This blog entry is an attempt at a sermon I wrote a few years ago. Yes, I do things like this "for fun". It seems to fit in with the rest of the blog, so I'm including it here. Feedback is always welcome.
In the name of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Remember that story Jesus told about the “prodigal son,” the young man who gets his inheritance early and blows it on loose women and fast living? Remember how he decides to come crawling back to dear old dad when his funds run out and finds the pigs’ slop better than his own food? And what did dear old dad do? Say “I told you so”? Lay a guilt trip? No! The old man not only welcomes his son back, but also throws a big party in his honor.
I have heard this parable discussed many times in the context of the father’s great forgiveness of his younger son. This understanding has been and continues to be a source of great comfort. After all, I have often strayed from the right road and I’ve been grateful to those who have forgiven me. I have read this story and placed myself in the shoes of the younger son, being willfully self-absorbed, seemingly bent on self-destruction and then, when that path proved fruitless, being grateful to the Father who always forgives.
But lately, I’ve wondered about the elder son. After all, he was the one who obediently stayed home and helped his father keep the family farm running smoothly. Could he really be compared to the legalist Pharisees, as one study Bible asserts? Was he simply a jealous, ungrateful son? And why did I start to feel like I identified more with him?
Let’s take a look at the situation. The elder son is angry. And why not? His father was overjoyed about the return of his brother and yet, seemed to care so little about him. I could see him standing outside, feeling neglected, ignored, unloved – invisible. Why didn’t his father appreciate all that he had done – the years of being obedient, working hard? Didn’t that count for anything?
Mark Muesse, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College, re-titles the story as “The Parable of the Slighted Son.” In his article he describes the elder son as “the one who stays on the farm with his father, tending the cows and threshing wheat while his no-good brother is off whoring god-knows-where. The elder brother has always done what he was supposed to do.”
Muesse continues, “He has played by the rules, obeyed his father, and worked himself to the bone. No wonder he raises hell when the reprobate shows up one day seeking to get back into the father’s good graces… It’s just not fair. What’s the point of always doing what you’re supposed to do if it doesn’t earn you a few advantages?”
The father’s response is telling – he doesn’t try to make his other son feel better by putting his brother down. He doesn’t try to placate him with flattery. He offers no excuses or apologies for his actions. In fact, he seems to believe that his elder son is missing the point – he has never left him; he has never stopped loving him. The elder son has always had access to his father and to his father’s love. The father actually seems a bit taken aback that his elder son has any doubts at all about that.
The younger son receives all the attention at the moment because he hasn’t had the same access, even though he brought it upon himself by leaving the family home and leading a dissolute life. Now the father wants to show his younger son how much he loves him. This celebration is not only a show of joy over his son’s return, but also a tangible sign of his continuing love.
Why didn’t the elder son (as he complained) get a young goat so he could party with his friends? Maybe the father thought that his elder son didn’t need such a tangible sign. Maybe if the elder son were more observant, he would have noticed all the ways – great and small – his father already showed his love. Maybe he simply didn’t ask, “Dad, can I have a goat?”
The elder son has the same misconception about love that many of us have – love is finite. But the fact is love isn’t a pie in which giving someone a large slice means less for everyone else. Showing a great display of love for one doesn’t mean that others are less loved. Love does not exclude – in fact, as it is given, it grows to embrace more. The elder son was not left out of the celebration. He was invited – even begged – to join in. Jesus continues the story … “His father came out and began to plead with him (15:28).”
No doubt the father had been through something like this before. I imagine he didn’t let his younger son go without a struggle. I’m sure he pleaded with the young man to reconsider his decision to take the money and run. Now the situation is similar. But this time it is the elder son who chooses to alienate himself from the family and the father again humbly asks his son to come back.
You see, in this story, both sons got it wrong. Both disrespected their father. Both would have been deserving of punishment. Yet their loving father embraces them both.
We know what happened to the younger son. He showed humility and true repentance by leaving the immoral lifestyle he had been living and returning home. He asked his father to forgive him, knowing full well, he didn’t deserve it. He depended on his father’s love to restore his place within the family. And his father welcomed him back and celebrated his safe return.
We don’t know what happened to the older brother. Jesus leaves the ending open, like one of those 1970s school films where the action stops at a critical decision point. If this were one of those films, we’d probably see a close-up of the older brother’s face as he ponders what to do, then a fade to black.
So what does he do? What do we do?
While we are pondering, let’s consider another title for this story – “The Parable of the Loving Father, the One Who Forgives.” And let’s remember the words of the father – the words of our Father – “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”