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Prodigal Elder Brother

So remember that time that I posted my first Lent sermon, then went quiet til after Easter? Ah, memories!

It has been quite the Lent around these parts. The husband and I bought a house in town, thus staring down all manner of Millennial stereotypes. The parish had a delightful Lenten series on the Eucharist. (Much of which is on our FB page.) And, as tis my rector-perogative, I got my lay preacher and my deacon to preach for Lent 2 and 3. (Mwahaha.)

All that established, here is my Lent 4 sermon on the Prodigal Son, which focuses neither on the Prodigal-ness nor the younger Son ness. Please discuss.

Rev, Megan L. Castellan

March 31, 2019

Lent 4. Year C

Luke 15. Prodigal, Angry Son

In the adult forum during Lent, Deacon Pat has been leading us in a book study of Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories of Jesus—a book on the parables.  Now, Dr. Levine is one of the foremost experts on New Testament studies writing today, and she also is an Orthodox Jew. So she combines both the insight from her religious tradition, with the knowledge from her academic expertise in her writing, and it makes for a very enlightening experience.

This is one of the parables she addresses in her book. She pairs it with the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin, also in Luke—pointing out how Luke has a particular concern for things that are lost, then found.  But also pointing out how these parables appear simple on the surface, but like all parables, once you dig deeper they confuse and turn the hearer around.

In the case of the lost sheep, the shepherd has one hundred sheep, loses one, and abandons the others to look for it in the wilderness.  That’s….not how a good shepherd does anything.  That’s how you end up with 100 lost sheep, not just one.  And 100 sheep is a huge flock—signifying a very rich owner.  One might be forgiven for not noticing that one had gone missing, and yet here is this shepherd chasing the one lost.  The lost coin story is similar.  The widow, who loses a silver coin, already had two, which would have made her very wealthy.  She immediately lights lamps and sweeps her whole house, then throws a party when she finds the one coin—which again, signifies great wealth, and the ability, the privilege  to casually misplace money in the first place.  

And in this category, Dr. Levine places the familiar prodigal son story, long memorialized in art, and song, and story.   The younger son approaches his father, and demands his share of the property.  Now that’s unusual, maybe, but the father doesn’t appear to object—giving us the first signal that this father makes some wacky parenting choices.  “Sure, kid! Take half my stuff and leave me!” A father who is able to support the rest of the family on half his lands and flocks is, like the earlier shepherd and widow, clearly a man of means.  There is abundance at work here. 

The younger son departs, heads off to a distant land, and spends all the money, doing we-aren’t-told-exactly-what, but we can guess.  Disreputable stuff.  Buying Beanie Babies, or trading cards, thinking they’ll appreciate, at the very least.  And when a famine hits, the younger son realizes his predicament, and is stuck.

It’s worth pointing out here that so far, this story of Jesus’ is about on track with other Hebrew bible narratives.  Think of Jacob and Esau—Esau being the good, older brother, and Jacob being the screw-up, who nevertheless, gets the blessing and the promise from his father through trickery.  Scripture is full of younger siblings who make bad choices, and whose parents still love them, and older siblings who do the right thing.  Scripture, as it happens, has a pretty good bead on human family dynamics.

So when the younger son decides to return, and the father welcomes him home, we are still well-within the scope of Scripture so far.  That’s really not the shock of the parable.  Granted, the father is still making some questionable decisions, (running? A big party?) but what loving father would not welcome a long-lost returning son like this?

No, the hinge of the story is the elder son, and his reaction.  Remember, Jesus is telling this story, according to Luke, to deal with the Pharisees and the scribes who don’t think he should be hanging out with tax collectors and sinners.  They are having a reaction to younger sons everywhere.  

And when this good, dutiful elder son realizes that his sibling has returned, he has a similar reaction.  He becomes angry, resentful, and you can hear his very recognizable emotion flying off the text.  All this time I’ve worked for you and you’ve never given me so much as a goat for a party with my friends, but once this son OF YOURS turns up (not brother any more, but son OF YOURS) you kill the fatted calf for HIM!  

Perhaps the reason this story is so ever-present with us is how immediately human these emotions are.  Who among us has never witnessed a reaction like this?  Or had one ourselves?  The older son has done everything he thought he had to, and now, he is coming to grips with the fact that his sibling has done none of it, and is receiving the same.  He’s jealous, he’s anxious, he’s angry, he’s so many things.  Where does he fit, now that the favorite has returned?

Yet the father reassures him, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate because your brother was lost, and is found.  Was dead, and has come back to life.”  You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  On one hand, it’s a very practical reassurance that the elder son’s inheritance is intact.  On another level, it’s a reassurance that no amount of work, no amount of returning sons will diminish the father’s love for his elder son either.  Both sons are beloved of their father.  Both sons are valued and cherished.  The father has more than enough for both of them—and yet, in their own ways, both sons remove themselves from the father’s care. And we are left at the end of the story, not knowing the elder son’s response.  Does he finally go into the party?  Or does he remain recalcitrant and stuck, standing outside?

What is it that keeps the elder son outside the celebration?  Does he not trust his father’s love for him?  Is his jealousy getting the better of him? What is the problem here?  Because the problem of the younger son was somewhat easily solved—he made diagnosable, bad choices, then he repented, and his father forgave him.  But here the elder son has seemingly never left, yet in the end, stands outside of the celebration.  Not because he isn’t invited, but because of himself.

I read this story once in a bible study with young adults in Arizona.  One young man was Navajo, and began crying as we read the text.  He said that it forcibly reminded him of one of his own family members, who had left home and cut ties with his own family.  In his culture, this amounted to a death, a loss of identity.  Your tribe and your family ties determined who you were—without them, you did not exist.  So, in a real way, within the similarly structured culture of the time, the younger son literally strips off his identity when he leaves home.  Hence, the text says “he came to himself” and realized he wanted to come home.  

The story can be read as a reconstruction of identity—for both sons, the father gives them their identity back, as beloved and cherished children, outside of what they have done or not done.  He throws a cloak around the younger and clothes him with love.  And he assures the elder of who he is “Son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours.”

And for both sons, the identity of the one does not detract from the identity of the other.  The younger son’s restoration does not diminish what the elder son has.  The elder son’s work does not prevent the younger from being welcomed home.  Though the elder has trouble recognizing it, the father has enough for both, and the identity of both sons rest on that abundant love.

For us, it can be easy to map ourselves onto the younger son.  The one who makes a bad decision, but then is gloriously welcomed home with the party and celebration.  It can be harder to recognize in ourselves the elder son’s frustration and anxiety at the welcome accorded to others.  Yet, I would argue that we all have both sons within us.  We all are that younger son, from time to time.  We all make dumb decisions, completely mess up, and wonder if we are even worthy to be called God’s beloved ever again.  

And at the same time, there are times when we look at others, and wonder why in the world we have been working so hard all this time.  There are times when we worry that if God welcomes so and so, does God really still care enough about me?  There are times we just really want to be the one with the beatific vision, the perfect certainty, the great spiritual life.  And we have trouble believing that God still is present with us, when all the bells and whistles are muted.

Yet, both sons are beloved. Both sons are cherished.  Both sons find their identity, ultimately, in the abundant love of their father, who delights in nothing more than celebrating their very presence with him, regardless of whether they feel they are worthy.  

Our job is to get to the party.  

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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