BIBLE READINGS: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Luke 15:1-3,11b-32
We often read the story of the Prodigal, and hear it preached from the perspective of the younger son, but what about the older son? For that matter, what about the Father? If the story had ended at verse 24 we could legitimately name this story “The Prodigal Son”. But as it stands, over a third of the story is concerned with the responses of the older son. When you examine those responses is it any wonder that the younger brother heads off to a far country! Maybe a better title would be “The Prodigal Sons!”
This is a story that draws us in - we can identify with characters, for we too have experienced the feelings they experience. Greed, pride, humiliation, sorrow, regret, surprise, joy, love, anger and jealousy are all contained within its scope - the characters are identifiable and real.
This parable certainly is not a fairy story. There is no “…and they all lived happily ever after” ending. Not when you consider the actions of the older brother. I can’t believe how small hearted he is. He can’t even feel glad for his father’s sake! There are names for people like him!
When Jesus told this story - it was to a bunch of Pharisees and teachers of the law. The point of the story was to express the forgiving love of God for sinners no matter who they may be. The story was meant to shock and convict its hearers. It shocked them when the Father honoured a son who had brought shame to his family and insulted him. It convicted them because the Pharisees could identify deeply with the older brother. They saw themselves as the ones who obeyed God’s laws - they could stand with the older brother as he complained to the Father. “Look, all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders.”
It is to the older sons of the world that this story is addressed. It is to those who stand outside, angry and betrayed by the generous actions of the Father. For people who are more like the older brother and the Pharisees than the young prodigal.
Maybe that is us. Don’t we consider ourselves as being good people? We do the right thing; we class ourselves among the all right, the OK people. Our attendance in church often is a symbol of our feeling about ourselves. We consider our status as that of the brother who will inherit the kingdom.
On the whole we are not people of great evil or sin, we don’t steal, or murder, or commit adultery. Ours are the sneaky sins of pride and envy. Of jealousy, anger and spite, sin that creeps up on you and you are not aware that you are doing wrong!
We know that on the whole we are good people. So how willing are we to welcome the prodigal who decides to come home? Would we welcome with open arms into our homes, our lives, good for nothings who have abused the law, morality, their families, their country? If we find these things difficult to do, then this parable is for us.
For the older son, the story begins with the party and fortunately we are not told the ending. It is open ended.
To be fair, the older brother is not an evil man. He worked hard, it is implied that he was dependable and conscientious. The very model of a good citizen and dutiful son. Yet Jesus tells us it is the younger son inside the father’s house, enjoying the party - while his brother stands outside in the dark and cold.
The true hero of the story is the Father - it is he who makes the first moves of reconciliation to both sons. He comes out to both his children, he offers both of them his love.
Yet the older son stood out in the dark in a rage, stubbornly refusing to be at one with either his brother or his father. Why? After all he sees exactly the same things that his father and brother see, but his perspective on it all is vastly different.
While he lived close to his Father all his life he is further from him than his younger brother. The older brother has calculated what he deserves. He points out to his father that he has slaved for him - that he has done his duty. Yet there has been no joy or love in all his work, just his duty. Just paying his dues. It never occurred to him that all he had was his father’s gift to him - he did not deserve it. Where his brother now sat down to feast, he had sat day by day next to his father. He was so absorbed with his own rights, he couldn’t be anything but critical of his brother. He could not comprehend his father’s grief for the loss of his young son. “Good riddance to bad rubbish” were his thoughts I am sure, nor could he understand his father’s joy at the prodigal’s return.
So the tale ends with the elder brother outside, where the sounds of the music and dancing do nothing to gladden his hurt and bitter feelings.
Well that’s not quite the end of the story. For it ends with the words of the father. “You are always here with me, and everything I have is yours, but we had to celebrate and be happy, for your brother who was dead, but now is alive; he was lost but now he has been found.”
And that is the gospel for you and me. God welcomes us home whether we have sinned greatly or our sins seem small and paltry. To us is given the kingdom of God. All of it - it is ours. Ours to share. So let us willingly share what we have found in Jesus with those who are lost and despairing.
Let us pray,
Heavenly Father, we live in a world of lost prodigals. Help us to respond to those who look or act differently to what we feel is normal, with love and compassion. Help us to love. Give us strength not to put conditions on our love. Help us to take the initiative with those our society considers outcasts. Help us to embrace them and be reconciled to them.
Lord God, strengthen our resolve to love as you have loved us. Help us to love one another here in your church. Help us to be reconciled to one another for your sake. Help us to understand and support each other even as we recognise that we are different.
Father, we want to join the party you are going to hold for all who turn to you seeking forgiveness. We wait eagerly for your son’s return; keep us busy doing his work of loving and forgiving till he comes. Amen.