Readings: Psalm 32, Luke 15 1-3, 11b-32
The taciturn old man had been to church while his wife prepared the Sunday lunch. When he came home, she asked him what the sermon had been about. ‘Sin’, he replied. ‘So what did he have to say about it?’ she asked. ‘He were agin it.’
Well, I hope we’re all ‘agin it’, but what does that actually mean? And how does that express itself in our lives? And is being ‘agin it’ enough? I’m going to explore these questions through the medium of probably the best known parable in the whole Gospels, a parable whose title has passed into our language and is used by people who may never even have read or heard the parable.
How can I possibly say anything new about this well known and well loved story? Maybe I can’t, but I will say what I can about it. And one thing I’ve noticed is that it’s usually preached to the wrong people. Or rather, only half of it is preached and it is preached to the people who actually need the other half.
This parable is a favourite for evangelists. What could be more stirring than the tale of a lost boy whose father welcomes him back with open arms before he’s even made his confession? So evangelists love to use it to call those who have wandered far from God and tell them there is a welcome waiting for them. And indeed there may be some in their audience who fit that category. The trouble is, when it’s preached to congregations of respectable Christians who have never wandered further than the corner shop, the preacher often still focuses on the younger brother, in the vain hope that there might just be someone who has strayed in by accident from the local crack house. Which there rarely is.
Yes, we are all sinners, and preachers are fond of pointing it out, but I can’t help feeling it’s a bit pathetic when we struggle to accuse ourselves of sin just so we can feel forgiven. I don’t know about you, but I became a Christian when I was 16, and I hadn’t had a lot of time to wander in the desert of sin. I hadn’t done the sex and drugs - I’d only managed a bit of rock and roll. My testimony would have been decidedly boring. In fact when writing on this in Bible notes I used the title ‘I was a teenage moralist’, which would also do as a titile for this sermon.
So when I was in a group studying the Prodigal Son, and was asked which character I identified with, I was quite clear - I knew I was the older brother. I’m very good at being ‘agin sin’, but not so good about welcoming the lost back home. In fact I have some sympathy with that Bible misprint where the story reads: ‘his father ran and put his arms around him and killed him’. If I’d been the father, that might have been what I’d do.
Not only that, but I’m often quite sure that I’ve been slaving for years for God, and that he hasn’t given me any credit for it, let alone a goat, should I want such a thing (although I like the sound of the new clothes and jewellery). I see others who have messed up dramatically, have done all the things which you’re not supposed to do, and have come back, or come for the first time, to God and made a new start - and I don’t rejoice with them, I envy them. As the song goes: ‘The best part of breaking up Is when you make it up’ - but how can you have the joy of making up when you never broke up in the first place?
The Prodigal Son is not actually a story about a lost son, it is about two lost sons - they are just lost in different ways. I may be wrong, and you are welcome to correct me, but I suspect the majority of us here are more like the elder brother than the younger. We have been brought up to be ‘agin sin’ and have either made our childhood faith our own, or been converted at a young age, and we really don’t feel particularly like prodigals. Part of us maybe even thinks we’d like a chance to go off the rails for a bit just to be welcomed back. A past boyfriend of mine told me I had just been good for too long - and that was in the early 80s, so I’ve been a good girl for a lot more years since then. Isn’t it time God gave me a little time off?
Jesus told this parable, of course, in the context of a society where the lines were very clear between ‘the righteous’ and ‘sinners’ - we may wonder why tax collectors were so frowned on, but in fact they were mostly crooked and acted pretty much as loan sharks do today. He is responding to the criticism that he spends too much time with the dregs of society. And the scribes and Pharisees who made that criticism, would have known very well that the sketch of the elder brother was a portrait of them. It’s not a very flattering portrait: he is self righteous, whiny, self- pitying and full of wild fantasies of what his brother has been getting up to, which perhaps in his secret soul he’d like to get up to as well. Notice that there is no mention of prostitutes in the younger son’s story, they are a detail the older son
The younger son is lost because he has essentially said he can’t wait for his father to die, so he can get the loot and live the life he’d like to live if his father weren’t around. His view of his father is as nothing but a restriction on his freedom to indulge himself. It’s interesting that his father complies with his request, and doesn’t even give him any warnings about the dangers and dissatisfaction of the dissolute life he is planning to lead. God give us freedom to get into whatever messes we want to - it’s just that some of us aren’t courageous enough to try them. Which shows that we don’t really believe in the father’s welcome back - we are still living in fear of punishment by God. I say this mainly about myself, not necessarily about you.
The elder brother is lost in a very different way. Yet his view of his father is actually quite similar to his brother’s: he sees the father as a hard taskmaster who expects total obedience and conformity and who is too mean to reward it with anything more than the minimum. When he discovers that his father is actually wildly, inappropriately generous, and not to him but to his wayward younger brother, he is a bit like Jonah when Nineveh repents: he goes into a total sulk and complains that it’s not fair.
Sibling rivalry rules!
Another parable that this reminds me of, is that of the Pharisee and the publican. No doubt the elder brother had spent years praying something like ‘I thank God that I am not like my feckless brother, but I do my duty by our father and do everything he tells me to’. To use the terms of Peter’s sermon last week, the elder brother is someone who insists on fasting when a feast is laid out, and thinks he’s virtuous by so doing.
If we Christians are often more like the elder brother than the younger, what is God’s word to us as the elder brother? Let’s look at what the father says: Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours’. In other words, he could have had a fatted calf or a new robe or ring at any time, but because of his narrow view of his father, he never asked. Yes, the best part of breaking up is when you make it up, and perhaps there has to be special rejoicing when the prodigal returns: ‘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’. But in fact there are other special joys in having led a long and faithful life under God and never rebelled.
Which is stronger - a marriage where there has been unfaithfulness but the straying partner has repented and come back, or a marriage where neither partner has strayed but both have spent years in resentment at being tied down and not being able to live their life in their own way? Probably the first, but actually the best is the one where both partners have always rejoiced in their partnership, been generous to one another, and felt free to make requests of their partner in full expectation that they’ll receive a positive answer.
The elder brother is actually just as rebellious in his own way. He serves his father, but there’s little evidence that he loves his father, or indeed expects and experiences his father’s love for him. He believes his father to be hard on him, is hard on himself, and so is inevitably hard on his erring younger brother. He doesn’t make a very attractive model to follow - for him discipleship is duty, and God is a grudging giver.
Being a person who is usually hard on herself, I find it easy to slip into this distorted image of God as someone who demands service but doesn’t give much in return. And of course when I think this way, I get harder on myself, harder on others, and generally less nice to know - and I can’t experience the love and lavish generosity of God. In fact I revert to being that teenage moralist who was so ready to look disapprovingly on her non-Christian friends.
Disapproving, of course, is a favourite pastime of many Christians, and I’m not accusing anyone here of being guilty of it. This is actually the least disapproving church I’ve ever been in. Perhaps it’s because we direct our disapproval against social evils like the arms race, rather than against our fellow human beings outside or within the church. Which may be healthier, but carries the same risk of our becoming people who condemn rather than convert.
I don’t actually like being the elder brother. It is quite a lonely place, and when I get older-brotherish, I am denying myself all kinds of gifts, spiritual and material, that God probably wants to give me. The party is actually open to all, whether we are like the profligate younger brother or the puritan older one; but some of us don’t go because we disapprove of parties.
An underlying theme of our sermons during Lent is the theme proposed in the Mennonite Leader magazine, which is about letting go and holding on. In the psalm we heard how the psalmist didn’t find relief till he let go of his concealed sin and opened up to God about it.. In the story of the Prodigal, which really ought to be called The Two Sons, the younger brother has to let go of his pride and independence and go shamefacedly back to his Father. He can do it because while he was eating with the pigs, he discovered a new view of his father: that his father is a caring, just employer who rewards his servants with enough food. When he gets back he discovers that his father is not only just but unrestrainedly loving, and that he is welcomed as a son not a servant.
The elder brother has to let go of his self-pity and his belief that he is a hard done by labourer who never gets anything. In the space of the parable, however, he can’t do it because he is still holding on to his view of his Father as a kind of sweatshop boss who is never satisfied. The parable ends there, and it is left to us to complete it in our own minds, and in our own lives. If we are elder brothers, we will never learn to be cared-for sons and daughters unless we let go of our narrow ideas of God and discover God as the good parent who is not only just but kind and overwhelmingly giving. And unless we receive that love of God for ourselves, we will be unable to give it to others. And as usual, I think I have preached this most of all to myself.