Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 27, 2022
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 Commentary
Comments, Questions, and Observations
Like Easter and Christmas, you sometimes wonder what else is left to say about such well-known stories like the Prodigal Son. But given the liturgical posture of Lent, and thinking about last week’s passage of warning, we are given a natural link to build between the elder brother and the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard’s lesson about getting ourselves “in order” before judging others.
In the story of the Prodigal Son, I see the scriptural promise that God will lift up those who humble themselves in action. The younger son reflects on the deep truth expressed in his Father’s character: his Father is such a good man that even if he were a servant (not a son), he would fare better than he is now as someone else’s hired hand. The younger son has learned the Psalmist’s lesson that truly, better is one day in the house of his Father than 1000s elsewhere. So he turns home, at best hoping to be able to become a servant in his Father’s house. Instead, the Father, out of his great love and joy, restores the younger son to full honour and belonging. The Father allows the younger son to follow the desires of his heart, even though it leads him down the road of literal, physical separation as well as sin. But when the younger son comes home, the Father does not make him suffer further for his sins, he has mercy and gives him far more than any would judge the younger son deserves.
The older son, it turns out, has also gone down a road of separation from his Father even though he never left home. His road was paved by all that was left unspoken, of where his mind wandered, which of the stories he told himself solidified into “gospel truth” and hardened in his heart.
Whereas the younger son’s turn to repentance was rooted in his knowledge of the Father’s character, the older son’s anger is fuelled by his own self-righteousness. For starters, while all he knows is that his brother is back and they are having a party to celebrate, the older son’s first angry complaint is about what he hasn’t received—where’s my party?!? I’ve done everything right! It makes you wonder if, all along, the older son has been developing a check list in his brain, keeping a tally of all the ways he’s proven he’s better than his brother: he stayed, he worked the land, he was obedient, he sacrificed his own interests … And now, his brother is getting a celebration even though he has done nothing to deserve it—in fact, just the opposite, he deserves to be exiled and abandoned.
We can read his description of what his brother has been up to as the older son’s scorekeeping. See the textual point below for more, but there is nothing in the story to indicate that the older son has insider information about what the younger son has been up to when he claims his brother spent all his Father’s money on prostitutes. This may very well be the story that the older son has told himself as he bitterly went about his daily “faithfulness” to what is right.
Is the older son so angry because he’s now wondering why he even bothered to do it right? If so, his response reveals his motivations: he was in it for some sort of reward, either of a sense of superiority or of his inheritance.
Is the older son so angry because he wants there to be justice? Though the brothers are in need of relational restoration, the reconciliation is primarily with the Father, the one who was most sinned against by the younger son. In other words, when it comes to reconciliation and reparations, the Father is the one who has the right to decide. Plus, the older son is not angry on his Father’s behalf, he is personally offended and even angry at the Father: why haven’t you given me a calf for me and my friends? His issue isn’t really about justice as the outworking of consequences; it’s much more about his conception of what he and his brother comparatively deserve based on their actions.
The gentle response of the Father reveals that the older son is like that fig tree in the vineyard. He’s been given continuous care and love, constantly invited to have all that belongs to his Father, the Master of the Garden. Instead, he’s choosing to pout and be angry because now it doesn’t seem like enough; he thinks he should have more favour from his Father and is completely oblivious to the lack of life and fruit his attitude is revealing about his interior self. His obedience and outward actions have actually been self-serving and self-focused. He’s been using a worldly scale to keep the score, even though his Father never told him to live that way.
And giving him much more than he deserves, his Father gently reminds his older son of his love. Both he and the younger son live by the grace of their Father, neither deserve any of what they have. The difference is that one has fallen upon the Father’s mercy, and the other hasn’t realized how dead they are or how far they have separated themselves from the Father.
And like last week’s passage, we have an open-ended ending. Will the older son join the party? Will he learn to turn his inner score card over to the Father and submit to the character, values, and way of looking at others in the Kingdom? Will we repent of the self-righteous stories we have told ourselves about what we deserve—and what others do not? Will we take some time like the younger son, to come to our senses, and return home to our Heavenly Father? Will joy and the celebration of love and the fruit of the Spirit be the hallmarks of our lives, or will we allow bitterness and anger to take root?
While telling the story of what happens to the younger son, the text says that he “squandered his property in dissolute living.” The Greek word for “dissolute” can refer to wastefulness or lack of restraint in regards to either morality or spending. The essential sense of the word is about being wasteful without any limits. So even though the older son is specific, his judgement that his brother spent all of his money on prostitutes is more of his conjecture than a factual detail. This is what he thinks his brother was up to, and it’s something he says in the heat of his anger and self-pity—quite possibly an over exaggeration of reality. This doesn’t excuse the younger son’s actions, but does reveal the fact that the older son is controlled by his own internal stories about right and wrong, about speculation and comparison—instead of the Father’s purposes.
There are lots of pieces of visual art, music and written word to draw from for illustrations of this story. Here’s one that particularly caught my attention this time around. I find James B. Janknegt’s visualization of the older son’s anger in “Two Sons” quite lucid: he is so angry about the celebration that he breaks his own guitar; his anger destroys his way of joining the joy.
Not exactly the same situation, but I’ve seen a lot of anger throughout this pandemic. One aspect of it feels eerily close to the anger of the older brother. (Full disclaimer, I’m very pro-vaccine, and I’m someone who has had a much needed surgery delayed because of covid-related hospitalizations.) Since the Covid vaccine has become widely available, it’s been very tempting to join the chorus of fellow vaccinated citizens angry at those who are choosing to not get vaccinated (and often choose to ignore other mandates) and then end up putting a significant strain on the medical system when they become infected. Some have gone so far in their anger as to say that those who refuse the vaccine should be refused medical treatment altogether. When is something a consequence of our decisions, and when is it a matter of getting what we deserve? (And how do either of those fit in the paradigm of living in the way of Christ and the Father’s love?)
These are not simple things to answer. But what is clear is that for the older son, and for those of us angry at how someone else is getting treated better than we think they deserve, our anger is likely saying more about ourselves than about the other person. It’s revealing what our inner stories about justice are, about grace, about our view of ourselves and our motivations for what we do and how we want the world to work. The anger itself is not necessarily the problem—it’s about whether that anger leads us to sin against God or our neighbour, if it hardens us against love and grace, if it makes us turn from seeking life for any and every-one, if it makes us blind to our own experiences of grace and how we get much more than we deserve. If the anger keeps us from the party and joy that is always available in the kingdom of God, then we are likely going to end up pouting, bitter and alone.
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