This sermon was first given at Scott AFB’s ‘Community Protest Service’ on the first of August 2010:
Sermon II – The Elder Son
- Last week we looked at the first half of the parable of the Prodigal Son. If you remember, I left you with a printout of Rembrandt’s painting that attempts to describe the realities conveyed in this parable. We looked at that repugnant person on his knees… with no left shoe… dressed in rags… malnourished… And I asked you to consider the following question, “could that be me?”
- Now, some of you didn’t take that as a rhetorical question and came right up to me after the service and said, YES, I am that person. I am the prodigal son! Thank you for your candor! I can only smile with joy, when I hear those words. “I am a Prodigal Son.” They comfort me, reminding me that I am not the only Prodigal Son in the room.
- You see, I too lived the life of a Prodigal Son. I was raised going to a very traditional, conservative, and middle class church in northern Ohio. I had all the religious paperwork: baptized as a baby, 1st act of reconciliation, 1st communion, and even was confirmed in High School. Now, mind you, despite this confirmation, the next day I decided that I was an atheist. Upon High School graduation, I moved away to Ohio University. After discovering an affinity to alcohol and partying, I proceeded to spend all the money I earned working summer jobs in high school.
- My mom, being a banker, soon saw that I squandered a couple of thousand of dollars within my first two months of college… and that I spent the majority of that money at bars. Eventually, I over drafted my checking account. I was broke! Now, after that first semester, despite getting all As in my classes, my parents asked me to come home and go to a Community College. So, I did.
-But, I kept drinking and abusing alcohol. (I wanted what I wanted, and I deserved it (even though it was illegal))… Eventually I got arrested for a second time for underage consumption of alcohol… I went from never getting lower than a B in a class to getting straight Fs and flunking out of community college. Like the prodigal son eating those bitter, wild pods and sleeping with the pigs, I too hit rock bottom.
- In desperation, I joined the Air Force to get away from bad influences, to sober up, and get away from my parents, very patriotic ideas… however, it was during this time that the Prodigal GOD found me. You see, I never read the Word of God. When I enlisted as a medic, I was given a little Gideon’s bible. So I began to read it. I became intrigued with Jesus in the Gospels, and then somewhere around Romans – I repented and turned to God. I gave my life to Christ on the floor of a Basic Military Training latrine after lights out, on the evening of New Years Eve…. I continued to grow in Christ and mature… I had some great mentors who really helped me grow in Christ…Like the prodigal Son, God saw me and ran to me, embraced me, and called me his own.
- But you know what? After a few years of being a Christian, it becomes very easy to start to view ‘your testimony’ as ‘not as bad as others.’ Sure, I had problems, but I’m not like THAT… We begin to forget that we are as much (but no more) a child of God than that repentant thief that was crucified next to Jesus on Calvary… after a few years of being a Christian; I began to identify with another person in this parable, the Elder Son.
- Last week we learned that the first two verses of Luke 15 orient us to the motley crew that Jesus was telling this parable to: sinners and “tax collectors” on the one hand and the Pharisees and Scribes on the other. Last week we focused on the younger son’s journey, but this week we will focus on the elder son.
II. The Elder Son’s Rebellion
- V25 –The elder son has been sitting on the bench for a while in this parable. We are reintroduced to the elder son in verse 25. He was very briefly alluded to in verses 11 and 12 and now it’s time for his story, “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.” Immediately we see the contrast here between the work and effort of the elder son and the rejoicing of the Father over his younger son’s return.
- But I don’t know about you, but I can feel for the elder brother at this point. Did you ever work a long day only to return to other people celebrating? Man I did. Way too often in Afghanistan. I was deployed there back in 2007 as an x-ray tech and we were very short-staffed, so I ended up working a lot of hours. After a 16 hour day at a trauma hospital, the last thing I wanted to return to was a party! Perhaps in this parable, the physical weariness of the elder son returning from the fields is a foreshadowing of the emotional weariness and resentment that he has been harboring in his soul for all these years.
- Verses 26-27: But the elder son doesn’t go investigate the party for himself. He calls over his servant and says, “what’s all this partying about?” Perhaps, he doesn’t go himself to see what’s going on because, somewhere, deep down in his soul a fear has been plaguing him since verses 11 and 12 – that fear of his younger brother’s return.
- V. 27: Here’s the servants reply him in verse 27, “Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The servant’s words here give us an impression that this is not unusual for the father to act towards his servants or children in this manner. This behavior of the Patriarch, the Father, from the perspective of the SERVANT is consistent with the mercy and grace of the father’s character. But this isn’t the case for the elder son….
- “Your brother has come.” … the very words sting the ears of the elder son. Old wounds of resentment, pride, and entitlement come to the surface as he hears the very words that he feared for many years, “your brother has come.” For the elder brother this news is not a call for rejoicing and celebration, but of mourning and lamentation.
- But the servant doesn’t shut up there… he goes on and tells the elder son, “and your father has killed the fattened calf.” Killed the fattened calf?!?! Now serving the fattened calf in ancient Israel was symbolic of hospitality and celebration. And the killing of the Fattened calf isn’t for small celebrations or parties, but is for HUGE parties, we’re talking maybe a couple of times every DECADE…
- In the days prior to refrigeration, meat was used up quickly. So the amount of food butchered usually indicates the size of the celebration. Scholars have suggested that a feast built around the slaughter of a ‘fattened calf’ might well include as many as two HUNDRED guests… Now this isn’t a little party that is going on, it’s a big shin dig.
- Think about this celebration from the perspective of the elder son… It’s like a modern-day student who has graduated high school, undergraduate, grad school, and has earned a PhD – but his father never threw him a big graduation party… but his younger brother, who failed out of high school and ran away from home, gets to have a party that is even bigger than a graduation party, just for coming back home! Do you hear the cry of resentment yet? “IT’S NOT FAIR!”
- Each phrase out of the servant’s mouth is like a dagger going deeper and deeper in the elder son: Not only is his younger brother home, but his father gave him a reception that the father never gave to HIM, and NOT only that but his brother is safe and sound in the house! This news rips open old wounds and the elder son is ANGRY!
III. The Father’s Pursuit
- V. 28: Verse 28 tells us, “The older brother became angry and refused to go in.” There is another son in this parable that refused (for a time) to not remain in the house. We are now seeing a similarity between the older brother’s inner resentment and refusal to go into the house and the younger son’s physical rebellion and refusal to remain in his father’s house. But the Father still sees his son standing there outside the celebration and like he did for his younger son, the Father comes out and pleads with the elder son to come in.” This isn’t just a hand wave from a distance suggesting the elder son to come in, but the father running outside of the celebration and entering into the resentment, pain, and anger of his oldest son; begging, pleading, urging him to come and celebrate with him and his younger brother.
- V.29 – Notice how the son begins to respond to his father’s pleading in verse 29 “’LOOK! All these years I’ve been SLAVING for you and NEVER disobeyed your orders. Yet you NEVER gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.”
- The elder son isn’t just unhappy, but is ANGERED and ENRAGED – the brewing anger of verse 28, boils over as the father comes and pleads with him. Henri Nouwen writing about the elder son’s anger in this parable makes the following remarks, “ The younger son sinned in a way we can easily identify. His lostness is quite obvious… The lostness of the elder son, however, is much harder to identify. After all, he did all the right things. He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hardworking. People respected him, admired him, praised him, and likely considered him a model son. Outwardly, the elder son was faultless. But when confronted with the father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years. “
- Do you hear the attitude and the madness in the elder son’s voice. He wants what he wants, and he deserves it, and he will hurt others to get it.” After all, he has SLAVED for years while the younger son was away living a licentious lifestyle. This very choice of words “SLAVED” by the older son sets up a contrast between him and his brother – and he wants his father to pick one over the other.
- The extravagant reception going on in the distance has caused the elder son to reflect on his life – of all the faithful years of service to his father and his father’s apparent failure to provide him the recognition for these services. It’s not about having a goat to celebrate with his friends, but it’s really about the public recognition from his father for what HE (the oldest son) HAS EARNED!
- The cry of the elder son is that same cry of the laborer in Matthew 20:11-12. In this parable on the kingdom of heaven we are given this picture: A landowner went out early in the morning and hired laborers to work in his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into this vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘you also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ Then the landowner did the same thing at noon, three, and five o’clock. At the end of the day when the work was done, the owner paid out his laborers, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the fist came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.”
- Now listen to what the laborers who worked all day said the owner of the vineyard in verses 11-12, “And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’”
- The elder son is giving a more extreme complaint than these laborers in Matthew 20. From the elder son’s point of view, his father has made the prodigal not only EQUAL to himself, but also SUPERIOR! The elder son is attempting to justify himself and show that he’s been obedient and faithful all these years according to the standards of the Law (look at Proverbs 2:1;3:1).
-As the older son speaks these words to his father, they begin to stick to his throat because this younger son FAILED to live up these very same commandments. The elder son’s anger turns in verse 30 of the parable from what he feels he has earned, to what the younger son doesn’t deserve.
V. 30 – “But when THIS SON OF YOURS who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” Notice that the elder son doesn’t even acknowledge his brother – it is nothing more than a son of his father and not a brother. The younger brother is still as good as dead in the mind of the elder son, despite his Father welcoming him home as a son. To the elder brother this honor to the dishonorable and the failure to honor the honorable is unintelligible.
-V.31 But LISTEN to the father’s response in verse 31, “My SON,’ the father said, ‘you are ALWAYS with me, and EVERYTHING I have is yours.” The father is gentle, but insistent in his response to his angry and resentful son. The Father’s response to his elder son echoes the response of the landowner to the grumbling laborers in the parable we looked at just a moment ago in Matthew 20. Listen to the response of the landowner to the grumbling laborers:
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”
- Do you hear the love mixed with hard, unyielding truth in the Father’s response? He first reminds his eldest child of who they both are. “MY SON.” The father is reminding the child of who he belongs to, but also of his identity; that of sonship. The benefits of which are: “always being with him, and having access to EVERYTHING the father has.” The father is reminding his eldest son that while there is celebration taking place for his younger brother, he is still the eldest son. His place at his side and his claim upon the family inheritance is in NO way disturbed by his brother’s return.
V.32- The father concludes his response now in verse 32, “but we HAD to celebrate and be glad, because THIS BROTHER OF YOURS was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” The father is now reminding him that he is not only a SON, but also a BROTHER. If it is true that the younger son has been restored to his Father, it is just as true that the younger son has, within the hierarchy of the family, been restored to his brother.
- Notice the contrast between how the Son speaks about his brother in verse 30, “THIS SON OF YOURS” compared to how the Father speaks about him in this verse, “THIS BROTHER of YOURS.” The two brothers belong as much to each other as they do to their father.
-The father wants the elder son to see that while he (the father) has regained a son, the Elder son, if he will but accept it, has regained a brother. The challenge to the elder son (and to the church), is to see the return of the younger son as an enrichment to the family AND to enter into the joy of celebration.
- Notice how the parable of the Prodigal Son concludes. It builds on the conclusion of the first two parables in Luke 15. In the parable of the Lost Sheep there is rejoicing in heaven over a sinner who repents. In the parable of the Lost Coin there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. And now, the “joy in heaven” of these earlier parables prepare us to see the Father in this parable in close connection with God rejoicing over his repentant children.
-We also see the reality of what the ministry of Jesus Christ means to BOTH Sinners and Pharisees: Sinners, who in their need to draw near to God, find the free and generous love of a heavenly father. We find that despite the grumblings and resentment of the Pharisees and the religiously serious, there remains (if they only accept it), an invitation to join in the rejoicing and celebration of heaven over the repentance of a sinner.
- But do you notice what is missing in this parable? A fairy tale ending… There is no “Happily ever after.” We are left with a celebration for a son who was dead and is alive again; who was lost and is now found. But we aren’t left knowing that he sticks around and stays in his Father’s house after the food runs out.
- We are also left with a Father reminding his elder and resentful son of his inheritance as his Child and his invitation to rejoice with the recovery of his brother from the grave. But we aren’t left knowing if the elder son repents and enters the celebration to greet his younger brother.
- Could it be that Jesus left this parable unfinished on purpose? Could it be that Jesus left us with an unfinished painting, so that we could paint the end of the story in our own lives? COULD IT BE that while we may be uncertain of the end of the story for the SONS we CAN be certain of the FATHER’S LOVE, MERCY, and GRACE for his children? Could it be that while we may be Prodigal Sinners or Prodigal Saints – there remains an even greater Prodigal GOD!