“Now his 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 was 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.’
Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.'”
Forgiveness is a difficult thing for us to give, and sometimes it is a harder thing to receive. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we are shown a father who has no problem forgiving, but we are shown two sons who struggle to accept it. On the one hand, there is the younger son who was prepared to sell himself into slavery with his father just to have some means to live by. On the other is his elder brother, the focus of our time today, who struggled to accept that his brother could be brought back into the family.
We can sometimes lose the scandal of the younger brother’s request – that in asking his father to give him his inheritance that he was essentially cutting all ties with the family. In receiving this money early he was saying, “Dad, you are not dying fast enough, so I will kill you in my heart and get it over with.” The boy runs away, and lives a life of pleasure and adventure, and enjoys every minute of it till the thrill and the money runs out.
Taking a job among the most unclean people and unclean animals, the younger son is given time to reflect. He realized that to be a slave to his father was a better situation than most people could ever have – so great was his love and mercy that even when reduced to property, people were still treated with love as though they were family.
The younger son travels home, and his father rushes to greet him. The father gives him honor and glory once again, not caring for a minute what the neighbors might thing of the father throwing a party for the bad son. Imagine that it was public knowledge that a relative of yours had told someone else in the family, “I just want your money, die whenever you feel like it, but I’m gone,” and that same person was given a massive, expensive, and very public welcome home party just a few months later. There would be rumors and accusations flying left and right.
The older son doesn’t waste any time in declaring this party out of line. The good son that he is, he never left home. He stayed behind and worked, in his mind, like a slave to help his father tend to the property. Even here, we see him returning from a day of work in the fields to come home and find a party for his screw up of a brother. This is a hardworking and devoted son, we get things wrong if we say he isn’t. However, he is, in this moment, forgetting what it is to be a family.
The older son, like the younger son, has reduced their father to a computer. You put in a command and allocate some resources, and then you get the desired product. In this moment ever small complaint against his father explodes into a rage. “I worked like a slave for you! And I was not even allowed to celebrate with my friends without buying my own goats.” The Father could be angry with his son, this could be one of those moments like many others in the Gospel where the father kicks the ungrateful son out. Instead, the father responds to this son with love equal to the love he showed the other.
He looks at this angry child of his and slowly reminds him how they as a family belong to one another. We usually translate the first thig the father says as, “My son” or “My child” but what he actually says is simply, “Child.” It is on one hand a reminder for the son, you’re my child as much as he is. It is also an admonition – you may think you know better than me, but remember what you are – a child.
“You are always with me” the relationship between father and son comes first, the father reminds the son that they have had good times in the younger sons absence. You almost get a sense of the father saying, “Remember when we were working together last harvest? Or the week we took off to visit Joppa?” We have each other, and that can’t be taken away by a party.
“All that I have is yours.” Even if the son is only concerned with what the father has to offer, the father gives him all of it. We will remember that at the beginning of this parable the father is said to, “Divide his property between the two.” Just because only one son ran off doesn’t mean that the other didn’t get some kind of forward on his inheritance. He may not have that money now, but he knows that everything left belongs to him. Or at least it did… Now that his brother is back, the son is afraid he is going to lose out – if not by his father losing interest in him, then in the money that will now go to the younger.
The final reminder the father gives is in telling his son, “We must celebrate and be joyous.” Why? Not because the father has gotten back a son, but because, “Your brother who was lost if found, who was dead is alive.” The father wants the son to celebrate that he has gained back his sibling, that relationship has been restored between both objects of his affection, not just that he gets to have them both back.
This parable is about the family of God, not just some hypothetical farmer and his kids. While we like to see ourselves in the humble child who comes back to the father ready to give everything away, we who have been in the church for some time tend to be the older son. “We cannot let them back into the church, do you remember what they did? They aren’t really Christian, you can’t do this or this and still call yourself Christian!” We stand at the banquet of God, we look at the guest list and we turn up our nose.
We cannot accept that God would let people who disagree with us theologically, politically, or personally. We cannot imagine God would let the cruel, the violent, the foul-mouthed into the kingdom. Yet, when they see God and begin the journey home, God runs back and calls them one of God’s own children.
We look at their repentance, the confession before they take bread and cup or the tearful altar call, and we say, “They can’t really mean it. They’ll be back to their old ways as soon as the emotions run out.” How dare we.
Does this mean we should naively let predators into our congregations? No. Should we tell the abused to accept the apologies of their abusers without any sign they’re done abusing? No. The reparation of relationships is dependent upon genuine repentance. The son would not be wrong to talk to his brother if he came back to find him stealing or raging, but he instead took offense at a party. He was upset that his father had reinitiated a relationship with his son.
We of the church live on the edge between the free grace of God, and the high expectations we must live up to as the people of God. We should work together to promote goodness and to work righteousness in all the world. However, if we enter into the people of God and spend all our time trying to curate the pews, then we are not working together for good, but against each other for ourselves.
We treat church as if only so much of it is available, that God could run out of mercy and glory to give to us. God is inexhaustible, God is not a vending machine that will one day run out of goods, God is a person who we can relate to. Do we benefit from knowing God? Certainly, but when we act like either brothers in today’s parable we confuse the benefits with the person. The two cannot be separated – we benefit from God because we know God, God shares with us because God loves us. Let those of us who are in the church remember then that we are always with God, that all of God’s good things are ours. Let us trust God that God knows what God is doing in welcoming more and more people into the Kingdom. – Amen.