The Parable of the Elder Brother – March 18, 2007
Joshua 5:10-15, Luke 15:11-32
March 18, 2007
I’ve wanted to use this sermon title for a long time. Because the more I read this parable, the more it seems to me that it just may be the elder brother who is the real focus of this story. I like what your pew bibles say. Instead of the heading for this story being “The Prodigal Son,” it says, “The parable of the prodigal son and the elder brother.” That tells it more completely, doesn’t it? But still, the more I think about it, the more the whole parable seems to lead up to the story of the elder brother.
I want to give him “top billing” today, for a number of reasons. For one thing, I think many of us more readily identify with him, than with the prodigal. His was the story of a man missing out on the joy of God’s kingdom. And that’s the message many in the Church today need to hear.
Before we see his plight, though, I do want us to consider the prodigal for a moment. Because his story is important and it certainly “sets up” the story of the elder brother. And also I don’t want to ignore the fact that there may be “prodigals” among us who identify with him. Maybe some of you, at one time or another, have walked away from God, thinking you “knew how to run your life better.” Maybe some of you are still in your own “foreign land,” living apart from God.
This is a powerful story in that regard. And remember that Jesus is making this up! This is another masterful story from the mind of the greatest story teller. Through it, he reaches down through the ages and points to us, asking us to see how we think and feel about God and his kingdom. And like the story of the Good Samaritan a couple of weeks ago, the people listening would have reacted to some of the things Jesus said about the characters in this story. Some of these things they did would have been shocking – or even scandalous – to those listening.
For instance, in the very first sentence, this younger son did the unspeakable. He asked for his father’s inheritance – while he was still living! Jesus’ listeners would have reacted to that. “What an insolent young man this was! He should have been whipped, instead of paid!” Then he went to a “foreign land” and squandered his father’s living. I think Jesus chose that little detail for its shock value, too. It would have been bad enough for the son simply to have squandered the wealth. But you know what the Jewish people thought about “foreign lands.” This son went away to live among the gentiles and spent the family fortune in their land. He had forsaken his family and his faith and his nation! He had tossed away everything that was of importance to him.
As Jesus tells this story it’s almost like one of those stories we might tell that has increasing shock value. You know the kind. “The boy did this. But Then he did this! And Then, if that wasn’t bad enough, he did this!!! I think Jesus may have told it exactly that way! Because look what comes next. He went into the field to feed “the pigs.” And again, what kind of animals were pigs to the Jews? They were “unclean.” They were not to eat them. They were to be avoided. This son took the most despicable of jobs. Add to that the fact that he was starving, lost to his father and his family. His was a desperate situation.
Then, according to Jesus, he came to his senses. He knew that his father’s servants had plenty to eat. He was reduced to thinking only in terms of the basics of survival. So he decided he would go to his father and tell him he wasn’t worthy to be called his son. He would ask him if he would consider taking him on as a servant. – That’s what he thought would happen. But this is where the great impact of this story comes.
As he approached the house, Jesus says, his father saw him and ran to him. Now understand that in that culture, the father would have been wearing a robe. And in order to run he would have had to hike the robe up above his knees. That would have been a very “undignified” thing for a man to do. Those listening to this story would have known that. They would also have frowned on this father running to the boy at all! After the disgrace this son had brought upon the father and the family and the faith, the listeners would have expected that the most gracious thing father would do was to do what the son suggested – take him on as a servant. That would have been better than the boy deserved. He deserved to be disowned!
Instead, the father runs and embraces and kisses the boy. He hardly even seems to listen to the speech the son had practiced! Then the father calls for the finest robe, the family ring, and the greatest feast. Such is the picture of the love of God for us as Jesus paints it in this story. And it is truly an amazing story!
We could stop right there. But as I said, that’s not the story I want us to focus on today. As I said, the story of the prodigal “sets up” the story of the elder brother. You can’t have the one without the other. Together they make this so powerful!
For when the prodigal returns, the elder brother is out in the field working – like a good son! And he comes only when he hears the commotion that has arisen around this younger brother. And he is indignant! He refuses to come into the house. The father has to go out to him. And that’s a similar kind social grace he didn’t deserve. It was like the father going to meet the prodigal. He “shouldn’t have done that.” But he does. And what does this son say? “Father, I have toiled for you lo these many years, and I never got a celebration!
I think a good many people in the church can identify with this son. Too often they see the father’s kingdom as one in which “toiling in the fields” is the main thing. We must always be at work. We must always be in “learning mode.” We must always be “serious.” And don’t get me wrong. Those things are good. Service in the kingdom is important. Growing in the knowledge of God is important. And ‘serious thought’ is important, as well. But too many people forget what the son forgot. The father said, “You are always with me, and all I have is yours!”
We have the presence of God in our midst! We have been given the great and glorious gift of being part of his kingdom! Sometimes we forget that. We forget what riches we already have in God, and we fall back too easily into the feeling that faith is all toil and drudgery. We forget that what our faith is about, first and foremost, is our relationship with God. What our faith should be about is rejoicing in God’s presence. Our purpose, our “Chief End,” is indeed to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The elder brother seems to have forgotten both of those things. But especially he has forgotten the “enjoying” part!
Perhaps you are like that elder brother. Perhaps you have forgotten what it is like to celebrate and to be joyous in your relationship with God. Jesus’ listeners that day might well have understood the indignance of the elder brother. They may well have identified most readily with him. They needed to remember the joy of the kingdom, and the love of God that is beyond human understanding. What about us? Do we need to remember that, too? Some people will see a person who celebrates their love for God joyously and outwardly, and think, “that’s not what faith is about!” “That’s not dignified!”
Friends, I believe God’s kingdom is a celebration! When the eternal kingdom of God is mentioned in the Bible it is often portrayed as a banquet – a feast!. God’s kingdom here on earth should be a celebration as well. Let us be people of that celebration! Let us be people who know the great riches of God’s kingdom. Let us be people who know that God has run to meet us, and has thrown his arms around us. Let us know that we are always with him, and everything he has is ours.
Eternal God, we sometimes forget your great love for us, and the joy of your kingdom. Like the prodigal we think only in terms of the bare necessities. Like the elder brother we have thought only of the toil. Help us to see with new eyes your glory and grace and love and joy. Help us to be people who celebrate! For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.