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Fourth Sunday in Lent March 10, 2013

I have the characteristics of the elder brother – or sister if you will – in this parable. From the time I was young, I always tried to do the right thing. I got good grades, I was nice to people, I went to church without too much complaining, I helped take care of my siblings and a did a lot of reading – all values that were prized in our family. The “bad” things I did were relatively minor, and my relationship with my family was secure. I grew up, got my degrees, and settled down to a life as a productive citizen. The most I ever heard about prodigals were other people’s children who did drugs, dropped out of school, got pregnant or were in some other way the “black sheep” of their families. I don’t think I thought they were worse than I was in human terms, but “they” were really different from “us”.

That’s what the Pharisees and scribes thought about the tax collectors and sinners – that they were different and certainly worse. The Pharisees and scribes kept the religious law scrupulously, but tax collectors and sinners were beyond the pale. Tax collectors made money off their fellow Jews by working for Rome, and sinners had done notorious things that had them thrown out of the synagogue (Fred Craddock). Yet Jesus accepted them. He ate and drank with anybody and everybody. He didn't require repentance first. He accepted first. And that was something the Pharisees and scribes just could not understand. So they grumbled about it in Jesus’ hearing.

To help them see the importance of acceptance, Jesus told them a parable about a man and his two sons. The younger son wanted to sow some wild oats. He didn't have any money to do that, so he demanded that his father give him his inheritance – the land he would receive after his father died. It was a terrible insult to his father and disrespectful in the extreme to act like the man was already dead. The surprising thing was that the father agreed. That meant he accepted the public shame and humiliation of his son’s disloyalty. He loved his son so much that he was willing to let him go.

The son who had broken relationship with his family went to a distant land – a Gentile land – separating himself even more from his family and his heritage. As you would expect, he did not invest the money wisely, but squandered it in dissolute living. When he ran out of money, he found there was a famine in the land and he had no way to survive it. He had to hire himself out to a pig farmer, something no decent Jewish boy would ever do. He was still starving because no one gave him anything to eat. He had hit bottom, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous. That was the point at which he came to himself. He realized how far he had fallen from the identity he once held as his father’s son (Michael B. Curry). He realized his sin, both against God and his father. So he decided to go home, confess and ask to be treated as one of his father’s hired hands. He knew his father had every right to disown him, but he would try anyway.

Again, the father does not act as expected. Not only had he not disowned his son, he had been waiting and watching and praying for his return. When he saw him, he did something no Jewish patriarch would have done. He picked up his robe and ran as fast as he could to greet his son. He did not even let him get through the apology he had been practicing before he called for a robe and a ring and sandals and ordered that a fatted calf be prepared and a huge party given. He did not do this because of anything the son had done, but from pure joy that the son who had been dead was alive; he who had been lost both physically and psychologically (Arland J. Hultgren) was found.

In this story, we most often focus on the prodigal son and the divine love that the father’s actions represent. But equally compelling is the story of the elder son, who was horrified that there was so much celebration over the return of this wastrel son. He would not come to the party because he was so angry. So his father came out to him as he had come out to the younger son. He pleaded with him to come in, to come home, another thing that no Jewish patriarch would ever do. But the older son was full of self-righteous anger. He had always been obedient, he had slaved for his father, but his father never even offered him a goat to share with his friends, and the son had certainly earned it. Surely his works gave him a higher standing than the younger son. Surely he was a better son to his father. Surely his father should love him more. But the father does not go along with this judgment (O.C. Edwards, Jr.). He loves both sons equally. Instead he appeals to the benefits the son has received by staying home and working for the family. Genuinely puzzled, he says, but you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. Please come to the celebration. You are lost from connection with the family and with love because of your self-righteousness. Please accept the grace of my love for you and don’t stand on what you have done to deserve better treatment.

This parable does not have a neat ending. We don’t know if the elder brother came in at his father’s pleading and joined the party. We don’t know if he was able to lay down his self-righteous anger to accept the grace of his father’s love. Jesus leaves the parable open because he is asking the Pharisees and scribes what they are going to do. Are they going to accept that Jesus welcomes sinners and tax collectors as equals to them, as full human beings deserving of God’s love, or will they stay stuck in their exclusionary self-righteous views?

Calling this story the parable of the prodigal son is probably a misnomer. It does not take into account the elder brother, whose story is just as important. Perhaps it is more important because there are many more elder brothers in church communities than prodigal sons. We do a lot of work for the church. We are generous with our money, our time and our talent. We have been with God for a long time. We receive God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament and all that God has is ours over which to exercise good stewardship. We act on the gospel in our daily lives. We do much to “deserve” God’s love.

But as elder brothers and sisters, we are tasked with being grateful for the blessings God has given us instead of worrying about trying to earn our salvation. We can’t, and that reality should set us free from anxiety about doing it right and any superior feelings we may have about other people – about prodigals. We are free to join in celebration when those who have been lost to God – the unreligious, the evil, the ignorers, the angry ones – come back to the fold. God loves us all the same and that is something to be grateful for.

We are also tasked to look for the prodigal in ourselves. Even the most obedient of elder brothers and sisters have gone through prodigal periods. As a young person, mine was about food. I ate too much, according to my mother, and I was not athletic. I didn’t like exercise one little bit. Being thin and athletic was prized in our family, and my mother could never get me to fit in. Oh, I would try the latest diets but I always fell off the wagon. I was taken back into my mother’s good graces only to lose them again when I gained a few pounds. To her, I was a prodigal in that area, out of relationship with the family values. I have prodigal moments in my adult life as well, as we all do. Thinking about ourselves as elder and younger brothers keeps us humble and able to receive the grace of God.

The father is also an important character in the story. The father loves both sons to distraction and dispenses grace everywhere. That is how God is with us. God’s love for us is limitless. We cannot earn it, nor can we lose it. We all come home to God as sinners (R. Alan Culpepper), and God takes us in, rejoicing that we have come back to our heart’s center. The divine grace and love of God trumps anything we may have done.

Whether we are in an elder brother or younger brother phase, God comes out to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. God never stops longing for and working for our return if we are lost and God celebrates with us when we are found. Our job in Lent as always is to come to ourselves, to know whose we are and to be grateful.


  - Rev. Ann Barker


Works Cited:
Fred Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year, Year C (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 159
Michael B. Curry, Feasting on the Word, vol. 2, Year C, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 119
Arland J. Hultgren, Working Preacher blog, Lectionary for Fourth Sunday in Lent 2013
O.C. Edwards, Jr., Tuesday Morning, Volume 15, No. 1, p. 25
R. Alan Culpepper, New Interpreter’s Bible, “The Gospel of Luke” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 305