The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Scripture: Luke 15:1-3, 11b - 32
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
3 So he told them this parable: 11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said 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. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “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 given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
Sermon: The good religious people and legal experts grumbled. You see, Jesus ate with people he shouldn’t have and allowed people close to him who shouldn’t have come near. Well, that’s what they thought, anyway. They said to each other, “He shouldn’t do that! Doesn’t he know that good people never let shady types touch them?” They all agreed and in that way cemented their friendship with each other. They strengthened their unity by excluding Jesus and those “questionable” people he liked to hang out with.
In response to their excluding, Jesus tells a story. It’s about a man who has two sons; two brothers they are and their father; family dynamics, a triangle between dad and the two boys. Do you think there’s rivalry in this family? I wonder if these brothers like each other. Who does father love the most? Is there a good one and a bad one?
The younger son says to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” It sounds like a command. This young man is telling his father to split up the estate right now and give him his share. No mention’s made of his intentions in asking. The father’s not even dead and the younger son wants his inheritance. How would you feel about that? Sheesh!
Without asking even one question the father complies. The text simply says, “So he divided his property between them.” Just like that. This means the older brother now has the other half and the old man appears to have dispossessed himself. He gave his all for his two sons. What kind of a father is he? How does the older brother feel about this? He doesn’t object. Are the two brothers in such rivalry with each other that their father’s welfare never even enters their heads. And why’s this father so indulgent? This doesn’t appear to be a close family. This triangle is in powerful tension.
A few days later, the younger son liquidates his assets and leaves the country. Nobody expected this. Was the older brother glad to see him go? His rival left town and he’d have the remainder of the estate to himself. Looks like the older brother won this competition. Did the younger brother leave the country because he wanted to get out from under the strain of their struggle with each other?
The younger brother’s now free and can forge his own destiny, find his own way, figure out who he is outside the shadow of his big brother. It sounds like the plot to a very good novel, one of those epics that move across generations.
Having escaped the boundaries established by his family, the younger brother has no idea how to live. He’s like a freshman in college with a huge allowance. His money leaves him like water through a leaky bucket. He says he’s having a wonderful time “finding himself” but in reality he’s rapidly exhausting his fiscal and emotional resources.
Catastrophe hits. With no money left, famine descends on the whole country and our young man finds himself desperately hungry in a foreign land. Nobody cares about him now. He’s on his own and things are getting worse. He decides to take a job from one of the citizens of his adopted country. His boss sends him to the fields to feed the pigs. No job’s lower than this. His descent has taken him to the bottom and he finds himself lower than he’d ever imaged possible. He’s so hungry. He’s so hungry he could even eat the pig slop. No one’ll give him anything. His father back home had given him half his kingdom when he asked for it, but now no one will give him anything. His life has come to this! His desire to escape the rivalry with his older brother and find his own destiny apart from him has lead to this desperate and dire dead-end. Does this mirror the human race? Does it give us a picture of our time in history? I can relate to the plight of the younger son? Can you?
At that moment something happens. Something resolved within him. The text says, “He came to himself.” He left home to find himself, but he ends up losing himself, and now “He came to himself.” Who had been getting in the way, keeping him apart from himself? Was it his hatred toward his brother?
When he came to himself, he began thinking about his father. He hadn’t thought about his father since before he’d requested his inheritance. Maybe the hardship and suffering had burned away the enmity he harbored against his brother all those years so that now he could actually see his father. Before, all he could see was his hated brother and his desire to best him or leave him behind. Our hatred’s blind us and cause us so much pain, don’t they? Father, when will we learn to forgive?
Our desperate young man thought, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” His preoccupation with his rivalrous brother evaporates and his father’s ability to provide finally becomes clear. A plan forms. He’ll humble himself, acknowledge his insensitivity toward his father, and gladly receive the lowest status in his domain if he’ll have him back at all.
“So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” He hadn’t seen his father for years, even before he left, he hadn’t seen his father. All he’d seen was his rival, the brother who filled his vision and contributed to his destructive course. Now he returns but with his father in mind, and the father runs toward him with joy and hugs and kisses him.
The repentant son can’t take in the grace and begins his rehearsed speech acknowledging his unworthiness. The father interrupts him to tell his slaves to quickly bring out the best robe, a ring for his finger proclaiming his identity, and sandals for his feet. There’ll be feasting and celebration. The father joyously proclaims “‘...this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”
What made the younger son dead? Was it his dissipated living? Was it running away? Maybe it was his callousness toward his father? No, none of these things. It was his rivalry with his brother. The younger brother lost track of his father when he focused overmuch on his big brother. If he could’ve forgiven his brother and maintained his relationship with his father, none of this would’ve happened. Is this a parable describing our world? Do we loose touch with grace and gratitude when we see the world through our envies, jealousies and rivalries with our brothers and sisters? It was the white settlers’ envy of the Cherokees and the desire for their land that led to the Trail of Tears and the cruel removal of the Indians from their lands, lands they had occupied for thousands of years. And they still suffer from the effects of that trauma to this day.
The story continues. “Now the elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what is going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’” Do you think the older brother will be happy about his baby brother’s return? Or is he still in rivalry with him, though he hasn’t seen him for a long time? Does he care about his father any more now than the younger brother did when he left? Our text says, “Then he became angry and refused to go in.” Little brother’s return makes the big brother very angry and he refuses to participate in the party. Family disfunction can last a long time and for no good reason.
At this point, father does the same thing he did with his youngest boy. He comes toward the older son, offering him his love. He loves them both and so he pleads with his older son. But his older son will not budge and says, “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 given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” Do you think that’s true? Would he have needed to work so hard? Do you hear the rivalry in his statement? I’ll bet the older brother hadn’t ever even asked for a party for his friends. It never entered his head, until he saw his younger brother having a party. Rivalry is again driving human behavior. I think the father would’ve been more than happy to give the older son lots of parties, if he’d asked. We can see he’s an indulgent father, right?
The older brother continues. “When this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Notice that big brother doesn’t claim his little brother as his brother. He calls him this “son of yours.” He wants nothing to do with him and never has. He was glad when his baby brother left. He feels superior and doesn’t want him around. He’s as cold toward his father as his little brother was when he was dissipating his father’s wealth.
The father sees his coldness and still loves him! He forgives him like he forgave his younger brother. “Son,” he says, “you are always with me.” Your brother’s return doesn’t change our relationship. I will always love you just as I always loved your brother, no matter what you two do. I love you both.
“Now come, join the party. Join me in celebrating because this brother of yours, (notice the father doesn’t say, this son of mine, using the language of the rejecting brother, no he says “this brother of yours”) was dead, he had cut himself off from us and so had no one and was dead, but now he has us again and therefore has come to life. He’s reconnected with us and himself. “He was lost and has been found.”
The father’s love and forgiveness has broken through the younger son’s hostile preoccupation with his older brother. The dangerous family triangle has been transcended by the father’s forgiving love. Will the older brother allow himself to be found by their father’s love and forgiveness, or will he remain lost in his hate and sense of superiority?
Friends, we cannot escape our brother or sister, whether they’re older or younger or not even a blood relative. We must learn to let go of our rivalry and hatred, forgive the offense we feel we’ve born, and return to living in the joy of our father’s abundance. Jesus shows us how. Our peace depends on it.
This brother of yours, he’s your brother. This sister, she’s your sister.
NRVS Bible. Sermon by Thomas L. Truby of March10, 2013