This story is a multi-generational story isn’t it? Not just about generations of one family, but known, loved, and seemingly preached about for generations of our families, so that we think that there is nothing new that we could learn about it. We know the story so well, it becomes a bit ho-hum.
For years the sermons were about the Son who rebelled, and a cry for us to repent and turn back to God. It was used to preach the law. We are the ones in the pigsty, we need to repent. That was act one in the story.
Then it was about the Father who forgave, and was used to preach the gospel of forgiveness. See how much God our heavenly father loves us. That was act two in the story, when the wayward son comes home.
But this story, if we think in the terms of the listeners of Jesus’ day, was not about the Son who rebelled, it was not about the Father who forgave.
You see, there is an almost forgotten act 3, where the Father has to go outside to plead with the older brother, who is indignant, jealous and consumed with what is seemingly in his eyes righteous anger, but who refuses to join the feast.
Jesus had already made the point about the seeking love of the Father. Because this story did not stand by itself, but came as the last of three “lost” stories: the lost coin and the lost sheep preceded it, and we saw the seeking love of God in the woman sweeping the house to find the one coin, and the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to find the one lost one.
No, the point of this story was something more cutting, it was something that would have upset his listeners. The point of this story is to be found in the forgotten act 3.
Who do you identify with in this story? Are you like the Father who forgave? For years I have heard him preached on as being God our Heavenly Father, and how he runs to us. Are you like the rebellious, younger son, who went the wrong way and found himself in the pits before he came to his senses? Do you feel all reinstated in the love of the Father? Good, it is important for you to know you are. For we all surely are.
But you know what? This story wasn’t told for the sake of “younger brothers”. Who was Jesus speaking to when he told this story? The Pharisees, the older brothers in the story, the ones who had never done anything wrong and therefore thought that they had a right to tell the Father how he should be treating the brother, and just how wrongly he was treating him.
This story would not have ended in teary eyes, celebrating the selfless love of the Father. It would have ended in furious gnashing teeth, as Jesus told them that the life of religious perfection is just as rebellious, just as insulting to God, as the life of running away and wasting your gifts.
Let’s look at the heart of the older brother for a minute here.
The younger brother had spent all that the law said he would receive. One third of the property and wealth, while the older brother got two thirds. The younger brother was now financially worthless. We have all heard how his actions had told his father that he was more use to the son dead than alive, and he didn’t want to wait for him to die, he wanted what was coming to him now!
The older brother would never do that, would he? He was the good Son, the dutiful son. But why did he do everything right? His heart can be seen when addressing his Father. “Look” he says. Now that might not mean much to you, but in a time when respect of parents was paramount, the son was not addressing the father as a much loved Patriarch any more, but as the one who stood between him and his share of the wealth. So do you see what he was doing? Just as much as the younger son, he thought that the wealth was already his to decide how it was spent. In his mind, his father was dead to him. Do you know what the correct response would have been to a Son who spoke to his Father like that in Jesus’ time?
Wham! (Backhander) So this response would have horrified the Pharisees.
Jesus was showing them that, far from pleasing God by the religiously, morally pure lives they were living, they were doing it to exert leverage, so that they could have what they wanted from him. They were rebelling just as much as the younger son, and they were doing it by being good.
What was his reason for not wanting the Father to reinstate the younger brother?: It was his works: I have worked for you all these years and you have never even given me a young goat to have a party with my friends.
Is there a danger of becoming “The older brother” in our churches? We, who so many of us have lived lives of service to God and his church, could we be tempted by satan to pride in our own works that we feel that we have the right to tell God how he should be working in our world, or our church. Do we use our service to exert pressure on God himself?
There was a lady in a Church, who when diagnosed with cancer in later life, complained that this should not be happening to her, as she had gone to church all her life and been on boards and supported with her offerings. When pushed by the Pastor, she admitted that she felt that God owed her a better deal because of all that she had done for him!
She had never understood the law of God, that she was a sinner, regardless of what good things she had done, and was deserving of death as much as anyone else, and then able to admit that she had never understood the gospel. Why? She thought she had not needed it! It was only for those rebellious “younger brother” types, not for her.
So we can see that the life of moral perfection can be an attempt to escape ever needing to accept Jesus as saviour, just as much as running from him is.
When talking to people outside the church, many will say that they have left because of the “Older brothers” that they have found in churches.
Pray that might never be the case among us, for think about where the story ended. With the Father and younger brother in the feast, (which in this analogy is heaven, isn’t it) and who was standing outside in the dark, in the cold? The older brother, the Pharisee, the one who lived the life of moral perfection, and presumed to try to tell the Father how to run his kingdom.
And who kept him outside? He did. His pride did. His Father came out and begged him to come in, as he does with us, but his pride, anger and sense of entitlement saw him out in the cold.
This older brother, whether it is us, or the danger of what we could become, is not the brother we need.
For we have an older brother. He went to the Father and said: “Let me go and find him Father, and bring him home”. Or in his own words in John 17, “that they might be one, as you and I are one”
We have an older brother who said “Let me go, at my cost” (because the younger brother being reinstated had cost the older brother anyway, it had divided up what was left of the fathers estate again, he was back to a one-third share of what remained”)
And he went, and he found us, and it was at his cost that we are back in the Father’s house.
The sandals signified land ownership in Jesus day, we are back in the banquet and we already have as our possession one of Jesus’ “Many rooms” that he spoke about.
The ring, as signet ring, signified full authority of the Father. It was the seal on documents, the family crest. We are reinstated with no conditions attached.
The robe, the best robe, would have been the Father’s own. And he dressed us in his own righteousness, and so the story goes on and on with our own.
And all this time the elder brother stands outside. Please let us never think that we have the right to use our membership, our service or our Lutheran heritage as something with which we can twist the arm of God or his Church, because Spiritual Superiority is a dead-end road.
Instead, let us rejoice with our Father over every one who was lost but now is found, who was dead but now is alive, and safe in his love, and from his house, let us go out and keep looking for more. There is still room.