(a sermon for August 24, 2014, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost; second in a series, based on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)
If you really want to get to know someone, or perhaps get some insight as to why they are the way they are, here is a simple question that might just do the trick: where are you in the birth order? In other words, are you the oldest child, a middle sibling, or the baby of the family? Seriously, this is a very relevant question; and there are in fact a number of studies that show that even more than we have believed in the past, who we are and how we relate to others has a great deal to do with where we are in the birth order!
For instance, if you are the oldest child in a family, you are probably something of a perfectionist: conscientious, reliable, and likely a little self-critical. Eldest siblings tend to see themselves as playing the role of mediator between parents and the other siblings (probably because they’ve known Mom and Dad the longest and know just how to play them!). Yet on the other hand, they are often not allowed to be kids for very long, because parents tend to push older children faster and farther than the younger ones; more ends up being expected of them – they’re supposed to be the example (!) – because, well, they’re the oldest! But the thing is, that oldest child will generally embrace that role willingly; in fact, psychologists tell us that they’ll often live their whole lives feeling as though they are meant to not only set the standard, but also to soar above everyone else! Of course, the flip side of all this is that very often these eldest siblings also feel outshined and neglected by their brothers and sisters, even though one glance at the family album will reveal more pictures of them than anyone else! (Oh… and by the way, psychologists also say that if you are an only child, you are the eldest child squared!)
Middle children, on the other hand, tend to be the compromisers of the family unit: they are the peacemakers, and tend to be very generous and socially oriented. They also have a tendency to want to carve out their own niche in the family; unique from their brothers and sisters, which can be either a positive or a negative thing, depending on the child! And then there are the youngest children, who perhaps above all else feel compelled to make a contribution to the world, and so they’ll do it any way they can. Youngest children tend to be very creative, sometimes are show-offs, and oftentimes they’re the ones who carry the mantle of family clown. Youngest children can be both charming and rebellious: endearing one minute, hard to deal with the next; and they often do battle in whatever way they have to in order to be taken seriously.
Now understand, this is not to make a blanket statement about all siblings, because every family is different and every child is unique in character and purpose; but I do think that where we are in that family dynamic does make a difference on how we view each other, the world and the way we live; it also, I think, offers us a unique perspective on our parable for this morning, that of the prodigal son and the forgiving father.
This is probably among the most familiar and beloved of all of Jesus’ parables; in large part, I think, because it is so easy for us to see ourselves in it. Some hear this story and immediately identify with the younger son, who with both charm and the rebel spirit typical of a younger child, wanders far away from home, literally and spiritually, and loses everything; but who, in the last analysis, “[comes] to himself,” recognizes where it is that he truly belongs and at last returns home to his father.
Others hear this story and see themselves in the young man’s father; particularly those who have known in their own lives the pain of a loved one who turned away from them and essentially became lost to them; those who yearn deeply for that lost one to be found; and who would gladly run across any obstacle so to meet that loved one in a moment of reconciliation.
And then there are those, though they might be loath to admit it, who see a fair amount of themselves in the other, rather disgruntled older brother! Now, the older brother is essentially the “third wheel” in this story, and therein lies the problem: to wit, the younger brother’s home, there’s going to be this big party, and suddenly now the older brother’s an also-ran! And he’s none too pleased about it; in fact, he says so to his father in no uncertain terms: “Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends?” (The Message) But then, hey, this “son of yours” who has thrown away your money on things we can’t even talk about… he shows up and immediately you go all out on a feast! He’s so upset over this he can’t even bring himself to have anything to do with the homecoming celebration, which as the story closes is already in full swing!
Friends, believe me when I tell you that this man is the quintessential oldest child! Here’s a guy who has spent every effort his whole life being the best possible son he can be; yet, as soon as baby brother re-enters the picture, he feels threatened and full of resentment! He resents the love his brother’s being shown, because he sees it as something unearned and undeserved; he resents his father for having been so soft on his brother who’d squandered everything he’d been given; he even resents all the work he’s always done for his father because now it seems to him to have gone unrewarded! By his reckoning, he’s supposed to be the “number one son;” he’s supposed to be the one reaping the rewards and feasting on barbecue; he’s the one who’s earned the joy of his father, not this little pipsqueak reprobate loser who happens to be his brother!
The elder brother in this story represents that part of us that looks around at our lives, measures and weighs every deed for its value, judges every person solely for what they’ve earned or deserve in their lives, and then decides that maybe we aren’t getting what we deserve in comparison! Maybe that’s why we can identify with him the way we do; truth be told, it is our all-too-human approach to things like forgiveness and grace, especially when it only appears to be happening to others and not to us! But you see, as Jesus tells this story, that kind of attitude ends up a slippery slope for anyone who would walk with God. As Richard Fairchild has written, there is ultimately something missing in someone like that older brother, “something that makes a person want to grieve over him, something that makes a person want to shake him until he comes to his senses. He is so frustrating… so close minded… and so without joy.”
And that’s the question that’s at the heart of this parable: where’s the joy? That’s, in fact, the whole reason that Jesus was moved to tell this story in the first place; to illustrate before grumbling scribes and Pharisees that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous ones do everything right; that when someone would turn to receive the fullness of the Lord’s grace and forgiveness, God’s joy is as full and as all-enveloping as the father’s in the story. Of course, the scribes and Pharisees, for all their obsessing on being “religiously correct” before God, could not even begin to conceive of that kind of unmerited grace, much less share in the joy of it; and so, like the elder son of the parable, they stood outside, refusing to be a part of the celebration, which in this case was God’s celebration!
And the question that Jesus is asking in this parable; the question we have to ask ourselves is: are we any different? Where’s our joy; where are we in the celebration? You and me; do we share in the rejoicing that’s inherent in spiritual homecoming; or have we allowed our own sense of self-righteousness and resentment to keep us outside of the celebration?
It’s a good question; and do not think that this is all hyperbole, or some exaggeration of what happens, because the fact is, it is all too common a thing in our lives. Let me give you an example: I have an old friend who, many years ago, had a marriage that ended very badly; without suggesting that all the issues were one-sided, which they were not, suffice to say that this man’s wife not only walked out on him and their children, but also quite literally disappeared from their lives for quite a number of years. As you can imagine, it was devastating for them; but somehow my friend and his children got through the pain and struggle of it; and in many ways they became a stronger family unit because of it.
Well, many years did pass, the children grew, my friend remarried and all was well; but the time eventually came when the woman who had left home “came to herself” as the parable puts it, and recognizing the mistakes she had made in her life and the damage she had caused, “returned home” in the sense of seeking forgiveness and some level of reconciliation with her children. The good news is that that was pretty much accomplished; but when she came to her former husband to ask his forgiveness for all that she had done, my friend realized, to his horror, that he could not do it. He could not bring himself to offer her his forgiveness.
And as he told me about it, he said, “I knew she was sincere; that there was true repentance, that she had gone the extra mile to reconcile with our children and that this had been a very good thing for them; that she had found her way home in a literal and spiritual sense; but I could not be happy for her on any level. I knew that I was somehow “supposed” to forgive, but I could not run to embrace her in any spiritual or literal sense. And I knew at that moment that I did not want God’s forgiveness, or reconciliation, or grace for her. At that moment, I only wanted God’s judgment.”
And that’s who we are, isn’t it?
When it all comes down, friends, we are a people who vacillate between believing in God’s forgiveness and wanting God’s judgment to prevail. We want the conflicts that rage around us to be ironed out, but deep down we want vindication for how we’ve been hurt. We desire justice, but in truth, there is that dark place within us that would prefer that justice be of the “eye for an eye” variety. But you see, what this parable shows us is that while that may be how we are, that is not how God is. God is a God of grace, welcoming the lost one home, and wants us to celebrate with him that homecoming even when that is impossible for us to do.
The good news is that God does understand our reluctance. In the parable, when the eldest son refuses to celebrate his brother’s homecoming, we are told that his father responds to his “attitude” with love. He doesn’t say to the son, hey, get over yourself, and it’s not, keep working hard and maybe next time the fatted calf barbecue will be yours; this isn’t about competition, who’s more important, or who has the most power in the family dynamic. Quite the opposite, really: the father says, “Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours; but this is a wonderful time… this brother of yours was dead and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!” (The Message) Don’t you understand that I want all my children to be home with me; that I grieve when even one is outside of the house of joy, and that I rejoice over each one who returns to come inside?
We’re never told if in the end, the older son relents and goes to the party; personally, I’m guessing he probably went back to re-plow the lower forty in some attempt to regain his “favorite son” status! We’re kind of left hanging in this story, which is frustrating; but I suspect that’s what Jesus intended. Because ultimately what matters is that however we see ourselves in this story is that the father is God; an infinitely loving God who wants all of us in the family to come into the house of joy: prodigals and righteous alike, ours is the God who runs to embrace us all with abundant grace and unending forgiveness.
May we have the grace to receive that love; and may our thanks and praise be unto Him as we do.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry