“Grace to Love My Brother”
4th Sunday in Lent - March 31, 2019
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So Jesus told them this parable:
"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "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."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.'"
Today, we hear one of Jesus’s most famous stories. It’s usually called the parable of the Prodigal Son. We learn about a father and his two sons. One who seems to do everything right and the other who seems to do everything wrong. And the Father finds a way to love them both.
We often focus so much on the “prodigal son” reuniting with his father, that we miss out on the other opportunity for reconciliation in the parable. The Father in the story is working to reconcile the two sons together. He wants these brothers who are estranged to come back together in love and fellowship.
By the time we reach the last paragraph of this story, it has shifted from the wayward wanderings of the younger son to the rage and jealousy of the older son. Once again, the father goes out to meet the older son. He takes the first step toward healing. The older son accused him of unfair treatment, of being too hard on him and too easy on the younger son.
Notice how the older one does not call his younger brother “my brother.” Instead he spitefully calls him, “this son of yours.” The older child places some distance between himself and the younger. He doesn’t want to be associated with him. My father may treat that jerk like his son, but that doesn’t mean that, after all he has done, I need to call him my brother!
But in the father’s response, he flips it around. “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life.” He will not allow his sons to reject each other. He is working here not only to win back his younger child, but to win back his whole family. He wants reconciliation for everyone. He wants these estranged brothers to come back together in love and unity. He won’t rest, he won’t celebrate at his own party until he tries to bring his boys back together.
God is like that. Jesus shows us that God welcomes the tax collectors and sinners. God welcomes robbers, crack dealers, prostitutes, and murders. God will forgive anyone who wants to be forgiven and wants to turn their lives around. May the Church always be a people that follows Jesus in welcoming the outcast and giving second chances.
But God also loves the scribes and the Pharisees. God loves those who love God, who are dedicated to prayer and Bible study, who go to church whenever they can, who have committed themselves to pursuing righteousness. God loves religious people like we who got up to come to church today. God loves us even though we sometimes get caught up in our own sense of right and wrong, even though we often judge others who don’t seem to try as hard as we do, and even though we sometimes grumble at God’s love for those we think are unworthy.
And so this morning’s parable has two invitations for us. First, in our moments of sin and weakness, when “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” (BCP, 218), God invites us back home. God will rescue us and restore us to our dignity as children of the one true God, co-heirs with Jesus Christ of God’s inheritance. For many of our neighbors, especially in west Savannah, that sense of powerlessness is not momentary or fleeting. It’s a lifelong struggle against poverty, institutional racism, police brutality, a corrupt criminal justice system, violence, and addiction. God is there to welcome home the child who has been through the wringer (self-inflicted or otherwise). God invites you back into the arms of mercy and grace.
But the second invitation is for us when we find ourselves jealous or indignant at how others are treated. Especially if we’ve been committed to the church for most of our lives, we know how difficult it is to follow Jesus. We know that we don’t get protected from the changes, chances, and brutalities of life. And we know that hard work in religion and in life doesn’t always pay off. And so sometimes grace is a scandal to us. God’s willingness to welcome and forgive sinners can repel us. It can seem unfair.
We might grumble that being poor must mean you’re lazy. Or being foreign must mean you’re a threat. Or being young and black means you’re destined to be a criminal. Or being incarcerated must mean you deserve to be punished. Or being smelly from sleeping outside means you shouldn’t come into our church.
I think we can all admit that those thoughts have crossed our minds even if God’s grace won out in our words or actions. We’ve all been formed in a society that feeds us stereotypes based on racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia, and fear. Even the most #woke among us can’t help being influenced by these sinful forces in American culture.
But we can look to Jesus for another way forward.
Interestingly, Jesus decides not to tell us how the parable ends. We don’t learn how the older son reacted to what his father says at the end. Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.'"
But that’s where the story ends. In the next verse, Jesus starts another parable. So we don’t know whether the older son laughed in his father’s face, shot back with a sarcastic barb, cried and whined about how he was being treated unfairly, or just stormed off in a fit of rage. I probably would have done at least one of those things.
But perhaps he decided to join the party. Maybe he walked back in begrudgingly, only out of respect for his dad’s reputation. And maybe when we caught sight of his dad’s “other son” his heart softened. And that’s the response that God is inviting us to when we find ourselves in the older brother’s shoes. For that invitation into renewed relationship (both with God and with people) is the true meaning of grace. Amen.
Nuechterlein, Paul. “Lent 4C.” Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary. Blog. http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-c/lent4c/.