Sunday’s sermon: All’s Fair?

Prodigal son - older brother

Texts for this sermon:
Philippians 2:1-10 and Luke 15:11-32 (Common English Bible)

This sermon is the 2nd in our Lenten series on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Last week, we read the story from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible and explored the role of the father. This week, our text came from the Common English Bible and explores the role of the older brother.

  • The media have been calling it “DanceGate.” Have you heard of it?
    • Valentine’s Day weekend – MSHSL held class AAA dance team state competition
    • Competition marred by controversy → previous complaints filed against the Faribault team with the MSHSL that part of team’s routine had been stolen from another out-of-state team
      • Now by time of the competition that weekend, MSHSL officials had already reviewed the accusations and found that routine was above board. But when it was announced that the previously-accused Faribault team had actually won the championship, the other teams were not very happy about it. → other 5 top teams refused to participate in medals ceremony
        • Refused to come up and accept their own medals
        • Even went so far as to collectively turn their backs on Faribault team when they received their medals
      • Now, I’ve seen the videos. I’m no dance expert by any stretch of the imagination, but to my amateur eyes, a short portion of Faribault’s routine does look very similar to the out-of-state team’s routine. The costumes and make-up look very similar. The music is the same. But in the midst of the controversy that has blown up around this, I think the issue is not what the Faribault team did or didn’t do but instead the response of the other teams. To me, this unsportsmanlike display seems to take the classic childish phrase “It’s not fair” to the extreme.
        • “It’s not fair” response from the other dancers, some of whom gathered outside Faribault’s changing area afterward to shout taunts and insults at them
        • “It’s not fair” response from the coaches that also participated in collective snubbing
        • “It’s not fair” response from the parents that encouraged this behavior in their children
  • And “it’s not fair” is the response that we heard this morning from the older brother in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, too. This brother finds all kinds of things about his brother’s actions unfair.
    • The actual work to be done – older brother: It’s not fair!
      • Know older brother has been working – text: Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing.[1] → According to cultural norms of the time, we can guess that he hasn’t just been strolling around out in the field twiddling his thumbs and acting the part of the indifferent overseer. He was out in the fields that day because he was working, and anyone who’s ever worked on a farm knows there’s only one kind of work: hard work.
        • Imagine the son toiling away out in the fields
          • Sore back
          • Sore hands and feet
          • Sweat pouring from his brow
          • And this image is certainly a far cry from the lavish life that he thought his brother had been leading. Why should this frivolous younger brother get to have his cake and eat it too while the older brother was stuck working so dang hard? It really wasn’t fair.
    • Older brother = also angry about perceived imbalance of each brother’s devotion/dedication
      • In his eyes, it’s plain that the younger brother’s devotion lies anywhere but with the father who loved and raise them. And remember what a slight this is to the father, the patriarch. → last week: younger son’s demand that father give him his portion of the inheritance early = treated father like he was already dead (major insult)
        • Older brother’s response: How devoted could this egotistical younger brother be to their father if he’s willing to treat him like he’s already dead?
        • Find an interesting nuance in language of older son’s complaint that his brother “[gobbled] up [their father’s] estate” – Gr. “estate” = livelihood, everyday life itself → I have to wonder if the older brother was upset about more than just material wealth here. He was the one who stayed behind and witnessed the stress and strain and sorrow that his father experienced when his younger brother took off. He alone had stayed with their father. He alone had continuously fulfilled his cultural and familial duties as a son. And yet this brother who had insolently turned his back and walked away was being welcomed home like a king? It really wasn’t fair.
    • And this indignation bleeds over into the next – older brother’s dismay over the dividing of the inheritance in the first place and how it was spent → Here, I think we encounter a little of the older brother’s frustration not with his younger brother but with his father. He was so generous when the younger brother asked. He was so generous when he let the younger brother leave. And now he was being so infuriatingly generous with the younger brother’s return!
      • This is the essence of the first half of his complaint – text: 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 I could celebrate with my friends.[2]
        • Typical oldest-child complaint – “guinea pig child”: All the rules were made for me to follow and for my younger sibling to break
    • Following thread of typical birth order psychology, find older brother’s final complaint: his younger brother’s complete irresponsibility
      • Again, see weight of this in Gr. – older brother to father: I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction.
        • “disobeyed” = neglected, passed by – implies that the older brother has not only not disobeyed the father’s commands but that he hasn’t even left a command undone → No “selective hearing” for this guy. While his younger brother followed his every whim, the older brother followed his father’s every command. It really wasn’t fair.
  • As people of faith, this perspective of the older brother in the story can be troublesome for us. We’ve been taught that we’re supposed to be generous and gracious and forgiving like the father, not frustrated and demanding and disparaged like the older brother. We’re uncomfortable with his angry outburst.
    • And yet, in the back of our minds, we know that sometimes we feel a heck of a lot more like the older brother than anyone else in this story.
      • Feel slighted
      • Feel frustrated
      • Feel self-righteous
      • Feel like other people have had nothing but blessings heaped on them while we’ve had nothing but responsibilities heaped on us
    • Talked last week about the radical grace of the father in the story – extravagant generosity, unconditional love, and powerful forgiveness all rolled up into one → Sometimes that kind of radical grace astounds us, and sometimes – when we’re road-weary, field-weary, life-weary … when we’ve been working so hard we can barely see straight – sometimes that radical grace is hard to swallow. And just as the older brother succumbed to his frustrations, our own frustrations can sometimes overwhelm us, leaving us feeling angry and negative and dejected.
      • Purpose of older son’s perspective in the story = not to make us feel bad in times like these but to instead put a name and a voice with the way that God knew people would sometimes feel
        • Older brother’s role acknowledges our own challenges
        • Older brother’s role acknowledges our own frustrations
        • Through older brother, God saying, “Yes, this is going to happen.”
          • Times when we struggle
          • Times when our focus turns too far inward
          • Our own “it’s not fair” moments in life and in faith
    • But what is the father’s reaction to the older son? Does he get mad and shout or turn him away from the party or laugh off his complaints or scorn his righteous indignation? No.
      • Text: Then his father said, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.”[3]
        • First, reassures that there is plenty of grace – plenty of generosity, love and forgiveness – to go around: Everything I have is yours.
        • Also reiterates just how life-saving younger son’s return was – puts things in perspective for the older son → While the older son is stuck in a place of worrying more about what’s “fair” than about what’s gracious, the father gently reminds him that grace was made for just such a time as this – a time when fairness falls short, a time when what’s truly “fair” is also truly callous, truly harmful, truly heartbreaking. He had already lost his younger son once. He wasn’t about to thrust him into lostness all over again.
        • Scholar’s words from last week still apply: Grace lies at the heart of this parable – scandalous grace, grace that defies all earthy rules and conventions.[4]
    • This is also why we read the passage from Philippians this morning. → guidelines for following God’s powerful example of grace – text: If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care – then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.[5]
      • Gives us the ultimate e.g. of enacted grace = Christ: Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death –and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.[6] → Can we be perfectly grace-filled and selfless like Christ all the time? No. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to have bad days and bad tempers. But that doesn’t make us bad people or bad Christians. It just makes us human. The call that we hear – from Paul’s message to the Philippians and from the perspective of the older son in the parable – is that we cannot let those challenging moments be the end of our story.
        • Interesting to note Jesus ends parable with father’s words (“this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.”) → emphasizes supremacy and finality of grace – literally gives grace the last word – but also leaves door open on the end of the older son’s story
          • Leaves the door open for forgiveness
          • Leaves the door open for reconciliation
          • Leaves the door open for grace
          • Amen.

[1] Lk 15:25 (CEB).

[2] Lk 15:29 (CEB).

[3] Lk 15:31-32 (CEB).

[4] Deffenbaugh, 118.

[5] Phil 2:1-4 (The Message).

[6] Phil 2:8 (The Message).

Mar. newsletter piece

When I was a little girl – probably 3 or 4 years old – we lived in a trailer on my grandma’s farm yard. The yard was a mile away from the highway down a gravel road, and my mom used to like to go for walks down that road.

One beautiful summer afternoon, Mom decided to go for one of her walks. I was supposed to stay on the yard with my dad, who was out in his shop working on some sort of farm thing or another. (I was a little kid … all I knew was that it was enormous and had wheels.) But the day was so beautiful, and the road didn’t look that long. I decided I wanted to take my doll in her buggy down the road to walk with Mom. So I started walking.

It didn’t take that long to catch up with Mom because she was already on her way back, and from what I remember, it was fun walking and pushing my doll buggy as it bumped along the gravel. It was fun … until we got back to the yard and I realized just how worried and scared my dad was. One minute, I had been there. The next minute, I was gone. Only now that I am a parent am I truly able to appreciate what I must have put him through that day.

And the father said, … “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:24)

At its heart, the story of the prodigal son is a “lost and found” story. As the father so joyfully declares, the younger son was lost and is found. The son himself loses sight of the importance of family and finds it again. The older brother gets lost in his indignation and resentment; it is up to us to draw our own conclusions as to whether he finds a way out.

Every way we look at this story, there are elements of being lost and being found.

But what does that mean? What does it mean to be lost? What does it mean to be found? How do we know when we’re lost or when we’re found?

Well, that’s a bit of a trick question. Yes, Jesus’ parable is often interpreted to convey the idea that when we come before God and repent of our sins, our names move from the “lost” column to the “found” column in the Giant Book of the World. But I’m challenging that interpretation because in order to it to be true, it would have to mean that we are lost from God in the first place – that something about what we’ve said or done has put us in a place that is out of God’s reach, and only by our own effort and volition can we scrabble our way back to a “findable” place.

But anyone who’s ever felt lost knows how truly impossible that can be. When you’re in that place of loss – whether you’ve lost your hope, your trust, your sense of self, your comfort, or anything else that normally keeps you grounded – you don’t feel like you have the strength to even lift your eyes. You don’t feel like you have the spiritual coordination to even begin to drag yourself to some arbitrary “findable” place.

In truth, we are never actually lost to God because we are never out of God’s reach. Paul said as much to the Christians in Rome:

I’m absolutely convinced that nothing – nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable – absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus [the Christ] has embraced us. (Romans 8:38-39)

You see, that’s what grace is all about. Grace is about God reaching down to us even when we feel like we’re in the most unreachable place imaginable because no matter how unreachable we feel, we are never truly out of God’s reach.

That being said, the story of the prodigal son is still a “lost and found” story because it reminds us of some of the things we may have lost or lost sight of; things that we may be desperate to find again.

We find grace.

We find compassion.

We find generosity.

We find God.

Pastor Lisa sign