Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Congregation of the Older Brother

Luke 15: 11-32

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the more well known stories in the Bible. I’m sure anyone who has been more than a couple years in Sunday school can tell me a story they’ve heard related to this parable.

It’s even reached the stage of common reference in the wider culture—even un-churched people all know what it means when someone says “the prodigal returns home!” It’s a story that’s very high on the Biblical Literacy scale.

We’ve come to understand the word “prodigal” to mean someone who has made bad choices and needs to be forgiven. But that isn’t the actual definition, I discovered! To be prodigal means that you spend lavishly, or “are characterized by wasteful expenditure”. So the younger son isn’t prodigal because he went away and then came back looking for forgiveness; he’s prodigal because of, as Peterson’s Message says, he was “undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had.”

At various times in our lives, I think, we’ve fit into one or another of the characters of the story. It’s easy in some phases of our lives to identify with the younger son. There is no better teacher than experience, and sometimes the best way to learn a lesson is by doing the wrong thing, despite the advice we’re given. Those mistakes can sometimes be costly, but we learn because they’ve been made. I’m not really going to spend a lot of time on that brother, today, because while we all may have been there at one point or another, rarely does someone resemble that brother consistently. Most of the time, when you get to a certain age, making prodigal choices is pretty rare.

When it comes to resembling the father, well, that may seem presumptuous, because that character is usually understood to be God. Some of us may have had opportunities to be magnanimous when others have hurt us—children who have made bad choices and seek to return to our way of thinking, and sometimes literally return to our houses. It’s a common interpretation of this story to see the father as God, and great hay can be made about the character of God as Jesus understands him, running toward the younger son while he is still far off, graciously and extravagantly giving the younger son a new robe and a new ring. And indeed, Jesus is telling us about the reaction God has when we have earnestly and honestly repented of our sins, a message not to be lost during the time of repentance that is Lent.

But this morning, I am thinking that our normal way of living, our default way of life, resembles most closely the older brother. We get up, we do our jobs, we feed our families, we do our homework; in general, we do the best we can, each and every day, and rarely make a hash of it. We don’t expect to be congratulated for what we do, we just do it because that is what life is. Provide for our families, support our church with our prayers, presence gifts service and witness, do what it expected of us, not because we are mindless robots, but because this is the life we know.

We live in the older brothers’ world, most of the time. We’re prudent, we’re reasonable, we don’t seek attention. As the Boy Scouts say, we do our best to do our duty to God and our country.

And that is a good way to be.

But every now and again, if we’re so good and practical and solid, I get what the older brother says; wouldn’t it be nice to be recognized for not being an idiot? For being pragmatic and reasonable? Like the older brother says, not necessarily a big blowout down at a downtown hotel, but maybe a little cake and coffee in the church basement? You know what I mean?

We work, we buy groceries, we try to buy good food for ourselves and our children, we worry about fat and cholesterol and trans fats and fiber in our foods, we live in houses that are warm and safe, and when they aren’t we work as best we can to make them so. We come to church, we volunteer on committees, we show up for mission projects, some of us have even gone on mission trips. We take time on Friday nights to come practice music. We try to study the Bible, we try to pray.

We are the Congregation of the Older Brother. And sometimes, the hullabaloo that’s made over people who aren’t living right makes us angry. Sometimes we want to say “So, you’re an out of control popstar. Would have been better had you not put yourself in that position in the first place.” Every now and again, we speak up like the older brother does (again from The Message): “Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends?”

And what is the Fathers’ response? “You are always with me”.

At first glance you might say, I am always with you? Whoop de ding!

But think about it. Being all of those things, prudent and reasonable and practical, providing for our families, doing the work that is expected of us, including homework and practice if we go out for sports, that is what this story tells us being with God is like. Not getting addicted to things is what being with God is like. Providing safe space for our children to grow and thrive, that is what being with God is like. When we are with God, we construct a mesh of safety that benefits all of us. With God’s help, we construct the very thing that the younger sons (and daughters) among us leave. And when someone leaves that mesh, it is cause for sadness and concern. It is indeed our love for them that causes us sadness, and that love (another aspect of the character of God) drives us to seek their return.

And when they return, love is what they need. This is what Jesus tells us by having the father react so extravagantly; someone returning to God is indeed cause for celebration!

So don’t get bent out of shape when you don’t get congratulated with a big party for living like you should.

It is then when you are the closest to God.

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