No! You listen to me! This is not fair at all! I’ve worked like a dog and a slave for you my whole life! I’ve never disappointed you, never disobeyed you, I’ve stayed at home, I’ve been a faithful son, but I don’t feel like you’ve ever acknowledged my presence; when have you praised me for being a good son? Not once have you given me even a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends! And then, this, this “son” of yours shows up out of the blue, like nothing is wrong, and it is like I never existed! You fawn all over him! You throw a huge party, and you don’t even tell me about it! I have to learn about it from one of the servants! No! I’ll tell you, It’s not fair, and I for one will not put up with it, nor will I come inside to even look at that irresponsible whore monger. I’m done. I’m outta here!
We’ve all heard enough sermons from this passage to know that we are not supposed to like the elder brother. We’ve been told that the elder brother, because of his self-righteousness and unforgiving spirit, is the identified bad guy in this story. But in spite of the elder brother’s angry rant, there is quite a bit about him that is rather admirable. This elder brother is pretty much all that we would want in a son. He’s responsible, dependable, reliable, committed, predictable, steadfast and obviously, very loyal. He is everything that his little brother is not. He is by all accounts the one who deserves the party with the fatted calf. He is the kind of person that most pastors would just love to have filling the pews on a Sunday morning.
But before we fall head over heels over this guy, let us first consider the younger brother. If the elder brother is the paragon of shining success as a son, the younger brother is an absolute and complete failure as a son. And we learn this even before he leaves home.
His behavior at home is an absolute abomination. It is obvious that he has been the problem child in the family, perhaps from the very beginning. No son, who had even a modicum of respect for his father would ask for his inheritance in advance. That’s the fancy way of saying “before the old man kicked off.” That sort of thing just wasn’t done. It is proper to “wait” for one’s inheritance. But the absolutely stunning thing is that the father gives the boy what he asks for! And apparently ours is not to ask why, there is no explanation given, we’re just left to shake our heads in wonder. Surely the father must have known that this wasn’t the ideal thing to do. Surely the father must have already known that his younger son was rash, unthinking, selfish and uncaring. Dad certainly knows that his son is disrespectful, and that he doesn’t share the hard-working morals of the rest of the family, but he gives him the money anyway. And after just a few days, filled with wanderlust, the son strikes out on what he must have thought would be a grand adventure. And just so that his activities don’t get reported on Facebook, the younger son goes off to a far country where he can sow his wild oats in relative obscurity.
But like most lottery winners, it wasn’t long before he had blown his wad. Jesus says that he “squandered his property in dissolute living.” That’s a little more circumspect than what his older brother has to say about the lad’s activities, but then again, it is Jesus himself who puts the words into the elder brother’s mouth. And what one of us would say that the elder brother’s speculation is exaggeration? This young man is intentionally away from home and family, and he intends to do naughty things. It is quite likely that the younger son did devour his father’s property with prostitutes, and many other opportunities for dissipation, as they made themselves available.
As it turned out, though, this exciting adventure didn’t really pan out to be all that exciting. I wonder if the joy went out of it before the money did? Sometimes that happens, I think, but it doesn’t really matter. There never has been any real connection between money and joy anyway, and if there was, it was only an imaginary connection. The only true joy that can come from having any money at all is the joy of giving it away for the glory of God.
But the younger son doesn’t have any money at all to give away for the glory of God, and now things are going from bad to worse. The far country that he has escaped to has managed to grow itself a famine. Jesus tells his listeners that it was a severe famine and that the young man began to be in need. We’re probably left to fill in a few of the details ourselves; we can surmise that when the money disappeared, so did the friends, because unlike joy and money, there is always a connection between money and friends. When there is money, there will be friends.
And so far the first time in his life, the younger son is alone and lonely. He looked for work so that he could support himself, but the only job he could find was one feeding pigs. And for the first time we learn that this young Jewish boy has run away into gentile territory. The pagan environment may very well have served to keep his dissolute lifestyle anonymous and unpublished, because what happens in gentile territory, stays in gentile territory. But now, he is at a definite disadvantage. He is a foreigner, and an alien. And Jesus says, “…and no one gave him anything.”
I believe that loneliness will make a person think. Loneliness is a powerful motivator for self reflection. And as the younger son ponders the utter failure of his wild adventure, he thinks of home. And as he does, he realizes that he has wasted forever every opportunity that he ever had as a son in his family. He has destroyed his own son-ship. He has burned all of his bridges, sunk all of his ships, eaten his last dinner, and any other cliches that any of the rest of us can think of. He is no longer worthy to be called a son, and he knows it. He can never go back, he can never go home.
But as he slops the hogs, and feels the beginning pangs of starvation, his mind turns to his father’s servants. The comparison between his present situation and his father’s servants’ situation is alarming. Even a slave in his father’s household is better off by far than he is. And so the younger son prepares an elaborate speech, practices it and practices it, even though he knows that every word of it is true, and that it will probably just spill out of him anyway.
While all of this is going on, dad is at home, watching, waiting, pleading, praying, loving. The father wants, more than anything else, for his son to come home. It does not even occur to the son that his father might still love him. And maybe there’s some of us here this morning that can’t even begin to imagine that that God could possibly love us, or that God would want to have any kind of relationship with us at all. We might know in our hearts that we have wasted all of the opportunities for doing good in our lives. If we’re thinking that, take a good, long hard look at the yearning watchfulness of this father. And see the party that dad throws for his son. Hear those words of rejoicing that spill out of the father’s mouth when he says to his slaves: “Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The younger son had a pretty good speech prepared. And we might have a pretty good one prepared ourselves. But he didn’t need it, and neither do we. The only speech that really needs a hearing is the father’s. If we want to come home, we need to hear that speech over and over again until it sinks into both our hearts and minds, and sends us running into our father’s arms. “Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The celebration must have kicked up quite a ruckus, because as the elder son, the good and faithful son, the responsible, dependable, reliable son, comes in from the fields, he hears music and senses dancing, and he is not pleased. He does not share the joy of his father, nor does he comprehend the depth of grace and love and mercy that his father has for both of his sons.
And then something really, really awful happens. The elder brother refuses to come in. And in refusing to come in, he repeats the performance of the younger brother that he so despises. The older son might as well run away to a far country as to exclude himself from his brother’s homecoming party. The end result is the same.
The older brother is breathing, but he is as dead as dead can be, and he is as lost as lost can be. A dramatic reversal of roles has taken place. And this dramatic reversal of roles has taken place because the elder brother cannot abide the grace and mercy and forgiveness that the father has extended to his younger son. Worse, however, is that the elder brother does not realize that his father has also extended grace and mercy and forgiveness to him. Perhaps, unlike his younger brother, he has never realized that he needs mercy, grace and forgiveness.
I am convinced that Jesus told this parable to remind us that there are going to be people coming into the family who have pasts that are embarrassing to them and to us. We can receive them as God the Father receives them, and join with all of heaven in the rejoicing, or we can be the elder brother.