“Dead and Alive, Lost and Found” Colchester Federated Church, March 27, 2022, (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32) Fourth Sunday in Lent
The parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps one of the most famous stories that Jesus tells in the Gospels. When Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners the Pharisees and legal experts begin to grumble, saying “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” It’s this accusation that compels Jesus to launch into a series of stories—the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son (or the Prodigal Son). It’s a story Jesus shares that some of us may know by heart. It’s a parable that can bring up a lot of feelings. In fact, the first time I ever preached on this parable a parishioner commented after worship that I was way too easy on the prodigal because I am the youngest child. “What about the older brother and everything he went through?” my parishioner wanted to know (spoken like a true oldest, responsible sibling). That experience helped with the realization that this is one of those stories where we do tend to immediately place ourselves into the story.
Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote a book called The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming where he mused on this parable from the perspective of the younger son, the older son, and the father. Nouwen interpreted Rembrandt’s famous painting of this Bible story character by character. We could try it for ourselves—reading once through and imagining yourself as the prodigal son, the older brother, and the father or parental figure. If we put ourselves in the positions of the different characters, we begin to feel the story. Not just to understand the lesson, but feeling how this goes in our own families.
We ask ourselves how it would feel if we went away from home, messed up really bad, and had to come home in humility to ask for forgiveness. We ask how it would feel if we stayed home and saw our sibling come back in defeat and how it would feel to see our parent run out to give them the royal treatment. We ask how it would feel if we were a parent thinking that our child had been lost due to a series of bad decisions, arrogance, and selfishness and so on. Then we see them off in the distance coming home, and we are moved to compassion. Because the father’s response is incredible. Luke writes, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.” This is a vision of unconditional love. As Henri Nouwen states, “The young man being embraced by the Father is no longer just one repentant sinner, but the whole of humanity returning to God.”
So you and I may strongly identify with one of the characters. Though the reality is that there are times when we may be the prodigal, the older brother, or the father. There are times when we get things right. And there are times when we get things so very wrong. There are times when we must celebrate with someone who finally comes home. We know that our job isn’t to kick them when they’re down, but to show them compassion. There are times when we are irresponsible. There are times when we bear a grudge that prevents us from living a joyful, fulfilling life. Maybe we identify with different characters at different points along our journey. Though God is always there to welcome us back. No matter what. With arms open wide. Meeting us on the road back home.
Perhaps the most tragic figure in the parable is the oldest brother. Preaching this time around on the Prodigal Son (maybe with the previous scolding from that former parishioner still ringing in my ears), we will end by focusing on him. Because his reaction is understandable. His younger, irresponsible brother receives his share of his inheritance, goes off to a faraway land and wastes his wealth through living extravagantly. Meanwhile, the older brother stays home to tend the family farm. When his younger brother arrives, he’s literally out working in the field. The older brother asks one of the family servants what’s going on and hears that his brother has arrived. Not only that, their father has slaughtered the fattened calf to welcome him. Is it any wonder that the older brother responds with fury and doesn’t even want to enter the house?
Just like when the younger son was still a long way off, and his father went out to meet him, the father comes out of the house and goes to his oldest son. Luke tells us that the father begs his oldest son to come inside. The response is predictable, “Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so that I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.” Can we sense the fury, the anger that has been pent up for so long that is finally getting unleashed? It seems that the oldest brother feels taken for granted. Overlooked. Unappreciated. Having to be the one to hold down the fort does have its burdens. For anyone who has ever been in this kind of a position, you know that. It doesn’t come without an emotional and spiritual cost—to be the caretaker. But this story of the lost son also presents a cautionary tale to all of us.
When I was in the Ordination process to become an Ordained Minister in the United Church of Christ—it was a process. I would have to return to Ohio to my Association’s Committee on Ministry for yearly meetings. They would review my Seminary classes and grades; essays would be due. Some members of the Committee viewed my psychological evaluation and CPE final report after the unit of hospital chaplaincy. They read my Ordination Paper and challenged my theology. I even had to sit in one of those meetings while we all watched a sermon I preached in Wellesley as a student minister so that my preaching could be critiqued. And on and on, lots of hoop jumping. During one of these meetings, an older minister asked, “Now, Lauren, what do you like to do for fun?” The question took me totally off guard as I was more prepared to answer questions about the hermeneutic of suspicion as it pertains to biblical interpretation or the various types of eschatology or refuting penal substitutionary atonement than a question like that. “Pardon me? What do I like to do for fun?” Then he shared his belief that self-care is essential in ministry and that we should be asking candidates how they take care of themselves to have a sustainable long-term ministry just as much as we want to know someone’s theological beliefs, preaching ability, psychological fitness, boundary awareness, and so on.
In the end, in our Gospel story, this is a question that somebody along the way should have asked the older brother. You are working so hard on the family farm. You are holding things together for everybody. Your brother has jumped ship. What are you doing to care for yourself, what are you doing for fun? Or maybe, his father could have celebrated his older son just because. He could have thrown him a party and invited his older son’s friends; he could have slaughtered the fattened calf for him.
Let’s not assume that when it looks like somebody has it all together that they actually do. Let’s not assume that people don’t need to hear when they’re doing a good job and you appreciate them. And for anybody who identifies as the older brother, the one who is holding it together for everybody—what do you like to do for fun? Please have some fun sometimes. Thanks be to God, Amen.