Many years ago when I was pastoring in South Texas, I became friendly with an Hispanic family who lived up the street. The couple who lived there had two sons, Joaquin and Pablo, born a year apart. At the time of this particular incident, Joaquin, the older son, had recently graduated high school. Pablo was then a high school senior.
I remember well when the father of the two boys came by and invited me to attend a party in honor of Joaquin. Right away I was surprised, because Joaquin had been an indifferent student in high school, barely scraping by. He looked to be the picture of a shiftless, overweight young man who had no ambition or direction in life. The contrast between the two brothers was huge, because Pablo was his total opposite. Strikingly handsome, Pablo was the captain of the high school football team. In addition to being a gifted athlete, Pablo was a brilliant student. What's more, he was an ace debater and a thespian. Pablo looked like the kind of young man who could be president by the time he was 30.
So my ears perked up when I heard about a party to honor Joaquin. The father explained that his son had joined the Marines. The family was surprised when he had been accepted, but he had. They were sure that Joaquin would not make it through basic training; but he not only survived the experience, Joaquin had graduated first in his class. So now he was coming home covered in glory, and would I come and help to welcome this young soldier back to the neighborhood.
I was delighted to do so. And on the afternoon of the party, the house was crowded with friends and family. The other big surprise was that Joaquin had lost 50 pounds during basic training. Now he looked to be the epitome of a United States Marine-trim and fit and brimming with confidence. Everywhere the guests were talking about the transformation. The ugly duckling had become a swan. The loser had become a winner. The lost boy had found himself. No one seemed more shocked and delighted by this reversal of fortunes than Joaquin's parents. They were clearly beside themselves.
After greeting the guest of honor and speaking with his proud mother and father, I ventured into the dining room. There was a wonderful spread of delicious-looking Mexican food. I filled my plate and wandered into the kitchen looking for Pablo. I found him there visiting with an uncle.
I pulled up a chair next to Pablo who was sitting on a stool in the corner eating a bowl of ice cream. I tried to engage him in conversation, but the young man didn't have much to say. That was uncharacteristic, for normally Pablo was a superb conversationalist. He obviously did not want to talk. In just a few minutes, he finished his ice cream and left.
After he had departed, I said to his uncle, "So what's the matter with Pablo?" The man said, "He's in the dog house." "Why?" I asked. "He threw a wild party when his parents were gone last weekend. The police were called, and his grandmother found out about it. When his folks came home, it was really bad."
I pictured the scene in my mind and the contrast between what was presently happening. And then the uncle said, "To tell you the truth, I think Pablo is a little bit jealous about this party. Until now he's always been the good guy around here." Remembering the uncle was an active churchman, I said, "The prodigal son." The older man smiled and nodded. "You got that right!"
With that introduction, we move to the second sermon in this series. Last week I preached on the loving father. Today's sermon is on the elder brother, the one who stayed at home.
I have mentioned before that The Prodigal Son is the third parable in the trio which Jesus tells in Luke 15. The Story of the Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin immediately precede this one, the story that has been called the gospel with within the gospel. Luke introduces this parable by saying, "There was a man who had two sons." In verse 25 of chapter 15, Jesus shifts the focus away from the loving father and the prodigal to the elder brother. How beautifully Jesus sets up the image of the oldest son being the outsider, the Pablo in this story. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on." Right away, the elder brother is the odd man out. There is a party going on and he knows nothing about it. What in the world is happening? Then the servant tells him exactly what is taking place: "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound." The elder brother is at once consumed by his hurt and fury. "Then he became angry and refused to go in."
Last week I mentioned our human need for control. Pablo's uncle said it for the first-born son in this passage: "Up to now, he was the good guy around here." The eldest son in a family in ancient Israel would have enjoyed many privileges, not the least of which would have been a double portion of the father's estate. He was definitely the blessed child, the one who called the shots. But now, suddenly, the tables have been turned. The elder brother has not been consulted. No one has asked him about hosting a party for his kid brother. He feels excluded not only from the planning but the party itself. And so he refuses to participate.
Last week I spoke about Rembrandt's marvelous rendering of the situation in his painting "The Return of the Prodigal Son." In the background there are several shadowy figures, no doubt members of the household. To the right of the painting is the elder brother intently watching his sibling kneeling in front of their father. Unlike the old man whose hands are open in blessing, the hands of the oldest son are clasped in front of him. It is the classic pose of one who seeks to limit, to control. If the hands don't tell the tale, then the face of Rembrandt's subject surely does: his brow is furrowed. It is immediately clear that the first-born son is unhappy.
We don't have to wait long in Jesus' story to find out just how unhappy the man is, as he confronts his father. "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends."
And so the one who stayed at home begins to make his case. He believes that he is the victim of an unjust action, for he is the one who worked in the fields and did not complain. He is the one who never gave his father any problems. How true this story is to the nature of first-born sons, for so often in families, they are the conscientious ones, the ones who are the trail blazers, the ones who distinguish themselves. Being a first-born son myself, I know something about this. There is the feeling, perhaps, of "to whom much is given, much will be required."
And so this eldest son is like so many of us, then-hardworking, faithful, but also anxious to preserve his prerogatives. This first-born child, it appears, is just getting warmed up. He is the one who mentions for the first time the notion that his sibling has had relations with loose women: "But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you kill the fatted calf for him!" So now we reach the bottom line: "Dad, I have never disgraced you. I have never asked for anything prematurely, much less squander your estate on debauched living; and yet my brother has done all this and you honor him! You do the last thing that should be done. You throw him a party!"
Little wonder this story speaks so powerfully to a modern audience. For it may just sound like life in your family or extended family! Clearly what we have in this parable, then, is an intense story of sibling rivalry. We also have in the older son's complaint the lament of a child who is now shamelessly saying to his father, "It should be my time! Not my little brother's time! If anyone should be honored, it is ME, the worker, the steadfast one, the faithful son. Attention must be paid, Dad!"
If you are a parent, you know how important and yet how difficult it is to be fair, to not take sides. You love all your children, but you love them differently. That is why the father tells his oldest son that the present had to be his younger brother's time, because he, in effect, had been raised from the dead: "But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this younger brother of yours was dead and has come to life. He was lost and has been found." If we are human, we tend to keep score. And that is, of course, what is going on here. The older son is calling in his chips. He wants to be recognized for his contributions. He wants to be covered in glory. And if he can't, he would just as soon sit in the kitchen corner, eat a bowl of ice cream, and feel sorry for himself.
The parable ends right there with verse 32. We have no idea what happens next. What do you think went on? Did the elder brother stomp away and go back to the field? Did he relent and go inside and welcome his brother home? Did the first-born son go to his room and pack a few belongings and head out to his own far country? We don't know.
But one thing is clear. The older brother becomes the prodigal in that moment. He is lost to himself and cannot receive his father's love. The cycle of the younger son is now repeated in some sense with the older son. And even though he has stayed at home, it is as if he is already in a far country. Because he feels unloved and unsupported, the elder brother is looking at the husks, at the pods of his life. All this conscientiousness, all this goodness, all this duty seems for naught.
Some years ago I became the senior pastor of a 3,300-member congregation on the Gulf Coast. I was 41 years old and felt as if I had lived at the hub of the universe; but in my ordination class, there was a man I will call Brett. A year before I was called to my assignment, Brett was called to be the senior pastor of a 5,000-member congregation in the Midwest. Well, I was undone. I was older than Brett, had more education and thought I was wiser as well. How could that congregation have come and courted him for that position when it should rightfully have been mine? I was so envious of Brett I could hardly bear it, that I would never mention his name or his good fortune.
During my first year of serving that church, another member of our ordination class and his family invited my family and me to share a cookout at their home. John was the pastor of a church of about 200 members in our city. He was a wonderfully sweet and kind friend. As he flipped hamburgers on the grill that night, out of the blue John began to talk about Brett and about me. And then he said, "You know, Mark, I could never be jealous of you and Brett. I'm just so proud of what the two of you have done. I could never be envious of you."
I can still remember how those words burned my cheeks as if hot coals had been placed there. For in that moment, John became the loving father. I'm not going to choose between the two of you, because you are both my friends. I love you both and I'm proud of each of you.
Incredibly, a year later, Brett, who had been frozen out of his church over the issue of abortion, left his wife and children and congregation in the middle of the night. Six years later, I resigned my own position feeling as if the world had been turned upside down.
What we have left in such times is the knowledge that you and I have a loving and forgiving Father/Mother God, the one who says, "No matter what, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours."
How can we do better? Let us rejoice and be glad!
Let us pray. O Holy One, give us the grace and wisdom to celebrate your presence with us, wherever we happen to be, even when we stay at home. Amen.