The Parable of the Prodigal Son… *and* the Older Brother

Luke 15:11-32          

This summer we’re listening to the stories that Jesus told.  It’s been fun to preach, because they’re good stories – relatable stories.  Stories about borrowing from a neighbor, helping a stranger, throwing a party, saving for the future. 

In Luke 15 we get one of the most famous stories of all:  the parable of the prodigal son.  It’s so well-known that you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to be familiar with the plot.  If we told it today, it might go something like this:

A man had two sons.  They worked in the family business together.  One day, the younger son came to him and said, “Dad, I’m done here.  I don’t want to work with you anymore.  Give me my share of the inheritance now so I can do my own thing.”  So the father did; he didn’t make the son stay, he gave him what he asked for and let the son go.

And go the son did.  He went straight to Vegas.  He bet large sums just waiting to hit it big.  Meanwhile, he lived it up as a frequent flier in strip clubs and bars.  But the younger son never did hit it big; instead, he hit rock bottom.  He found himself begging at a large intersection during the day and sleeping at a homeless shelter at night. 

Eventually it dawned on him:  my dad’s minimum wage workers have it better than this.  So he swallowed his pride and started hitchhiking home, all the while practicing the speech he’d deliver when he got there.  Dad, I’m sorry; I messed up.  I don’t deserve to be taken back, but if you’d just give me a base job, that’s all I want.

The last ride dropped the younger son at the end of his father’s driveway.  He started the long walk up still rehearsing his talk.  Dad, I’m sorry; I messed up.  I don’t deserve to be taken back, but if you’d just give me a base job, that’s all I want.

Then the dad sees the son. 

Dad drops what he’s doing and runs down the driveway.  The younger son tries to start:  “Dad, I’m sorry-”  But dad doesn’t let him finish.  “Someone go to the store and buy the most expensive steaks they’ve got!  It’s time to celebrate – my son was lost, but now he’s found!”

If what makes Jesus’ stories so effective is how relatable they are, this one might prove the point.  It’s  heartbreakingly relatable.  Who among us hasn’t done some time as a prodigal?  Who hasn’t messed up, wandered away, done something outrageously embarrassing?  Who doesn’t long to fall back into our perfect Parent’s arms? 

This beloved story was once painted by a beloved artist, the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn:

The prodigal is, of course, the man on his knees.  He’s missing a shoe, dressed in rags, his head is uncovered.  The father has his hands on his son – gently, I imagine. 

I have been that son.  I have felt the gracious embrace of my heavenly father.  I have fallen at my knees with a full speech prepared:  “I thought I knew better, but I didn’t. You knew better all along, but I did my own thing anyway.  I don’t deserve to be taken back…”  But unbelievably – God does take me back.  If I’m tempted to doubt, I remember that God was willing to literally die to prove this point.  Our God is the Father who goes to ridiculous lengths so that we can always come back.

When we recognize that we are too-far gone and need to turn back, the best thing to do is to assume the posture of the prodigal in Rembrandt’s painting:  drop to our knees and be ready to feel God’s hands rest gently on our shoulders.

That’s where many of us are today.  We are the prodigal feeling the deep relief of being welcomed back home.

But not all of us. 

Some of us aren’t in a far away country.  Some of us are right here, and we’ve been her for a while.  We’ve been faithfully attending church, faithfully doing our quiet times, faithfully saying “no” to the wrong things and “yes” to the right things.  We’ve been right here by God’s side.  If that’s you, don’t feel left out.  You’re in the story, too.  It continues like this:

Meanwhile, while the prodigal was walking up the driveway and the dad was calling for a party, the older brother was working.  He was working hard for the family business just as he had been, this whole time.  In fact, he was working so hard that he didn’t even know what was happening.

“Hey, man, take a break!” one of the workers says.  “Your dad just said we got the rest of the day off.  He’s throwing a cookout!”

“What?” the older brother asks, surprised.  He didn’t know about this.  What’s the occasion?  It’s no one’s birthday.  It’s not a holiday.  And then he wanders out and sees:  younger brother is home.  Younger brother that has given his parents so many sleepless nights.  Younger brother who has been the topic of so many dinner conversations.  Younger brother, whose work he had been covering all this time.  He’s back, he’s broke, and he’s apparently getting a party.

Pure emotion drives the older brother to his father.  “What are you doing?” he asks.  “Are you out of your mind?  You’re not just taking him back – you’re throwing a party?  Hasn’t he cost you enough?  Maybe you could throw a party for – I don’t know – those of us who’ve been here, every day, not letting you down?”

“But don’t you see?” the father says.  “He was lost, and now he’s found.  Won’t you celebrate with us?”

In Rembrandt’s painting, our eyes are naturally drawn to the father and the son.  That’s how it works in the story, too.  But Rembrandt doesn’t let us ignore the fact that there’s another character in this story.  The older brother is also in the light.  If we look long enough our eyes are drawn to him, and we’ll remember that this story isn’t just about a lost son being welcomed back… it’s also about a son who never left.  The fate of that son is just as important.  Will he celebrate when his lost brother is found?  Or will his hard remain cold, hard, locked in judgment?  It’s hard to see in the painting – hard to read his expression.  And it’s hard to know form the story.  We’re left with a cliffhanger, one that invites us to wonder:  is that me? 

Is it you?

Is it us?

Once we recognize that we’re the judgey, cold-hearted older brother, it’s normal to be filled with remorse.   We never intended to be that person – and yet here we are, turning our noses up at the ones who return, as though we’ve never been lost, as though we have nothing to turn back from ourselves.

But don’t worry – there’s a solution for that, too.  Oddly enough, it’s just the same.

We fall to our knees.  We join our prodigal brothers and sisters who already recognize the need for God’s mercy.  We kneel and wait – wait for God’s strong-but-gentle hands to fall on our shoulders, too.  Wait for God to be just as glad that although our judgment threatened to make us “lost,” we’ve been found as well.

If you relate to this story, this is your call to response.

If you’ve been doing some time as a prodigal, now is the time to fall to your knees.

If you’ve been doing some time as the cold-hearted older sibling, now is the time to fall to your knees.

Now is the time to fall to your knees and receive the transformational love of God our perfect Father.

Amen.

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