It’s Not What He Did

Lectionary Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent.

Because my parents are visiting this Sunday, I’m going to take advantage of their presence. I remember my summer between high school and college. I was working at Church’s Fried Chicken. I hated that job, but it got me out of the house. I was SO ready to go to college, but terrified at the same time. Everything Mom said and did irritated me, made me long for college. Dad was so harsh and immovable, and I could not wait to get away from them. Without question, I was a horrible teenager! I wanted my independence and freedom. I wanted to move on in my life, stay up late, study subjects I actually cared about, be somebody new and different. And yet I was stuck. At home. In a dinky little town. I was suffocating.
In some way or other, I am sure many of us can relate. Jobs we hated. Relationships that were not working. This feeling of frustration, resentment, claustrophobia, is palpable and overwhelming. And here is where we enter our parable this morning. The younger son — frustrated, resentful, claustrophobic — goes to his father and asks for his inheritance so that he may move out and begin his life, reinvent himself. And so, without hesitation according to our text, the father gives his son what he asks for, and the son moves away, leaving the family and the childhood responsibilities. But, we need to have perspective for this portion of the story so that we understand its scope of impact.
There is a cultural and philosophical perspective to this story that grounds it to the foundation of family and heritage. N.T. Wright tells us that when the father divided his property between his sons before he died, the father was actually dividing himself. And, when the younger son pawned his half of his inheritance for cash, he was actually selling his half of his father. He was telling his father, “I want you gone. I am killing you.” This, as harsh as it is, would have rippled throughout the community as well as many would pity the father while others would condemn the father for what they would see as an ignorant business decision.
But, while I want to offer an initial cursory overview of our story, it is actually not the younger son that I wish to focus on this morning. No, I believe the story of the older brother deserves focus just as much as the younger one. Scripture begins his portion of the account with him in the field. He has been working. How long he has been out there, we are unsure. But, this is where he enters the situation. He approaches the house and hears a party: music, singing, laughing, smells sumptuous food. Essentially, he hears and smells pure joy. (I don’t blame him for thinking as he does at this moment — smelling the smoke from a juicy, thick ribeye steak on the grill will bring me running to the supper table too!) But, as he approaches the house, a servant informs him what is happening. His younger brother has returned, and the household is having a welcome home party for him. Immediately, the older brother is angry. And, I really don’t think we could blame him for being angry. Let’s step back from the story for a minute to see why.
I explained earlier regarding what it meant for the younger son to ask for his inheritance while his father was still alive. So, understanding the gravity of our history, let us turn our attention to the reasoning behind his anger. I would suspect that when his little brother asked for and received his half of the inheritance and then quickly moved away, the older brother had to face a broken father. I can imagine that his life radically changed. Before this event he might have viewed his father as a dad, as a strong man capable of wrestling a mountain lion or a bear with his bare hands. He was probably in awe of his dad, seeing him as an impenetrable force, knowing the answers to every question a son could possibly ask.
But, when his selfish, stupid little brother left, the older brother saw his father break in half. He might have seen his father weep, perhaps even sob for the very first time. Because of the choices of his little brother, he had to grow up essentially overnight. He might have had to take care of his father, listen to the “Why did he leave?” and “When will he come back?” And, these were questions that the father now had no answers for.
And, not only did he have to see his father so heartbroken, he had to watch the community whisper and stare and avoid and question his father. The community who once saw his family as strong equals perhaps now doubted the wisdom of his father. The older son was left behind to pick up the pieces and reassemble the foundation of this fractured family. So, when this son refuses to enter the party, we can understand his reluctance.
We heard the story from the New Revised Standard Version translation. However, I’d like to read this passage from The Jerusalem text: “He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out and began to urge him to come in; but he returned to his father, ‘ALL THESE YEARS I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property — he and his loose women — you kill the calf we had been fattening.’ The father said, ‘My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.’”
The older son had remained faithful to his father and his family. He stayed, took care of his father, milked the cows, sheered the sheep, planted crops and worked the fields, trained the workers, managed the business. Ensured his father’s reputation within the community was upheld and given value. Every request and chore his father had for him during these years had been completed with respect and diligence. He was the “perfect” son.
And in the father’s reply we see the difference between the sons. His father says, “My son, YOU are with me always.” The older son believes that what he has done should earn him his father’s love. He has done everything right. He has not strayed or erred in any way. His actions are right. They are by the law.
But, where is the older son as he is speaking to his father? Where are they standing?
Outside the banquet. Outside in the darkness. They are standing where the younger brother has been. On the outside.
But on the outside of what?
On the outside of love and light and hope. On the outside of grace.
You see, when the younger son left the father, essentially he died. He chose his path of life, away from his father’s love and the light of his home. And, when he came home, he was reborn. He sought his father’s forgiveness, and because of his faith it was granted through grace. And yet, the older brother tried to do all the right things, make the right choices, be a “good” boy. And he believed he earned love because of what he did. Ephesians tells us that salvation is not granted because of what we do but because of who God is. All these years the older brother believed he was earning his reward when in reality he needed only to accept his father’s grace and love. And, that grace was right beside him the entire time.
There is one last element I wish to highlight in our passage. Where was the father when he spoke to the older son? Where did he need to go to talk to him?
Outside. The father left the banquet, left the light, left the 99 to get the one.
And where or what is the “outside”?
Death.
The father went into death to meet his son. He went to the outside, into death and separation and darkness, to meet his son and tell his son that he was loved and in his father’s grace all these years. All he needed to do was accept it and come inside.
The father in our story is God reaching for us. The father welcoming us home when we have been selfish and stupid and irresponsible offering a banquet and music with all the heavenly choirs. The father who also sends His own beloved Son for us, who as the song says, “didn’t want heaven without us so He sent heaven down.” Our heavenly Father sent His own Son into the darkness of poverty and isolation and anger –death — when we have tried to earn His love through what we do and bring us back home by offering grace and love.
Let us pray.
Gracious Father. You love us and offer your grace despite where we are and what we do. We thank you and praise you for your ever-present faithfulness towards us. May we openly receive You and follow you. And, when we forget and try to earn your love through our works, be swift to come for us and bring us back to the safety of your presence. Through Your precious Son, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.

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