St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Trinity, August 1, 2021
“Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
THE OLDER BROTHER is fit to be tied. He gets home after working in the heat from sun-up to dusk, running field hands, fighting rats and scorpions, gravity and dry weather. He’s exhausted, and he’s angry—as he is every day—that his little brother has left all this to him. The no account loser! It’s fitting that the brat starves in a distant land, having wasted his inheritance on pleasure. If he came back today, he’d be sorry. No welcome for him. He’s no brother of mine.
There are many stories about brothers: in the Bible, and in all of human history. It’s a primal relationship. Sisters are great for drama too; vying for supremacy in any sibling relationship teaches us either service, or sin, at a very early age. But the contest between brothers, raging with hormones, needing to outdo the other, is an epic battle won and lost over generations. If they survive, they’ll be a team like none other. If that never happens, they’ll be the bitterest of enemies.
Cain, envious of his brother, killed Abel in the field. Ishmael, born 14 years before the promised Isaac, gave his family grief until he and Hagar were thrown out of camp. Esau and Jacob were twins. Esau was careless of his legacy, and Jacob sought to trick him out of it. Joseph, set upon by his older brothers, was sold into slavery. Moses spoke poorly, so God sent older brother Aaron as his spokesman, later his high priest. David, youngest of eight sons, was chosen over them all to be king of Israel. David’s son committed incest, then attempted patricide. Old Testament siblings were often at each others’ throats.
Among Jesus’ disciples were brothers: Andrew brought his brother Peter to Jesus, then James and John, fellow fishermen. There’s energy between brothers: if they’re at odds, they can be defeated. If they have each other’s back, their combined strength is more than that of two.
I had sisters, not quite the experience of the parable, though I have three brothers-in-law. Special laws in scripture speak of brothers. Some terminology extends beyond family. Don’t charge usury of your brother. They understood this to mean fellow Israelites, related through Jacob. Jesus said, “Whosoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of the judgment: whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council… Bring thy gift to the altar, and … leave thy gift, … first be reconciled to thy brother, then come and offer thy gift.” Matt 5:22-24
John wrote, “If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar … this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.” 1 John 4:20-21 By this we find a new family, one that Christ spoke of. “For whosoever shall do the will of my Father, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Matt 12:50 Christians have long regarded one another as sisters and brothers in Christ. This is great, so long as we’ve worked out our sibling issues. They will be there, as real as those in natural families, if you let them.
Here stands the older brother fuming. I think he’s angry most of the time. His father’s too old to help. Dad’s always talking about and praying for the lost son, the good-for-nothing jerk. This elder son has a work-a-day relationship with his father and himself. He doesn’t work for the accomplishment, as if this is his farm. When his younger brother left, the old man’s wealth was divided, the money went south with the prodigal, and the land stayed with the older son. The farm is his already, with the aging father able to live on his son’s property. But the gift has not been received. He sees himself more a slave than a landholder. He begrudges every day he has to sweat and hates his brother for running out.
The younger brother took money in an act of rejection. It was cruel to demand it. He put the family in jeopardy, taking funds out of the homestead. It was as good as saying, “You’re all dead to me.” But he claimed it, then acted like a fool, running up bills at bars and cat houses until it was all gone. He didn’t steward his inheritance, valuing the blessing it was, but threw it away. So, neither brother saw their inheritance for what it was. The younger treating it as nothing, the older brother acting as though it wasn’t his.
Dirty and sweaty, he asks a servant what the fuss is about. He sees activity, hears voices, observes the prize calf at the slaughter post, and music from the house. “Your brother has come and your father ordered that we butcher the calf for having him back safe and sound.”
That did it. Every back-aching day, every night wanting some other company than his dad, all resentment against his brother and a wasted fortune came together in a cloud of hate. “If they think I’m going in that house, they’re dead wrong. No way. I won’t see that… ingrate. I’ll spend the night in the barn.”
Jesus told this story, setting us up for the punchline. First, we focus on the joker who ran off with his fortune, eating with pigs, cooking up a scheme to reenter the family as a servant, just to get decent food. His aims are little higher than they had been. He was just aiming to eat. He’d had parties and girls and lost nights, and sobering starvation, rejection of the good-time friends, and harsh pagan bosses. He now saw the difference between his father and other masters. A lesson learned the hard way. We hear him practice his lines, stumbling homeward.
We watch the father. He’s a sermon all in himself. His forgiveness, his love, his humanity—this father’s undying love, an unconditional welcome—so akin to our Father’s kingdom to which we are invited, not as guests, but as sons and daughters. It’s unbelievable how welcome we are where He’s made for us mansions, and tables groaning with a great banquet. We see the father running to greet the lost boy finally returned.
The story is over, it would seem. But we get caught on the epilogue. The older brother hadn’t seemed a part of this family tale. Now he’s the main point. We feel his bitterness. This idiot took all that money and wasted it! And he just waltzes back here and shows his face? What’s Father doing, letting him back like this? And throws a party for him? Kills the fatted calf? What about me? I work like a slave for him. So on…
We get it. If we’ve ever been the hard worker, held up more than our end, given more than we got back; then we understand the elder brother. Jesus’ gentle trap opens beneath us and we are clearly seen.
Heaven is not for the worthy. Heaven is not for the good. Heaven is not for the hard workers. Heaven is for schnooks. Heaven is for sinners. Heaven is for fools. Heaven is for the prodigals and street bums and stinky fishermen and bedeviled hookers. I’m sorry: didn’t you know? It is not a reputable place, if we judge it by the first state of its denizens. But the first state of every true child of God is probably quite rotten.
Heaven is where we go when we’ve discovered we’re not so good. Even if we didn’t go off to foreign parts and waste a fortune partying, even if we didn’t join a cult and worship the devil and get hooked on drugs—even if we never did anything worth being arrested for.
Even the squeakiest clean of us. Then we must realize: if that’s so, we’re the older brother. We are all of us one of these or the other. The younger obviously needs to grovel and cry over his sins. They’re too evident. He can’t hide his disgrace.
The older brother’s sins we may value as fine character traits: diligence, ethical business, trustworthiness, loyalty, self-sacrifice. The trouble is, these fine traits were done as a grudge against himself and against his family. He resents his decision to work on his farm, thus knowing nothing about his inheritance and the generosity of his father. Doing a thousand good deeds in resentment turns every one of them to sour milk.
Heaven is not for such virtuous hate-filled people. Heaven is for the drunkard who figures himself out and crawls to the feet of Jesus and says, “I blew it. I’m sorry. I don’t deserve it, but I beg to be forgiven.”
Our older brother here needs to get on his knees and cry out his own pain a while. “I have hated you both all my life. I’ve hated the farm, the work, the fields. I’ve hated myself for coming under this obligation. I’ve hated not speaking up when I was angry, but rather burned with it, especially against my poor lost brother.” It’s a more difficult prayer than that of the drunkard, perhaps. It isn’t so obvious a sin, not until the drunkard comes home.
Jesus tells us to be like the Father, both in the story, and as the Father above: perfect in His willingness to forgive and to love. It’s a tall order, but it’s a promise too. We will be just as forgiving and loving and sinless and above temptation as God when we’ve achieved that place we’re headed for. We will have nothing to defend, nothing to strive against. We will all lay it down—high or low, elder or younger. No more to lose. No more to gain than what is before us, generously given.
Can we envy anyone in heaven if we are in heaven ourselves? Let God serve the fatted calf to that man who once lived such a wicked life. He’s only here because of Jesus, and I’m only here because of Jesus. The difference? Maybe that he’s more grateful than I am.
Hear God’s voice now, elder children. “My child, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”