A Tale of Two Brothers

nicoles-picture“There was a man who had two sons.”

Jesus was preaching to sinners and tax collectors—the societal scum of the earth—but the pharisees and scribes were listening in too—the acceptable, impressive, and righteous of social standing.

Now when these men who were accounted as righteous—the socially-impressive Pharisees and et cetera—heard Jesus say those magic words, “there was a man who had two sons,” in their minds, these learned Jewish men immediately put their money down on the younger son. This was because in the Old Testament, all the stories they’d ever heard about who their God is and how this God interacts with humanity, the younger son always wins. It may be something about cheering for the underdog, though I suspect it tells us more about who this God is than who he likes to cheer for—this is a God of surprises. Way back in the beginning, the first set of brothers on earth, Cain and Abel; they both make offerings to God, and God is pleased with Abel’s offering (we’re not exactly told why). Then, last week we heard about Abram. Amos alluded to the two sons that he had—it won’t surprise you, the younger one is the one God chose to use for his great promise of progeny. Perhaps one of the most significant brother pairs is Jacob and Esau, Jacob steals Esau’s birth-blessing which he’s owed as the oldest son, and Jacob ends up being named Israel, a name we know and use to this very day in connection with the Jewish people.

So back to the sons in our parable: the Jews who were listening knew exactly who to root for.

And Jesus continues: The younger son, when he was adult-enough, asked his father to split up all the family assets and to give him the piece he had coming to him.

Can you imagine what it would be like if your child came to you and said, “Hey, someday you’re gonna die, and in your will, I know you’re gonna be pretty generous; so, why not just give it to me now, and I can enjoy your generosity while I’m still young?” “Over my dead body!” you might say—the son is treating his father as if he’s already dead. But for whatever reason, the father listened and did just as the young son asked. A few days later, the boy took all that cash in a duffel bag, and he left home.

Cut to the montage in Vegas, the private planes, the champagne running free, and whatever else you want to imagine is tied up in “dissolute living.” Last weekend I saw a show called “House of Lies,” and I suspect that one of those characters is this son.

Then the stock market crashes. It’s 2008, or, the proverbial 2008. The son loses all his money, and he’s dying on the street. He’s thinking about his life, and he realizes what a fool he’s been. All the stuff didn’t give him peace and security, it didn’t really make him happy. He’s bet on the wrong life, he’s gone far down the path of seeking stuff and security, and it all left him for dead.

So he turns around and goes back home. He’s not expecting a ticker-tape parade, or even to be let in the front door. Imagine it’s Downtown Abbey: he’s shuffling up the drive, trying to get his words right, wanting to ask if he could be a field hand, or maybe an assistant to the gardener, or the livestock manager. Just something that will give him a roof over his head and some food in his belly.

But his father is sitting in the library, and sees that familiar gait coming up the gravel drive. Before the son is able to make to the back door, his father intercepts him and crushes him in a enormous hug. A party is quickly organized and the best wines are pulled out of the cellar, surely to Carson’s dismay. And echoing the butler’s disapproval, the older son arrives from a hard day of agenting and wonders what all the fuss is about. This respectable, dutiful older son catches sight of his lost young brother, and rolls his eyes with a sigh. “Oh, of course you’ve come sniveling back. Father, you can’t be serious—how can you celebrate this kind of behavior? I won’t have it. I’m going up to my room.” And even though he sounds much like Lady Mary, he’s a man, I assure you.

There’s a sculpture at Duke Divinity School of this moment in the story, the younger son is kneeling at his father’s side, Dad has an arm around him. The older son stands hardly within reach, with his arms folded across his chest. the father reaches out a hand to hold on to the older son, a sort of lifeline, desperate for reconciliation and wholeness, now that the family unit is back within reach.  And what happens next?  We don’t know.

That’s where Jesus ends the parable. 

fractured families – breaking societal rules – holding a grudge – count someone (friend, brother, parent) as “lost” – beyond the pale, beyond help. UNFORGIVABLE

So the respectable Jewish listeners, having put their money on the younger son, sit there scratching their heads. The son who messed up—to put it mildly—the one that they had been primed to support, he ended up breaking all the rules, sluffing off his family, and then, even though he had disobeyed every law that the Jews were so careful and fastidious to keep, this son was accepted again into the family, he was even celebrated. What could Jesus mean by that?

Do any of you have family members who are “lost”? Are there friends or people in your life who have abandoned you, or done something unforgivable? Is holding a grudge against them your wall of protection? Maybe they just stopped calling or they’ve gone off with some kind of substance to try to find peace there. Do they know that they can come home? What would happen if they did?

As for the tax collectors and sinners who were listening to this parable, they’d received no such training in Jewish lore, and they probably thought, “Ah ha! The older son! Surely he’s the one to bet on.” Usually the oldest son would receive the extra blessing, an extra share of the family fortune, fortune smiled on him—why wouldn’t you cheer for this character?

These social pariahs might aspire to be this brother, to be the upstanding, responsible, well-cared-for, safe brother. He’s hard-working and respected, invited to all the right clubs and social engagements. But the danger of that kind of life, or the danger of wanting it for its own sake, for the sake of being respected and rich and secure, is that you’re looking for the trappings of the lifestyle and not the life itself. The older brother had the shell of this full life, but not the heart of it.  His smallness of heart when his brother returns betrays him; it’s almost as if he is jealous that his brother enjoyed such freedom and adventure. The older brother isn’t pursuing hard work and respectability out of his own desire for good, honest work, or for love of his family and the position they hold, but because he thinks he should do it, because it’s what he thinks is expected of him.  Likewise, those listening who are desperate for respectability and wealth are shown that in themselves, they are just trappings, not the real stuff of a life that is whole and happy.

It’s really the tale of two lost sons.

One leaves home physically, takes a bunch of possessions and fills himself up with food and booze and all kinds of things that numb the deep hunger he has to be known. The other son stays home, seems to do all the right things, follows all the protocols for blessing and accomplishment, seeming to have no sin or darkness to hide at all. But as the tax collectors and sinners find by the end of the parable, this son, too, has sin he needs to acknowledge. He’s hidden it well, and he’s distracted himself with lots of good deeds and sacrifices for the sake of the family. But he’s run away from home too. He’s run away in his heart and is just as lost as his brother.

There is nothing so fickle and wayward as the human heart. And there is nothing which has more worth to God than each of our hearts, than winning the affection of each and every human heart.

I think that’s why Jesus ends the parable where he does: he leaves the question with hearers of every stripe and sort: will you repent and come home?

God our Father says, “Please come back, in both heart and soul; it’s just not home without you.”

The way back home is to say out loud that we have run away, to admit we’ve tried to cover ourselves up and pass ourselves off as just fine, doing okay, not in need of anything. It’s hard to admit that we’re lost and need to be found. That we’re cold and we’ve spent all our inheritance and we just want to belong again.

We’re encouraged during Lent to do some of that soul-searching, to admit that we’ve run away, and then to find our way back home.

The message that both sides needed to hear, both the ritually-righteous and the socially-sinful, is that God the Father, the God who Jesus reveals to us, is more interested in mercy than in sacrifice.

Younger son’s repentance leads him to be ready to sacrifice, to be a slave in his own home. He desires no claim of his birth or title or name, he expects no mercy.

The older son has given all the right sacrifices, he’s fulfilled all the obligations and expects to be judged on his sacrifices, he hopes that his right action—no matter his motivation—will show him worthy. In the end he is expected to have mercy, and to display forgiveness; all the sacrifice doesn’t matter if his heart is not merciful toward his brother.

It’s not that there is no grief or consequence or price to be paid for the sin and destruction wrought on the family—indeed, the estate is diminished at least by half, but in the midst of that price, what matters even more than sacrifice and than respectability is restoring wholeness, restoring relationship, bringing back unity.

This is what God does when Jesus dies on the cross. Jesus doesn’t go to the cross, unjustly condemned, because it is the sacrifice that ought to be made, that’s part of it and theologians rightly argue that Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin is part of the story, but another part is that God in Jesus shows love and mercy on the cross. Jesus is jeered by the onlookers: “Come down from there, save yourself, prove that you are full of all power and that you are God.” Jesus decides instead to show that he is God by living and dying in love and mercy, by enduring what a human would have to endure if you or I had been unjustly condemned. This is how God chooses to bring us home, God in Jesus forgives our wickedness, loves us completely and steadfastly.

So now it is up to you and up to me: do you have the courage to say “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you”? Do you have the humility to respond with honest repentance and to come back home, in heart and soul?

image via 

The Older Sister

First person (imagined) narrative of the older sibling in the Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15:11-32), delivered during Soul Stories, Soul Food


photo by the incomparable Roger Hutchison.

Oh, hello.

You must all be here for the feast—my brother’s feast. So you’ve gotten the news, he’s back! Isn’t that wonderful?

My dad aged so much when he left; when my brother asked for his inheritance a few years back, I didn’t think that Dad should give it to him, because I knew my brother, Josh, was just going to spend it all. He’s never had the self control or the wisdom or the foresight that I have to plan for the future, and to work hard for it.

Anyway, my dad did give it to him, because Josh is his youngest child, and the youngest child… well, I don’t want to offend any youngest children in the room, but, usually the baby of the family gets whatever he or she wants. Can you tell I’m an oldest child?

Well, what happened to Josh was really just too bad—he took his money, and he went out West. He bought himself a Mercedes roadster, and he drove all over California. Then, he went over to Las Vegas, “to really strike it rich”—he said in his postcards to me.

This was not how our father raised us. He raised us to be respectable. We did our homework–*I* got A+’s, of course, but Josh didn’t do so bad himself. We were raised to accept our responsibility, to make good on the investment that our father was making in us—to fulfill the destiny we were given with our good education and good upbringing, to join our father’s life in the family business, or at least become a doctor or a lawyer or a banker.

But that wasn’t good enough for dear Josh; he’s a dreamer. He plowed his own way, with his Mercedes and his bright lights. Eventually, though—you’ll remember, being that you’re father’s friends, here for the banquet—the postcards stopped coming. Josh’s leaving made father seem older, but the not-knowing, the mystery and pain of disappearance—that’s what really wracked him. He walked our long, long driveway himself every day to check the mail. Then, the worst—when he stopped checking the mail. He gave Josh up as dead.

He sent people to look for Josh, to see if we could at least recover his body, at least have some kind of closure, some kind of scrap of evidence to lay the whole messy, emotional debacle to rest. But no one turned anything up—nothing to confirm whether he was alive or dead.

Then, finally, you remember—we had that memorial service for him, if he wasn’t dead, he surely wasn’t coming home again, Father figured, and we might as well move on with our lives. I have to tell you, I was relieved. All this searching and not-knowing and walking down the long driveway was taking up so much of Father’s time and resources, so much of his energy, his money—I was running the business all by myself! I could do it, I was good at it, but it was exhausting. Further, it seemed like Father just assumed I’d always do it—I felt taken advantage of. Josh, who had always gotten more attention when we were growing up, was STILL getting more attention even though he was gone now.

And now—you know the story—he’s back. Yay… And here you all are, showing up to celebrate the prodigal’s return! I’ll never forget, I was bringing Father his tea on the porch, he was practically bedridden, when he pushed me to the side to get a better view of the driveway. I was taken aback at the strength he showed—I had no idea the old man had it in him still. He pulled himself up out of his chair, wobbly but resolute, and shielded his squinty eyes from the sun. He shouted, “Josh?! Josh! Is that you, my son?!” as he started down the porch stairs. I turned and squinted, too, trying to catch Father’s arm—the poor man must have been going crazy in his grief.

Father was already halfway down the long drive, already almost to this stranger who was hobbling up to our home. “What audacity,” I thought, “for someone so poor and stinky and flea-eaten to come through our beautiful gate and wend his way up to our house. What was this person thinking? Why did he think we had anything to offer him? Couldn’t he go to Trinity, to the homeless breakfast? Why would he come to our house—where we LIVE, where WE live?” It was inconceivable that anyone would try to invade our space.

Then, of course, I realized it was actually Josh—alive, coming home. Father was so, so excited, you could see the years of worry melt from him, he seemed as if he was as young as when Josh had left. Father’s eyes came alive, he practically danced a jig. He started yelling and shouting—the servants came, it was really a scene, I must tell you… It was all chaos and unkemptness—Father started pulling off his clothes to put them on Josh, who was practically naked, having gambled or given or lost everything he’d been given.

Can you believe that? All his inheritance—down the drain! He didn’t have a shred left. After he ate, Father sat him down, having not taken his eyes off of Josh the whole time, and asked him what made him come home. Josh said he’d been sitting on the street in a big city, begging, covered in fleas, trying to barter his clothes for some bread, and the realized that even the lowest worker here on Father’s estate had it much better than that, and perhaps he would be allowed to come back and to work here. Father laughed, slapped Josh on the back and said, “Nonsense! You are my son! You were dead, and now you’re alive again! I never thought I’d get to see you again! You are my son, you will be just as before, learning to manage the business, here, with your sister.”

I couldn’t believe it. I mean, of course, I’d missed Josh, too, and I was so grateful he was alive, but there are rules, there’s the inheritance, not to be crass—but now Josh got half of MY inheritance, too? And Josh gets all this?–this great big party with everyone from the whole town? I followed all the rules, and I haven’t even had a birthday party in years—I’ve been trying to keep the family together! I’ve sacrificed everything for this family, for its upkeep, to keep the business going, to make sure there IS an inheritance, and here Josh swoops in and is given it all back.

I wonder if my father even loves me at all. He doesn’t run to greet me when I walk down the driveway. It’s almost as if he doesn’t notice me at all—it’s just assumed I’ll always be here, I’ll always do the right thing, dutiful Emily.

I guess it’s up to me, though—this resentment, holding on to the past, keeping score, assuming I know what’s going on in Josh’s mind and heart, and in Father’s mind and heart—it could eat me up. I could spend all my time concerned about how much I’ve gotten in response to what I’ve given, and how much Josh has gotten, and what I think he deserves; but maybe what’s more important is Josh himself, and my father himself—looking for the good in them, trying to follow my Father’s example and enjoying the company of who ever comes across my path, never losing hope that our family will be whole again, as God promises us.


The Rev. Jordan Hylden – Fourth Sunday in Lent – Church of St. Michael & St. George

You have all heard today’s Gospel lesson before. Everyone knows the parable of the prodigal son: it’s all about a lost and wayward son coming home, and about his father welcoming him back with wide-open arms. Except, of course, that that’s not the whole story—Jesus has just as much to say about the older brother as the younger brother. The great preacher Tim Keller says that we shouldn’t call it the parable of the prodigal son, but the parable of the two lost sons, and I think he’s right.  It’s not just a story about one lost son who comes home, but a story about two sons who are lost in different ways, one of them so lost that he doesn’t even know it.

The two lost sons, you see, are the two groups of people standing around when Jesus told this story. Chapter fifteen starts off this way: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Jesus heard what they were grumbling about, and as he so often did, he answered with a story.

Let’s be clear: the Pharisees and the scribes had good reason to grumble. To them, Jesus welcoming and eating with these people was nothing less than a moral scandal. Tax collectors were not good people. They were the ones who shook people down to send money to the imperial overlords in Rome, traitors to kin and country who usually skimmed more than a little off the top for themselves. And the sinners were people who had broken the Law and kept on breaking it, and who didn’t go to worship. In Jesus’s day, to eat with someone carried much more meaning than it does for us—it was a highly symbolic act, that meant you approved of their character. It looked as if Jesus were giving the seal of approval to some highly dubious folks. The Pharisees and the scribes, by contrast, cared deeply about God’s law, kept the traditions of their people alive, and in fact were the ones responsible for carrying Judaism forward through the destruction of the Temple all the way down to today. So it’s too simple to see the Pharisees as nothing more than proud and haughty hypocrites. They were good and devout people. And it’s too simple to see the tax collectors and sinners as romantic outcasts. They were, some of them at least, dishonest traitors. So why would Jesus eat with them? Why not give them what they deserve, and lend a hand to the ones who are trying to teach people how to follow the Law, God’s good gift to his people?

That is probably what the Pharisees were grumbling about, standing off to one side as the tax collectors and sinners crowded around Jesus. So, what does Jesus do? Tell the Pharisees they were right, and tell the sinners to take a hike and come back after they’ve cleaned up their act? Or, does he tell the Pharisees off, and say their Law doesn’t matter since God loves us all just the way we are? Well, Jesus said—you see, it’s this way. There once was a man who had two sons.

The youngest son’s story, as Jesus got going, probably sounded familiar to the sinners and tax collectors. My guess is that some of them standing around recognized themselves in the shoes of the younger son in his Las Vegas days. The King James version puts it evocatively: he had, so it says, “wasted his substance in riotous living.” There are many ways to waste one’s substance, some of them more riotous than others, but they all lead to the same place, which is where the prodigal son wound up: alone. Whatever friends he thought he’d made in his good-time days, they clearly weren’t good enough to care that he was starving to death. He’d slammed the door on his family a long time ago. He’d spent his life living for himself, and when you live that way the only people who’ll stick around are the ones who are getting something from you. When your substance runs out, they’re gone, and you find out what a waste it all was. He was lucky to have his substance run out when it did. It brought him to his senses. That doesn’t happen to everyone, and it probably hadn’t happened to all of the tax collectors and sinners standing around. But maybe some of them listened to Jesus, and saw where they were headed, saw the bottom opening up under their feet. To say “I repent” is hard—it often means admitting that following your own path to happiness got you nowhere, that you can’t make it on your own steam, that you need your Father after all. But the prodigal son did. He came to his senses, and he headed off toward home.

Some of the tax collectors and sinners standing there probably heard that part loud and clear, but didn’t think there was any home left to go back to. They’d made their bed and slept in it, and they knew they weren’t welcome where they came from. After all, you can’t go home again. Maybe you can find someplace to move on, but you can’t move back. That would mean confronting the people you hurt, the person you were, the things you’d done. And who could bear it? The past is the past and it’s best left where it is. Some things are just too broken to fix.

That’s what the prodigal son was thinking on his way back home.  He had a little speech rehearsed: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” He doesn’t go back, you see, with any hope of forgiveness, of going back to the way things were before. In his time and place, asking for your inheritance before its time was a deep insult, which basically amounted to saying that he wished his father was dead. He didn’t think he could fix that. He went back because he had no place left to go.

Jesus told the next part of the story for people like him. “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he put his arms around him and kissed him.” The son starts giving his little speech, but his dad doesn’t even let him finish it. All Dad hears are the words ‘Father’ and ‘son,’ and that was all he had to hear. “Quickly, bring out his best suit—you know the one, we got it for his brother’s wedding—get him a towel, get him cleaned up, get him something to eat! We’re inviting everyone over right away, tonight. This son of mine is alive again. Son, let’s be clear about one thing right now. I don’t care about where you went or what you did. You came back, and that’s all that matters.”

It can be very hard to say, “I repent.” It can be even harder to believe that you’re really forgiven. Real forgiveness can be hard to come by down here. But Jesus is telling these sinners and tax collector something about the heart of his Father. His Father is the one who watches for them while they’re still far off. In fact his Father does more than watch—he runs out into the road, and sends his own son to journey into the far country, to eat with tax collectors and sinners. St. Paul says that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “In Christ,” Paul says, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” How could we ever come home again if not for this? We are able to come, not trusting in our own righteousness, but in our Father’s manifold and great mercies.

The next part of the story is for the Pharisees and the scribes, for good church people like us. We tend to forget about this part—we don’t think of it as the parable of the two lost sons, but the one prodigal son—and I have a hunch about why. My hunch is that we church people are an awful lot more likely to be older brothers than prodigal sons, and that we don’t like Jesus telling us that we’re just as lost as our no-account kid brothers out in California who never did anything serious with their lives except work on their suntans and explore Buddhism. We didn’t go to California and get suntans and explore Eastern spirituality. We stayed in St. Louis and went to church. Shouldn’t we get credit for that?

The older brother would agree. His father is being completely unfair, and he’s absolutely furious about it. He heads home after a hard day of work and sees some kind of party. He probably has a hunch about what’s going on—he doesn’t go inside to see for himself, and he doesn’t ask his dad what’s up. He has someone else find out for him. It’s as he thought. There’s no way he’s coming in, not after what his blackguard brother did to the family. His dad, making a fool out of himself, always letting his brother walk all over him—how could he fall for this again? And it’s not fair. He’d worked hard his whole life, and did that count for anything? Apparently not. His father can hear him shouting from outside: Why can’t I get any respect for what I earned?  For what I earned with my own hands? Why can’t I get what I deserve?

Just like he came out to meet his younger son, his father comes out to meet him too. Come inside, come inside where it’s warm, he says. I know you’re angry. But don’t you see what you’re doing? Your brother wound up cold and alone God knows where, and now he’s back—he’s alive again. Try to forgive him, don’t hold on to this—why should you stay out here by yourself, like he was? And all of this about deserve, deserve. You’ve always been this way, ever since you were a little boy. You’ve worked hard, I know that, don’t think I don’t appreciate it. But don’t you know that I’ve already given you everything? All that I have? My own heart? But all you’ve ever wanted is what you deserve. You never let me give you anything. Come inside, my son—all of this is for you too. Amen.