Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Click here for the Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary readings.
This week’s readings include Jesus’s most infamous parable: the prodigal son. You’ve probably heard the story a few times (a few hundred times?).
If you know how the parable goes, jump down to the next divider line (the three dots about five paragraphs below).
For the uninitiated, real quick, this parable is the one about the king and his two sons. The older son is a do-gooder who follows all of his dad’s rules and doesn’t ruffle too many feathers. The younger son is a hell-raiser who walks up to his dad one day and basically says, “Hey, Dad. Give me my inheritance now,” (which is effectively like saying, “You’re dead to me,” in those days).
Without question, the king goes along with his younger son’s request and off the younger son goes to Atlantic City to blow the money on booze, drugs, and prostitutes (or something like that).
After a period of debauchery, the younger son runs out of money and has to resort to working as a pig-feeder, which no one will even pay him for.
So he tucks his proverbial tail between his legs and returns to the king to confess his sins and apologize. Upon his return, the king sees him walking up the road and runs out to meet him. He interrupts his son’s confession and apology by telling his slaves to go fetch him a robe and slippers and to fire up the BBQ because they’re going to be grilling up the fattest calf they can find. It’s gonna be a party, y’all.
Meanwhile, the older son is stewing. Like, “Why in tarnation (yes, ‘tarnation’) does my horrible younger brother get a party and all the praise while I’m here working my face off in the field?! That’s bullhockey!”
Then the father says 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.’”
Before I get into the meat of my reflection, I want to point something out… In past years, I’ve always heard this parable called The Prodigal Son. Yes, ‘son’. Singular.
But as I research theological resources, I see it called The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother or The Parable of a Father Reconciling Estranged Brothers.
So, brothers — with an ‘s’. Plural.
Most reflections and sermons on this story seem to focus on the younger brother (typical, the ‘bad kid’ always gets all of the attention, right?). The younger brother is the one who was healed. Who’s been ‘brought back to life’.
And I love that part of the story. God (yes, you totally get that the king in this story resembles God) loves and forgives us no matter how bad we transgress against ourselves and others. All that matters to God is that our hearts are softened. And the younger brother’s heart was softened through his suffering after his ill-fated debauchery. Beautiful stuff.
But what about the older brother? I mean, seriously. This is who I want to focus on in this short message today. Because it’s THIS GUY in our culture today who needs some love. I want to see HIS healing. He’s the one who concerns me. Maybe even scares me.
As the story shows, being so focused on self-righteousness and rigid responsibility is as big of a transgression in the eyes of the king as drunken debauchery is. Both are going the opposite direction of the grace of God. They’re both forms of turning in on oneself and away from the love and acceptance of the divine.
The only difference is, the younger son, through his suffering, had the awakening to repent and be absolved by the king.
Now, repentance isn’t necessarily a requirement from God (nor from a pastor/priest/parent). It isn’t something we obligatorily do with head hung low in resentment like, “Okay, fine — I guess I’m sooorry.”
True repentance is a natural human response when we royally botch things up. It’s done in passionate longing — often while on our knees looking up at the sky, for some reason — to feel love again. We need to be forgiven by another (even an eternal other) because we sure as hell can’t forgive ourselves.
Ever been there? Anyhow…
The younger son straight up went there. His heart was revitalized, the king welcomed him with open arms, and there he was eating fat cow burgers as big brother looked on in resentment.
It’s a bummer the story ends there because this story isn’t about the brother who’s right and the brother who’s wrong. It’s not about the younger brother turning the table and ‘winning’ against the older stuck up one. It’s supposed to be a story about the reconciliation of two brothers. But nothing seems to have been reconciled. If anything, the brothers seem to be more resentful of each other than ever.
When the king said to the older brother, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” what did that do to his son’s heart? I hope it softened it at least a little.
The king didn’t say, “You were always the stuck-up snooty one. Why don’t you lighten up and live a little like your younger brother. Here, go to Vegas and don’t come back until you end up in rehab. Then we’ll talk.”
You are always with me.
All that is mine is yours.
The return is just as possible and the father’s love is just as real for the older brother than it was for the younger one.
I don’t see the older brother as a particularly ‘bad’ kid. And that’s kinda the point. He’s not ‘bad’, he’s just… uptight. Kind of like a suburban white kid with well-to-do parents. He’s not a rebel. He gets good grades. He probably plays football. He thinks he’s checking all the right boxes unlike the kids at the other side of town.
The older brother is trying to get something from his old man. His thought is, if I do the good works, I’ll get my father’s inheritance. He has the same greed as his younger brother, but it’s masked in obedience. At least his kid brother was upfront about his disdain and greed.
I know, he sounds like a total jerk (you might even hate him more than the younger brother).
But we can’t forget that the father’s love goes for both brothers in this parable.
As we learn, the older brother doesn’t have to live that way. His father would have given him anything if he’d just have been real about it. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. See, the problem with the older brother is that he likely never experienced deep suffering. It seems the self-righteous have to fall on their face before their heart softens. The older son must come to the end of himself before realizing the grace the rests at the ground of his being. Before seeing that he was loved all along and that all the father has is his without having to check any boxes or demonstrate his perfect performance in the eyes of the father.
I pray for the older brother and all who can identify with him among us. May his heart be softened without having to fall first. How he returns isn’t up to me. But I pray that he feels his father’s love sooner than later. And I pray that we can hold this space in a more God-aligned way so as to speed that process along. Because it doesn’t behoove us for either brother to be ‘more right’ than the other. But for the brothers to be reconciled in the steadfast love of their father who holds nothing against either and wants both to feel and know his love.