March 11, 2013

Fourth Sunday of Lent

The Presbyterian Brother

This story from the gospel of Luke is one of the best known of Jesus’ parables.  We call it the parable of the prodigal son.  The younger brother demands his inheritance, leaves home, wastes everything, falls on unbelievably hard times, and then returns, hoping to beg his father for a position as a servant.  The father is so glad to see him that he brings out the best clothes for him to put on, which he will need because the father is throwing a great party to celebrate.  The lost is found, the son is back home, and all’s well that ends well, right?  Not exactly.

We kind of forget the second half of the parable, which isn’t about the prodigal son at all.  Remember that the story begins like this:  “There was a man who had two sons.”  The story is as much as about the elder son as the younger one – the elder son, presbuteros in Greek, the same word that gives us Presbyterian.

The Presbyterian brother, like any good first-born, has a deep sense of duty and responsibility.  He follows the rules, and he works hard.  And what happens?  That ne’er-do-well kid brother of his, that son of his father, gets the big party, the gourmet meal, with the live band and the open bar.  And the elder brother doesn’t even get so much as take-out burgers to eat with his buddies.  Where is the justice in all this?

Let’s look more closely at the story to see what it tells us about this first-born son.  Right at the beginning (verse 12), the younger son demands his inheritance from his father. In the culture of this time and place, it was an unthinkable request, a deep insult, a violation of all the rules of family and faith.  After all, you don’t inherit the family business while your father is still running it. In effect, he is asking his father to drop dead, at least from the perspective of the law.  The boy demands his share and, amazingly, the father complies. 

But it isn’t just the younger brother who gets his inheritance.  The father divides up the whole estate. The older son gets his portion, too.  The father gives it all away.  Everything he has is given to these two boys to do with as they will.  The one throws it away.  And the other clutches it so tightly that he cannot see the value of what he has.  Reading between the lines, he is obsessed with getting and having.  He leads a joy-less life. 

And the sound of the party going on, as he is dragging himself in from the fields, is just more than he can stand, especially when he finds out that it is a celebration of his brother’s homecoming.  The nerve of the old man, doing something like this!

One writer, Robert Farrar Capon, describes the scene for us (The Parables of Grace, p 142; NRSV substituted for KJV in original):

The Elder Brother. Mr. Respectability… The man with volumes and volumes of the records he has kept on himself and everyone else.  And as he comes near the house, he hears music and dancing.  ….  He gasps:  Music! Dancing! Levity! Expense! And on a working day, yet!

He calls one of the slaves to ask what is going on. He is not happy:  Why this frivolity?  What about the shipments that our customers wanted yesterday?  Who’s minding the store? 

And the slave tells him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 

He rants:  The fatted calf!  Doesn’t that old fool know I’ve been saving that for next week’s sales promotion when we show our new line of turnips?  How am I supposed to run a business when he blows the entertainment budget on that loser of a son? 

And he is so angry that he refuses to go in.  Finally, therefore, he makes a proclamation:  I will not dignify this waste with my presence.   Someone has to exercise a little responsibility around here! 

And then, for this ungrateful, jealous, bitter boy, the father leaves his guests and goes out to him and pleads with him to come to the celebration.  But he won’t. “Listen!” he says – and you can hear the hostility and disrespect in his tone – “Listen!  For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never even given me a young goat so I might celebrate with my friends.” 

And do you hear how he misses the whole point.  He isn’t working for his father at all.  The whole estate that is left belongs to him!  He is not a slave to his father; he is a slave to himself. 

He has cut himself off from his family.  He refuses to claim kinship with his brother, referring to him as that “son of yours.”  But his father won’t let him get away with any of this.  He says to him:  “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

And there the parable ends, without a real ending.  It just stops, leaving us standing in the yard with the father and the elder son, not knowing what will happen next. Will the elder son do as the younger one did, and return to his father’s embrace?  Will he acknowledge that nothing he can do will make him worthy of the father’s love?  Will he celebrate with all the other unworthy guests?  Will he be willing to eat with the sinners?  Will he put on his party clothes and go in, or will he stand in the yard by himself, clutching the rags of his respectability and trying to warm his own cold heart?

I think we can guess how Jesus wanted the story to end.  The clue is in the first and second verses of chapter 15:  “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” 

This fellow, this Jesus, welcomes sinners.  And as one scholar notes, in this parable there are two kinds of sinners, two kinds of sin (Kenneth E. Bailey. Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15, pp 190-91):
“One is the sin of the law-breaker – the prodigal – and the other is the sin of the law-keeper – the elder brother.  Each sin centers on a broken relationship.  One breaks that relationship while failing to fulfill the expectations of the family and society.  The second breaks his relationship while fulfilling those same expectations.”

And where are we in this story, my Presbyterian brothers and sisters?  Where are we?  We are the ones who try so hard to do things right, to follow the rules, to be good.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  But it will not earn us God’s love. There is nothing we can do to make God love us or to make God stop loving us.  That is the scandal of grace. 

As Frederick Buechner defines it (Wishful Thinking, p 38): 

Grace is something you can never get but can only be given.  There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. …

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace.  There’s nothing you have to do.  There’s nothing you have to do.  There’s nothing you have to do.

In her poem The Wild Geese, Mary Oliver writes this: 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

We were created in love; we were created for love.  And the wide expanse of God’s love in Christ is big enough to take in the whole world – saints and sinners, wastrels and misers, prodigals and Presbyterians.

We don’t have to be perfect.  We don’t have to be good.  We only have to love as we were made to love.  And that means loving God with heart, mind, soul and body, and loving our neighbors, our brothers, our sisters, as we love ourselves.  And when we love that way, we are where we belong, next to God’s heart, and there is cause for celebration. 

So listen for the sound of music and dancing.  God is throwing a party, and we are all invited, we are all welcomed, every single one of us.  God wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thanks be to God!


Sermon preached for
First Presbyterian Church
Hartford, CT
March 10, 2013
by Martha C. Highsmith 

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