Two Brothers and a Prodigal Father (II)
by Louise Westfall
The curtains closed last week on a scene of family reunion, unconditional love, and restored relationship. A runaway son — who’d squandered his inheritance selfishly — was safe at home, embraced by a father, whose love was downright prodigal: over-the-top, generous, extravagant, wasteful, beyond calculation or even imagination. Cue “Amazing Grace” and turn out the lights. There is something so wonderful about the lost being found and the loser getting a second chance.
… unless it’s your kid brother who’s done nothing to deserve it.
Lurking in the background of the parable Jesus told is the elder brother, the “good” son, who never caused his dad a day’s worry, worked hard and shouldered his responsibilities because that’s what good sons do. The joy of the homecoming is lost on him, because … well, let’s consider his side of the story. A reading from the good news according to Luke, in the fifteenth chapter, at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word to all who long for balanced accounts, to faithful ones so intent on being right they forget to be good. [Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32]
Once upon a time a daughter was born to a Christian family from Colorado Springs. As a teenager she rebelled against her parents’ strict upbringing and started getting tattoos just to spite them. She dropped out of college and moved to Denver to support a lifestyle of drugs and alcohol. Finally fed up with herself, she got sober and took a job as a stand-up comic. People laughed at her jokes, and told her she had a knack. When she was asked to speak at the funeral for a friend who had taken his life, she felt the first inklings of a call into ministry. She went on to found a congregation of the Lutheran Church, the House for All Sinners and Saints, has written two New York Times bestsellers, been the toast of talk shows and the most sought-after speaker at conferences. You may recognize her as Nadia Bolz-Weber, and recall that she preached at Central a few years ago to much acclaim and affirmation.
Once upon a time a daughter was born to a Christian family from Kansas City. As a teenager, she sang in the choir, went on mission trips, and delivered the sermon on youth Sunday. After graduating college summa cum laude, she was accepted to Princeton Theological Seminary and eventually was ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament. She has faithfully served churches small and large that resettled refugees, ran programs for at-risk youth, provided shelter for the homeless and food for the hungry. She’s written no best-selling books (though she has spoken at the Rotary Club a couple of times). Can you imagine why I … I mean “she” might be just a wee bit resentful of Nadia’s popularity every time someone sends her a sermon or an article praising this powerful, compelling voice for the Christian gospel?
I am an elder sister. That puts me in league with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, kvetching about his friendship with lawbreakers and sinners, some people whose lifestyles were immoral and unproductive, others whose own choices had placed them at the margins of society. It is to them … to us … that Jesus told this story. The context makes it clear that the primary purpose was not to get rebels to repent but to get religious people to reform their picture of God and what God wants for all God’s people.
It turns out it’s the same thing for both righteous and rebel: relationship. Reunion with God. Reconciliation of the separation between humanity and God, whether the chasm developed through choice or chance; individually or through systems insisting their values are superior to others; by exalting the Self above God (“I have outgrown God”), or by a sense of entitlement that sees no need for God (“I deserve blessing because I have worked hard and done well”). And the gospel narrative makes clear that it is often easier for the outsider, the one who begins to see the holes and jagged edges of her life to “come home;” easier than it is for the self-sufficient who don’t need any help, thank you very much.
More than anything else -- more than our obedience, more than our hard work, more than keeping the law -- more than anything God wants to be with us. God wants the family to be together, relationships restored and whole.
The fatal flaw of elder brothers and sisters is misunderstanding the nature of grace. It’s not given in proportion to our behavior, belief, or righteousness. It’s there for us all. But the problem is that it offends our sense of fairness. Why should this son of yours have a party? Why should a late-arriver get all the attention? There are a hundred ways we are faced with this irrational calculus. Do these newcomers deserve the protection of refugee status? Do formerly incarcerated people deserve not to have to check a box indicating that fact to their potential employer?
It seems Jesus is offering a different way to judge fairness and who deserves what, based on no standard except God’s unconditional and whole-hearted welcome. [cf with Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, ed. Joel Breen, Thomas Long, Luke Powery, Cynthia Rigby, Year C, Volume 2, pp 87-92] The father’s demonstration of grace-filled love is the same towards both sons: he ran to meet the runaway and enfold him in welcome, and he went outside the homecoming party to plead with the elder one to join in. If only the elder son had perceived the magnitude of his father’s love for him; a love that was not diminished by the extravagant love shown to his wayward brother. If only he had understood the joy of his faithful life and constant relationship with his father. Dear Son, you’re always with me; all that I have is yours as well. The grace of God may be expressed in different ways, but it is not parceled out according to what we deserve. Prodigal love is a not a zero sum game. It overflows continuously.
Notice how the father re-frames the elder son’s dismissive reference to this “son of yours” into “this brother of yours.” Friends, grace breaks in when we recognize these others as our brothers and sisters. And more, when we begin to see the power of grace to restore life to those who were dead, and bring the lost ones home. All heaven rejoices, and we who are outside harrumphing and protesting are invited to come and join the party. More than anything else — more than our obedience, more than our hard work, more than keeping the law — more than anything God wants to be with us. God wants the family to be together, relationships restored and whole.
The elder sister in me has benefitted from conversations with Nadia Bolz-Weber, both in person and through her fresh and provocative writing, as we’ve talked about the challenges and comforts of being “church” today. I’ve felt resentment melt away in understanding her priority to reach those regarded as “outsiders” — people who doubt their welcome in more traditional churches — and her effective witness to the life-changing grace of God.
There’s hope for us elders yet! And fact is, I can’t imagine a more joyous and purposive life than the one I am fortunate to lead with you. The text doesn’t tell us whether or not the elder brother changed his mind and went to the party. But I imagine the reunion scene in my mind’s eye. And it goes something like this:
Jesus began to teach in parables. He said: The kingdom of God is like two brothers who were called by God to give up all they had and serve humanity. The older responded to the call, and found himself traveling to a distant land to serve the poor. Years later he was imprisoned for his work and eventually died there. And God said, “Well done my good and faithful servant! You gave me a thousand measures of service. I shall now give you a thousand million measures of blessing. Enter into the joy of your Lord. ”
The younger boy essentially ignored the call. He married the girl he loved and prospered in his business. He was a good husband and father and occasionally gave alms to the poor. And when he died at a ripe old age, God said, “Well done my good and faithful servant!
You gave me twenty measures of service. I shall now give you a thousand million measures of blessing. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” When the older boy was told that his brother was to get the same reward as he, he was surprised. And he rejoiced. “Lord.” he said, “had I known this at the time you called me, I would have done exactly what I did for love of you. ” [Anthony de Mello, Song of the Bird]
Love, prodigal love, that blesses everyone it touches, and all who share it. Amen.