Dad has been watching the windows ever since the youngest ran away. No doubt a large part of his heart went to that far country also. Maybe this father didnt leave everything and go out searching for his son, like the good shepherd, who sought that one lost sheep until it was found. Maybe he didnt sweep every nook and cranny, like that woman, who looked carefully for that one lost coin until it finally was recovered. Even so, that fathers eyes were focused on the horizon, such that he saw his returning lost son when he was but a speck off in the distance. The father ran to welcome his lost offspring home with open arms. A party was called forth which overshadowed the apologies of this errant young man. Robes, rings, fatted calves, all flowed from the heart of this father who never gave up on his son.
Its at this point in the story that we run into the older brother. When all this happened, he was out in the fields working, where he was supposed to be, where his younger brother shouldve been had he not taken up this innane notion of chasing after some illusive fortune far from home. Big brother had chosen to do what was right in the eyes of his father. Who can argue with that? He wasnt the bad guy in this story. This isnt a parable about good guys and bad guys. Its a tale of relationships, which for all of us are full of both good and bad aspects.
From a distance it becomes obvious to the older brother that a party is going on back home. Music, dancing, perhaps the aroma of steak on the grill. Can you step into the sandals of this returning bother? He is not coming back from a far country, but from the fields - doing his job. "Why didnt someone come and get me? Did they intend to leave me out? How much have I missed? Did I forget someones birthday? Whats going on? Hey Joe, why all the decorations and party favors? ... Say what? My no-good brother came home? All this for him? This is Dads idea? Dad always did like him best, anyway. Nothing I ever did could satisfy Pop. This just goes to prove it. I try and try to please him, working my butt off, day after day, but all twinkle toes has to do is show his face and Im history. My brother went and did what he wanted to do. Its a matter of choices. He made the wrong choice. How come he gets this kind of treatment now? Dad never threw a party like this for me, even though I made the right choice? What ever happened to consequences? You reap what you sew, isnt that what the good book says? Well, if they think Im going to join in this charade, they got another thing coming." And so the older brother refused to go in and celebrate, choosing instead to sulk.
Are we ever like this older brother? If the truth be told, these sandals probably fit us more snug than the rag-tag shoes the younger brother wore. Can we come to the place of admitting it? Jesus told this story in response to the attitude of some older brother types. They were called pharisees and scribes, but dont try to put them into a box marked "somebody other than me." The good news loses its power when we make that move - it speaks to somebody else. It becomes a weapon to aim at other people, instead of a tool God uses to transform our lives - to bring about a new creation.
Those older-brother-like scribes and pharisees were upset over the company Jesus kept: tax collectors, prostitutes - folks who they felt belonged in a box marked "sinners," people who made wrong choices. They were ticked off because it seemed like our Lord had a clear preference for these persons. He did, though it wasnt because he loved them any better. His choice of reaching out to them was more like that of a doctor who pays attention to someone who needs his care at that moment.
At the moment of his return, the prodigal son needed the attention of his father. Actually, he needed it before, but wouldve been unable to receive it. Pride makes us do funny things, you know. Wasnt it pride that also kept the older brother away from the celebration? Was it pride that prevented him from seeing that he was lost in his own far country, the land of self-pity, lifeless duty, unfocused anger? I mean, who was he really angry at: his no-good brother or his Dad? Or was his anger even more general, at a world where people can act irresponsibly and actually get ahead, frequent prostitutes and not get AIDS, flaunt the law and escape punishment, declare bankruptcy and get credit again? (Of course, Im flying beyond the skies of this story, arent I? You can add your own details.) Maybe the older brothers anger was focused inward. Here he had spent the best years of his life doing what he thought was right. Was it all wrong? Was he a fool for doing so? Instead of celebrating, he was kicking himself. How many of our wounds are self-inflicted?
At that moment in the story, the father reached out to his oldest son, just as God reaches out to those who are not, in their own eyes, prodigal children - but who may be just as lost. "Son," the father said after listening to all the self-pity, lifeless duty, and unfocused anger pour out of his faithful offspring; "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."
With those words the story ends. Of course, this is no ending. Things remain up in the air. How will they resolve? Will the two brothers ever be reconciled? Will the father and the older son make peace with each other? Will the eldest brother come to terms with himself? As with the best of stories, the resolution is left up to those who hear it. Will we apply it to our own lives?
The father speaks an essential truth: "you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." Those are words we need to hear, not in terms of justifying what we do - as if God, the patient, waiting father is in favor of our every move, that we have his blessing upon our actions even if they are wrongheaded. There are undoubtedly times when, and places where we are not with the Father, even when we chose to stay home and not venture off to some far country of wasteful living. We can waste what we have at home, just as easily as away from home.
Do we, however, hear those comforting, challenging words, spoken not just to that fictional older brother, but to us who listen to our Lord and Savior speak this parable today? "You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." Do we believe those words as we labor, as we seek to do what is right, as we try walk with the Lord? Not only the land upon which (the space within which) we work and the tools we use, the gifts both spiritual and physical, but also the robes, the rings, and the fatted calves of reconciliation and celebration are ours as well.
The oldest brother had it all, and he didnt even recognize it. Do we? "You are always with me," Jesus says, "and all that is mine is yours."
©1998Peter L. Haynes
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