Sunday, March 14, 2010

Prodigal God (4): The True Elder Brother

Luke 15:1-6 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3 So he told them this parable: 4 "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'

Luke 15:25-32 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' 31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

03/14/2010 Bethany
Luke 15:1-6, 25-32 (message)
Psalm 130 (call to worship)

We’ve been using the resources of Tim Keller’s book and video The Prodigal God and looking at the story traditionally known as the "Parable of the Prodigal Son" and we have emphasized that it is a story about two sons, one is "very very bad" and the other is "very very good". Most of the time when we look at the story, we fixate on the sinful younger brother and his welcome home in repentance. But we forget about the "very very good" big brother, furious with the father for welcoming the younger brother home. Last week we made the point that he is lost – outside the salvation feast – because his goodness, his righteousness, is a barrier to the father’s grace.

Last week, we said that if we look only at the younger brother, we ignore a major character in the story AND we ignore the cost involved in bringing the younger brother back into the family.
Today, we start off with that cost. When the younger brother comes home, he prepares one of those rehearsed speeches of repentance. His planned speech: "Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Let me be like one of your hired hands." That is, let me earn my way back, let me prove my worth, let me foot the bill, let me make restitution. But, the father cuts him off mid-speech, denying him even the opportunity to offer restitution. He declares, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet."

The best robe? Aida, "My Strongest Suit"
Forget the inner me, observe the outer
I am what I wear, and how I dress
. . . Dress has always been my strongest suit
Clothing as a sign of social position
A ring for his finger?
The signet, check-signing authority – after he’s blown 1/3 of the estate!

What does it all cost? It cost the younger son nothing. And if all we look at in the story is the interaction between the younger son and the father, we’d assume the father foots the bill himself. After all, he seems to be the man in charge. But that’s why we must not miss what happens with the older brother, whom the father reminds, "Everything I have is yours". In the ancient Palestinian tradition, if the father divided the estate before he died, he still retained the rights to use it and profit from it, even though the son held the title. So, whose money was dear old dad giving away? Whose robe? Whose checking account? Big brother’s. Big brother is paying the bill. It cost him a lot to bring his younger brother back into the family, and he wants nothing of it.

So, note this: Forgiveness is free – to the younger son, but it is very expensive – to the older brother. Grace is free – to the younger son, but it is very costly – to the older brother. In recent years we’ve been reminded that "freedom isn’t free". We know what that means: Freedom is free for most of us, but it is not something to be trivialized because it has been paid for, generation after generation, with the greatest of sacrifice. In the same way, and even more so, the grace of God is free, but not trivial, not to be presumed upon, not to be cheapened by ignoring the cost that was paid.

But back to the older brother in the story. He had no interest in bearing this expense. He wanted nothing to do with the younger brother. He had no desire to be reunited with him at the feast. One of the questions we discussed on Thursday night was, "How would the attitude of the elder brother make it harder for the younger brother to come home?" (Keller, study guide). It is this kind of question that points out the power to this story. Because there is pain in every family story. Will we reconcile or remain apart? Can the "older brother" of the family get beyond himself to truly love, to reunite?

Remember the first two stories Jesus tells? The lost sheep is sought by a shepherd, the lost coin is sought by a woman. In each story, someone goes out to seek and save the lost. But not in this story. Yes, the father does run to greet the son when he sees him coming from far off. But the son is already on his way home.

So, as Jesus tells this third story, the story of the lost sons, folks notice the missing seeker and they know who should be seeking – the older brother. His role is to maintain and protect the family honor, to function as the goel, the redeemer, in the family system – the one who buys back family members (like his younger brother) from slavery, the one who avenges in the case of a blood feud. (Bruce Malina, Windows on the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea, Window 2, "Father, Son, and Daughter", 1993, Westminster/John Knox Press.)

In this story, we have a "very very good" older brother, but one who shows no concern for the heart of the father, for the family honor, for the redemption of his brother. He makes us long for a true older brother, one who is willing, in the words of Tim Keller, to "seek us and bring us back at any risk and any cost to himself" (notes for pastors).

Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says of himself, "For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost" (Luke 19.10). Here in Luke 15, he is the one who is "eating with tax collectors and sinners" (15.1-2). He is our true elder brother – willing to "seek us and bring us back at any risk and any cost to himself" (Keller). (See also Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, p 1086, Doubleday 1985.)

And, we are named – all of us (even the ladies, for the purpose of this story) – the brothers of Jesus. Hebrews 2.11, "Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers." And, Romans 8.29, "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers."

One of the earliest hymns of the church is recorded for us in Philippians 2. Unfortunately, the music has not survived with the text. But the poetry reads, in part,
though he was in the form of God,
he did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.
Philippians 2.6-8

"Everything I have is yours," the father says to the older son. And, Jesus doesn’t grasp for it, doesn’t treasure it, doesn’t hoard it. He empties himself, he goes looking for us in the far country, he finds us and brings us back from our slavery. "For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8.9).

I love the lines in the ancient hymn, "O Sacred Head Now Wounded", attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux:
What thou, my Lord, has suffered
Was all for sinners’ gain:
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
‘Tis I deserve thy place;
Look on my with thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me thy grace.

So, note this: Forgiveness is free – to the younger son, but it is very expensive – to the older brother. Grace is free – to the younger son, but it is very costly – to the older brother. And our older brother pays the price with joy.

What is there for us to do? It is free, after all. Worship. Bind ourselves in love to this brother who seeks and finds us. But, as Columbo says, "One more thing." Jesus emptied himself to make room for us in the house of God. "I go to prepare a place for you," he tells his disciples as he prepares for his death (John 14.1-6). It is time for us to empty ourselves to make room for others in the household as well. It is time for us to share in his mission.

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