On the face of it, today's gospel parable looks simple. There’s a father, and he has two sons. The younger of the sons insults the father by asking for his share of the family inheritance; he might as well have said, “Dad, I wish you were dead, because I want my money now!” Upon receiving the money, the younger son vanishes, and might never have been heard from again, but for his wasteful tendencies. When the money’s all gone and he finds himself miserably working on a pig farm – and pigs, we recall, are animals Jews are not permitted to touch or eat, so he has reached a new low in being required to feed pigs – he makes up his mind to go home, where he is welcomed by his father with open, loving arms, and a grand feast.
“He was lost and now he is found!” The theme of the story is bolstered by the two very short parables which precede it. We did not read those today, but let me remind you quickly: A shepherd with 100 sheep is entirely focused on the one lost sheep, and rejoices when he finally finds that little lost one. A woman with ten coins tears her house apart looking for the one she has lost, and exults when she discovers it. One animal, or item, or child goes missing, and we search, or we wait, and when it, or he or she, is restored to us, we are wild with delight. In today’s story, the father is SO wild with joy that when he sees his son, far off in the distance, he goes running down the road to meet him. We might not think much of that – wouldn’t we do the same? – but in those days, for an older man, a landowner and family patriarch, to run, would have been undignified and unseemly, not something he would do at all. That little verb “ran” – “he ran” – offers us a world of information about the father’s anxiety, relief, love, and joy. He doesn’t even wait to see what the son has to say, or even if he has anything to say at all; the father runs – and embraces and kisses.
So, there you have it. A father and a son. The lost and the found. The sinner and the merciful.
Except . . . except, there’s another brother. The elder brother. The brother who makes no unreasonable requests, who stays home and does his share of the work, who remains faithful to the father and to all that he is called to do. Plenty of ink has been spilled in the last century over family relationships and the motives behind them, so we can easily recognize this fellow: the firstborn, the responsible one, the one who does everything right. I would hazard a guess that many of us here ARE the firstborn, in personality traits and behavior if not in literal birth order.
And we know about this life of the firstborn, right? He gets good grades, his younger brother goofs off and even has to repeat a course or two – but their parents love them both. Huh? He gets a job every summer while his younger brother gets arrested and has to go to juvenile court – and their mom gives the younger one even more attention – what’s that about? He gets a good adult job and even sends money home, while his younger brother can’t seem to stick with any work at all and even moves back in with their parents, who seem fine with that arrangement. He drops everything to help their parents with their finances and their move to assisted living when their situation changes, while his younger sibling is still receiving a monthly allowance from them. We all know these stories. Maybe we ARE these stories.
And so we understand the elder brother in the parable. We understand him so well that we gloss right over him. We know that the real problem boy in this story is the younger son, the one who has squandered all his money, has been reduced to feeing pigs, and has come in shame, with a speech of repentance on his lips. So much drama there – most of the paintings and sculptures depicting this parable focus on the re-uniting of father and younger son. That’s the big moment, right?
Do we then miss the other son’s story? Do we miss the reminder that there are others ways in which to separate ourselves from God? Other ways in which to sin?
Let’s look at that older brother. He approaches the house, hears the music and dancing, and hesitates. Instead of rushing in to find out what all the celebration is about, he first asks one of the slaves. And then, when he has his answer, he refuses to go inside. He speaks angrily to his father when his father begs him to come in. “I’ve worked like a slave for you! I’ve followed all the rules! You’ve never offered me even a small party, and here this . . . this reprobate . . . this son of yours (imagine the disdain in his tone of voice) . . . he makes a complete mess of his life and you welcome him back with the fatted calf!”
We can imagine the rest, can’t we? “Where is the justice in this situation?” That’s what the elder son wants to know. Researches tell us that children develop a sense of fairness – a sense of justice – early on, at home with brothers and sisters, on the playground with friends and schoolmates, on the sports field, in the classroom – and they expect conflicts to be resolved fairly, and protest when they are not. Our elder son today is still protesting: “It’s not fair! You’re not fair!
And at this point, the story becomes the father’s story. For what does he say? “You are always with me, and all that I have is yours.” The father cannot give the elder son anything more, because he has already given him everything: all of his presence, and all that he possesses. What more is there, beyond all?
Well . . . maybe one more thing, and that is what the father is trying to give the elder son at the end. The one more thing that the father has to convey is the knowledge, the certainty, that his gifts, extravagant and complete as they are, are for both sons. No matter how alienated, or why – whether by intentional, physical separation; by wasteful disdain and disregard; by rigid, angry self-righteousness – the father’s gifts and love, like those of God, are never exhausted, never limited by human concepts of fairness, never allocated according to some sort of human concept of scarcity. It CAN be infuriating, can’t it? – this wild, sweeping, expansive range of God’s grace, which seems to know no boundaries nor be fenced in by any concept of justice that we understand. And yet, there it is – there GOD is, running down the road toward us, arms flung open, coat flapping in the wind, or standing next to us, hands of compassion for our oh-so-limited understanding of abundant love grasping our clenched fists – there God is with God’s infuriating, outrageous, all-encompassing love. Amen.
*Most of the ideas in this sermon are well-known, but they are also beautifully summarized in two Working Preacher essays, one by Professor Alan Hultgren (3/10/13) and the other by Professor Matt Skinner (3/14/10). I am also indebted to my former professor The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes for his introduction to an emphasis on the elder brother, one version of which can be found in his sermon,“The Problem with Being Good,” (04/03/11). For the title, I think my friend and colleague, The Rev. Tricia Dykers-Koenig.