The Older Brother
2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Luke 15:11-32
You may have heard this story before… potentially a few times… The Parable of the Prodigal Son. Also known as The Parable of the Lost Son, or the Loving Father, or The Waiting Father, or the Parable of the Two Sons, or the Prodigal and his Brother. This has to be one of the most well-known parables of Jesus, and it is for pretty good reason! It is a rich and full story with a lot to offer both someone who might be new to the faith, and someone who has been a lifelong follower of Jesus. Often we focus on the first half of this story – the younger brother and his misadventures – a story of rebellion, thinking he knew better; a story of repentance, and of radical forgiveness. Many times our lives are compared to that of the younger brother; don’t worry if you mess up or run from God, a welcome home and a generous cwtch will always be waiting… a true and always needed message. Familiarity though can breed a certain amount of contempt… which is of course a danger we need to be aware of. Which is in fact quite a thread of truth in the parable if you think about it. The younger brother gets sick of the familiar, wishes his Father dead and pursues the ‘better life’ on the other side of the fence. The older brother too is so stuck in the familiar that he can’t see the forest for the trees. Today I am interested in this older brother. What if we for a moment imagined ourselves as the older brother? I wonder what we might discover.
The story of the older brother is really a story about someone who missed what was right in front of him all along. He joins company in fact with a number of characters that Jesus talked to and with and about who mastered the art form of ‘missing the point’. Do you remember the parable of the servant who was forgiven his debt and then failed to pass this flow of mercy on to his debtors? A prime example of someone who missed the point completely! One of the biggest shifts in that story is that the King simply decided that he didn’t want to deal with bookkeeping any more so he changed the rules – he moved his whole way of operating from law and transactions to grace and freedom. I mention this because the older brother seems to be stuck in that old way of operating, he seems to be stuck in a world of tit for tat, and of quid pro quo… he’s so stuck in this kind of bookkeeping way of operating that he can’t see what’s truly going on. Forgiveness just doesn’t operate on the level of keeping score and settling accounts. Our friend the older brother in today’s story, missed what was going on completely. He can’t enter into celebration at the return of his younger brother because he’s too busy getting grumpy about the fact that he’s never even had his friends over for a BBQ. What he did was miss that all the Father has ever had, which includes not only his resources and land but also his generous and loving heart, was with him all along.
It is a story of the universal nature of grace that is on offer and present to all at every moment. This older brother was indeed already living in this place of grace, with a father who possessed unconditional love, abundance of life, plenty, all that was needed… but he just couldn’t see it. Forgiveness, reconciliation, and life out of death are realities that are at play and on offer despite him recognising them or not. The older brother almost in a sense doesn’t even know who his Father was! I wonder that if he did then he would have been right in there at the party, leading the charge, cheering his brother on! Instead, his view of life with his Father seemed to be one of nothing but work and obedience. He likens his existence to one as a slave, one of subordination. His view of life, was one of law and transaction but the way that was on offer, the way of his Father was really one of grace through the channel of relationship. There seems to be a connection between living with a posture, an attitude or a view of the world such as law and transaction that blocks our ability from being able to see what is really on offer, or what is already available to us. It seems that the answer to this is to live in the opposite way. To look at the world through the eyes of grace, forgiveness, abundance and plenty opens us up to be able to see and indeed know more deeply our God who always seems to be moving towards us in grace and love, who wants to celebrate with us and who wants us to live with all of this which is already present.
There are three things in particular I’d like to pull out of the older brother’s story for us here today. 1, Human doings. 2, Scarcity. 3, Conversation.
Firstly – Human doings –
I wonder if the older brother had fallen into the trap of being a human doing rather than a human being. I wonder if he let himself be all consumed by all the work that had to be done. Did he live as though he was only worthwhile to his Father if he worked as hard and as long as he possibly could? I wonder did he ever take time to rest and to relax by himself and with his family and friends. Did he ever take time to be reminded that his worth was not in how hard or long he could work, but simply in the fact that he was a loved Son who had all he ever needed already?
Do we take time to rest? Or do we let ourselves be all consumed by all the things that have to be done, or by the sense in which we just have to keep working or else we’ll disappear into irrelevancy? Do we not only work hard but also play hard? Do all the big things and the little things and all the things in between consume us until all we can see is trees and not the forest?
We are human beings, not human doings. There’s an interesting pattern from the creation story in Genesis 1 where the days begin with evening… and then the first thing that happens after Humans arrive is a day of rest. There is a sense in this pattern in which we are made to work from our rest, not rest from our work. It seems that the natural way to work well is to begin with being rested. It isn’t something that we are good at doing. Typically we work ourselves to the bone and then crawl into bed at some point trying to get at least some sleep before it begins all over again. Or we spend most of our holidays catching up on rest so that we only begin to enjoy the holiday near the end of it! It’s because we simply work best when we are rested first, not the other way around, and in this rhythm of life we can find ourselves healthy and whole and able to cope and be reminded that we are loved and accepted before we’ve even done anything.
Secondly – Scarcity –
this is of course the outlook on life which says, ‘it’s always greener on the other side’ or a sense in which we feel as though there’s not enough to go around so we need to hoard supplies away, or save it up for a rainy day or that it’ll be better if we can just do this, or get that, or go there… My question of the older brother is, did he live and work as one who noticed other people celebrating achievements or living a fun and joyful way of life but failed to see the goodness of life that he already had? I wonder did he ever wake up in the morning, step out onto the front deck overlooking the farm, take a deep breath and marvel with gratitude for where he found himself?
For us I wonder if it is easy for us in this time of church decline to spend a lot of time and energy looking to the success of those churches who do seem to be doing well and get grumpy at where we are in comparison. Do we wish we could be like them, or do things the way they do it or have the resources and the people they have? Do we fail to take a deep breath and marvel with gratitude at the good that is right in front of us? Do we have an attitude of scarcity? One where we had better save for a rainy day… (even if it has been bucketing down for months) or do we say ‘if only we could have more young people’, or even just more people then we’d be a proper church… we’d better hold tight to what’s left – our money, our buildings, our tradition… and so on… Do we live in scarcity (thinking that we live without what we need) rather than gratitude?
Thirdly – conversation –
I wonder if the older brother ever asked for a party? ‘All this time,’ he complains, ‘I’ve never even had a measly goat but here you are fussing over what’s his face even though he did what he did!’ Do you think he had ever talked with his Father about the possibility about having some friends over for a BBQ? Relationships tend to go better when they are a two way thing, it is built on interaction! My hunch is, based on how we see the Father operating in this story, is that he would have been more than happy to have this conversation with his faithful and hardworking eldest son.
If we can imagine ourselves as the older brother for a moment and make the assumption that the Father is the God character in this story, can we ask ourselves that question – do we ever talk with God? Do we ever ask God to share God’s abundance, joy and grace? When we see wonderful joyful things happening for surprising people, or for other churches what is our reaction? Do we ever stop and make time to build our relationship – a two way relationship with God? I’m hinting at the idea that we might pray and listen and walk and have conversation with God outside of the set times and places. Do we ever talk, do we ever listen, do we ever ask? Or do we live like the older brother did, work work work, in a framework of law and works, of transaction not relationship and grace?
The older brother, failed to see what was truly going on. He simply wasn’t paying attention to what was at hand, what was drawing near, what had come. In this he missed out and lived the life that he created for himself. A life based on insecurity, on fear, on law, on scarcity rather than one built on grace, forgiveness, joy, abundance, plenty; a life built on awareness and gratitude.
How much do we fail to see what we already have? How often do we compare ourselves to others and feel as though we never get it good? How often do we exist expecting to see and live in the blessing and grace of God all the while not actually paying God much attention at all? How often do we moan and complain and hark back to how things used to be all the while missing what we have right here and now, missing what God might be trying to say and invite us into where we are right now? The invitation in this of course is to be present. To make time and space to rest, to listen to God and to one another, to talk, to pay attention to the good we already possess. And through this know that we live in the presence of, in the family of, the one who gives us all we ever need; the one who knows what is good for us; the one who hasn’t given up on the church or on the neighbourhood, or on the world. The invitation is to live in the unforced rhythms of grace (Matt 11), to accept ourselves as beloved children of God who is with us and with this knowledge to step out into the call we have of bearing witness to the grace of Jesus Christ in us and through us to the many around us who still need to wake up to the beauty of this reality that is ready and waiting for them.