Sermon from March 27: The Older Brother’s Party

The Older Brother’s Party
Lent IV; March 27, 2022
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

I am an older brother, both literally and symbolically. You will get to meet my younger brothers – both of whom are wonderful men, married to marvelous women – when they are here for my last Sunday with you on May 15. You will like them a lot.

Although we fought fiercely when we were children, I don’t recall that we had to deal with the sort of dynamic the two brothers deal with in Jesus’ story. Although we gave our parents as much trouble as three children give, they did not have to deal with the heartbreak the father in this story deals with. His younger son demanding inheritance – effectively saying, “Dad, drop dead now; I’m tired of waiting” – and then leaving home. The older son’s growing bitterness and resentment, suddenly unleashed at his father in a burst of fury.

Although this story is classically called the story of the Prodigal Son, because the young man was prodigal – free and loose – with his money, I prefer to call it the story of the Prodigal Father, because Daddy is prodigal with his love. He welcomes the younger son home. He allows the older son to rage at him.

We could focus on any of the characters in this story – either son, or the father – and have a wonderful time in the Word of God. But I want to focus on the relationship between them, the tension in this family. What does the tension tell us about the household of God? And I’m drawn to that because of a question one of you posed to me. You called attention to a line from Ephesians: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NRSV). And you also called attention to a line from James: “What good is it, my dear ones, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?… So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14, 17 NRSV).

There is a tension between those two pieces of Scripture, and it is a tension you find throughout the Bible and it is represented by the tension between the two brothers in Jesus’ story. Let me try to fill in the picture for you, and then explore the tension. I promise: doing this will be good for our spiritual lives. Here’s the picture. Presumably you are here – either in the church or listening to this service on YouTube – because you want to know God and be part of the life of God in the world. You want to be saved, is another way of putting it. And we would all presumably agree that our salvation is won by Jesus’ death and resurrection, but how does it become real in our lives? What do we need to do?

The line from Ephesians – “By grace you have been saved through faith” – seems to answer the question, “What do we need to do?” by saying, “Nothing. You do nothing. You contribute nothing to your salvation. Have faith in Jesus; Jesus saves you.” The line from James – “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” – seems to say, “Well, that’s nonsense. How is it that you have faith if you don’t do anything about it? You can claim to have faith in Jesus, but if you’re not doing the works of Jesus, then you really don’t. So what matters is what you do.”

The younger brother seems to me to represent the point of view of Ephesians. I’ve screwed up royally; I’m a sinner. I’m going to go home and confess everything to my father and throw myself upon his mercy. The older brother seems to me to represent the point of view of James. I’ve always behaved myself. I’ve worked hard, I’ve obeyed my father. And the father, of course, represents the point of view of God, who is happy to have them both at home.

If this were a class in which I had forty-five minutes I would stop and ask, “Do you understand the problem? Or do I need to explain it a different way?” Since it’s a sermon and I have only fifteen minutes I will instead say that I hope that you understand and push on. Let’s look at the tension in these relationships.

The older son clearly resents the attention his brother is getting. If you think that his resentment may have been building over the years – “My kid brother is off having the time of his life in the big city while I’m plugging away, down on the farm” – I would agree with you. Son #1 feels resentment, hostility, and anger towards his brother and, it appears, toward his father as well. In a culture where the Paterfamilias or the Head of the Household is treated with deference, he is rude and disrespectful to his father; it would be bad enough for one of us to speak this way to a parent, but in that culture it is truly terrible. The seething in his spirit erupts in what he says to his father. If he had been an only child, he may not have minded his way of life, but because of his brother, his relationships are filled with resentment.

The younger son, for his part, feels shame toward his father. What does he feel toward his brother? Jesus doesn’t indicate. Does he feel triumphant – look what I got away with? Snarky – you goody-goody? Humble – I can barely face you? Or does he resent the fact that for the rest of his life he will be reliant on the generosity of his father and his brother? After all, Daddy is telling the truth when he says, “All that is mine is yours.” The Kid already got his share of the inheritance and when Daddy goes the way of all flesh, everything goes to Son #1. So the resentment may go both ways.

Of course, Jesus paints a beautiful picture of the relationship between the father and the younger son: filled with joy and thanksgiving, welcome and gratitude. When the son tries to project his shame it is overwhelmed with the father’s love and happiness. The only tension I can imagine there is the question of how long it will last. The Kid came home; will he stay?

If you want, you can project these characters and these tensions on the relationships you are in and the ones all around you. We celebrate when a church member who has wandered off returns to us: “Kill the fatted calf!” But underneath is the tension; will they stay? Those who have doggedly worked hard for the realm of God and never wandered off: when will someone rejoice over me? And all the time our God is throwing a party for the younger one and pleading with the older one to come in.

That tension remains. You may have it in your family. You almost certainly have it in some relationships. You may be one who works hard, tries to do the right thing, and then you begin to resent those who seem to have more fun, don’t follow through, and then everybody is glad to see them. Or you may be one of those who keep messing up and live with the wonder that you are still welcomed home. You may be an Ephesians Christian – “By grace you have been saved by faith” – or a James Christian – “What good is faith without works?” – and you wonder how to resolve this tension. We don’t like tension; we like matters to be settled. Which is it: Ephesians or James? Who’s right: the older brother or the younger?

I think the answer to that question is, “No.” It isn’t one or the other. Oh, individuals and churches and preachers will fall more on one side than the other, because we don’t like tension. We also tend to side with whichever brother suits our purpose. But Jesus’ story makes it clear that there is room in the household of God for both brothers. The older son doesn’t have to approve of his brother, doesn’t have to give him a welcome-home kiss; he needs only to set aside his resentment and come into the house. Have a drink, get some veal and bearnaise sauce, and talk about land prices with the neighbors. Just come in.

And the younger son has to accept always living off the grace of his father and brother. There is room in the house for him too; today he gets a party but tomorrow everything starts to find a new normal. Somehow he and his brother will have to figure this out.

Meanwhile Daddy goes on loving both of them. And as I worked on this sermon a thought struck me I had never had before. Son #1 complains that his dad had never thrown him a party, even after dutifully working on the farm his entire life. But Dad’s reply is spot on: “Everything I have is yours.” Yes, it is. Why didn’t you ever have your own party? Have you been so consumed with resentment, spending your hours plodding away in the fields and the vineyard while your anger eats away at you, that you’ve never taken a break to invite your friends over for a party? Everything is yours: you could have had a party any time you wished.

Jesus doesn’t explicitly answer the question one of you asked. Which is it: faith? Or the works that prove that I have faith? He tells a story that makes clear: there’s room in the household of God for both of you. And to the older brother I hear him saying: Do you want a party? Then have one. No one is stopping you but you. Just be sure to invite your brother.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska