St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Trinity, August 9, 2020
“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’s arriving home after working in the hot sun from dawn to dusk, running the field hands, fighting rats and scorpions, gravity and the heat. He’s physically beat, and emotionally angry—as he is every day—that his little brother left all this to him. No-account bum! It doesn’t help his humor to know that now the brat is starving in a distant land, having wasted his whole inheritance on the pleasures of the flesh. ‘If he came back today, I’d make him sorry. There’s no welcome mat out 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 famous relationship. Sisters can be great for drama, too. Vying for supremacy with any sibling teaches us either service or sin at an early age. But a contest of brothers, each raging with hormones, needing to outdo the other, is a battle won and lost in many generations. If they survive, they’ll be a team, sharing their life’s vow for one another. 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 Isaac, gave his little brother grief until he and his mother were thrown out of camp. Esau was careless of his birthright, and Jacob conned his brother out of it. Joseph was set upon by ten older brothers and sold into slavery. Moses stuttered, so God sent brother Aaron to be his spokesman. David, disfavored as youngest of seven sons, was yet chosen over his brothers as king. David’s sons committed incest, then fratricide, and attempted patricide. Old Testament siblings were often at each other’s throats.
Jesus’ disciples included brothers: Andrew who brought his brother Peter to Jesus, and James and John, fellow fishermen. There is energy between brothers that raises questions: if they’re at odds, they can be defeated. If they’re resolved to have each other’s back, their combined strength is more than that of two.
I had sisters. I haven’t had the experience of this parable of brothers, though I’ve had seven brothers-in-law. Special laws were established in the old covenant about brothers. Some of the terminology extends to anyone you regard as friendly. Don’t charge usury if your brother borrows money. They understood this to mean fellow Israelites, relatives back to Jacob.
New laws are written in the code of the New Testament. Jesus said, “Whoever is angry with his brother without a cause is in danger of the judgment. Whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ is in danger too. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ is in danger of hell fire. So, if you bring your gift to the altar, but your brother has something against you, leave your gift, and first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Matt 5:22-24
The Apostle John wrote, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he’s a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? This commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.” 1 John 4:20-21 We’re a new kind of family. “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven, 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, even as real as those in natural families, if you let them.
Here still stands the older brother fuming. He’s angry already. I think he’s angry most of the time. His father’s too old to help, who’s always praying for the lost, good-for-nothing son. He has a routine work-a-day relationship with his dad, and himself. He doesn’t work for the good of working, pleasure in accomplishment, knowing it’s really his farm. When little brother left, the old man’s wealth was divided, the money went south with the prodigal boy, and the land stayed with the older son. The farm is his already; the aging father living on his son’s property. But the gift has not been received. He still feels more a slave to his father than a landholder. He begrudges every day’s work and sweat. He hates his brother for running out on them. Older brother is frankly a mess.
The younger brother took the money, but didn’t value it. It was cruel for him to demand it. It put the family in jeopardy, taking all that away from the homestead. It was as good as saying, “You’re all dead to me.” But he claimed it as his, not the family’s, and then played the fool, running up bills at bars and cat houses until it was all gone. He didn’t steward his inheritance, see it for the blessing it was, but threw it away. Neither brother values his inheritance. The younger treats it as nothing, the older brother acts as though it’s not his. Dirty and sweaty, the elder asks what all the fuss is about. He sees activity, hears excited voices, spies the prize calf at the slaughter post, and music coming from the house. “Your brother’s returned and your father ordered that we butcher the calf for having him back safe and sound.”
That does it. Every day of back aching work, every night yearning for some other company than his dad, his hatred of his brother and his wasted fortune: all adds up. “If they think I’m going in that house, they’re dead wrong. No way. I won’t see that ingrate. I’ll sleep in the barn.”
Jesus told this story, setting us all up. We focus on the joker who runs off and blows the fortune, eats with pigs, works his scheme to get back in the family as a servant, just to get decent food. His aims are little higher than before. He’s looking to eat. He’s had experiences—parties and girls and lost nights—and sobering moments—starving, rejected by the good-time friends, cruelty of a pagan bosses. He now sees the difference between his father and cruel task-masters. A lesson learned the hard way. We watch him practicing his lines, stumbling homeward.
We watch the father. He’s a sermon all in himself. His forgiveness, his love, his humanity—undying love, unconditional welcome—the essence of God’s kingdom to which we are invited, not as guests but as sons and daughters. It’s unbelievable how welcome we are in these places He has made for us, mansions, tables groaning with a great banquet. We see the father running to greet the lost boy returning.
But we’re caught off-guard by the epilogue. The older brother hadn’t seemed like a real part of this family tale. Now he’s centerstage. We understand his wrath. This idiot took all that money and wasted it. What makes him think he can waltz back here and show his face? What’s father doing, letting him back just like that? Throwing a big party for him? Killing the fatted calf? What about me? I work like a slave for him. On and on…
We get it. If we’ve ever been the hard worker, ever held up more than our end, ever given more than we got back, we understand the elder brother. But then maybe we don’t fully understand the story at all. Jesus’ gentle trap opens beneath us and we’re caught.
Heaven is not for the worthy. Heaven’s not for the good. Heaven’s not for hard workers. Heaven is for schnooks. Heaven’s for sinners. Heaven’s for fools. Heaven is for the prodigals and street bums and stinky fishermen and bedeviled hookers. I’m sorry: didn’t you know? It’s not a reputable place, if we judge it by the background of its denizens. The resume of every true son and daughter of God is probably a rap sheet.
Heaven is where we go when we’ve discovered we’re not so hot. Even if I didn’t go off to foreign parts and waste a fortune partying, even if I didn’t join a cult and worship the devil and get hooked on drugs—even those of us who never did anything worthy of being arrested. Even the squeakiest clean of us. You see: I’m the older brother in that case. We are all of us one of these or the other. The younger needs to grovel and cry over his sins. They’re evident. He can’t hide his disgrace. The older brother’s faults are what we may regard as good character traits: diligence, ethical business, trustworthiness, loyalty, self-sacrifice. The trouble is, these fine traits were done as a grudge against himself and his family. He resents his decision to work on his farm, choosing to know nothing about his inheritance and the generosity of his father. Doing a thousand good deeds in resentment turns it sour like bad milk. Heaven is not for such virtuous, but 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 You, but I beg to be forgiven.”
Our older brother needs to hit his knees and cry out his own pain a while. “I’ve hated you both all my life. I’ve hated the farm, the work, the fields. I’ve hated myself coming under this obligation. I’ve hated not speaking up when I was angry, but burned with it and especially against my blighted brother.” It’s a more difficult prayer than that of the drunkard. It wasn’t so obviously a sin, until the drunkard came back.
Jesus tells us to be like the Father, perfect in His willingness to forgive and to love. It’s a tall order, and it’s a promise. We’ll be just as forgiving and loving as God, when we’ve achieved the place we’re headed. We’ll have nothing to defend. We’ll all lay it down—high or low, elder or younger. No more to lose. No more to gain but what’s 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.
Consider this: Jesus is our older brother. And what does He say to us, younger siblings? Come, you may share my inheritance. There is more than enough for us all!
Hear God’s voice now, elder children. “My child, you are ever with me, and all that I have is yours. It’s good to celebrate, and be glad: this is your brother who was dead, but has returned to us alive again; he was lost, and now is found.”