There Was a Man Who Had Two Sons
March 10, 2013

There Was a Man Who Had Two Sons

Passage: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2013

“There was a man who had two sons”

In today’s Gospel portion, tax collectors and sinners and those who were having a hard time in life were coming to Jesus, because they were hearing Good News for their lives. But the Pharisees and the scribes and other respected leaders were grumbling and complaining: ‘this isn’t what religion is supposed to be about!’ So Jesus tells us a story. It is one of the most familiar parables, and yet it is often misunderstood. You see, too often we focus on the younger brother, the “prodigal son”, on his disobedience, his sin, and then his repentance – which you might find hopeful or utterly unfair. Or we focus on the older brother – hard-working, moral – and identify with him.

But listen to the story that Jesus tells us. “There was a man who had two sons.” The story is about a father. That is the focal point and the key to the story. “There was a man who had two sons.” One son, the younger, chooses to leave his father and go out on his own. He turns away from his father, says ‘Give me my inheritance’, which could also be taken to mean: “I wish you were dead.’ He wants to be independent. He wants to do things his own way, to live his own life on his terms. (Remember Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden – they wanted life to be their way.)

Well, the father loved this son, and let him go. The son went off to another country, and eventually loses everything he had. No doubt he made poor or wasteful decisions. We don’t know if he consorted with prostitutes or engaged in other immoralities – that was what his older brother accused him of doing. It may not have been entirely his fault – there was a severe famine, not unlike a great recession. He may have struggled with addiction or depression. We don’t know. Eventually he forgets that he is a beloved son of a loving father. He decides to go home, not expecting any kind of welcome, just hoping for an easier life as one of the servants.

Now the father, who is the focus of Jesus’ story, still cares for this son. Still loves him. Has been waiting and hoping every day for him to return. Watching at the window – will this be the day? “While he was still a long way off”, just coming into view, the father sees this son whom he had lost, is overjoyed, and runs out the door and down the road to meet him.

You need to know that Jesus’ hearers’ in Middle Eastern society, would be aghast – the older, respected, head of the family does not go running down the road for anyone. It would be entirely inappropriate.

But the father does run to meet him, orders a ring and robe and sandals to be brought, and welcomes him as his beloved son. Then he throws a great party. Clearly his welcome back has no strings attached!

Meanwhile, the older brother, the other son, had also somehow become lost, estranged from his father’s love and grace, even though he didn’t physically go away from home. When we observe his reaction to his younger brother being welcomed back, we learn that the elder brother was working hard to earn and to justify his father’s love and approval. He was “working like a slave”, he says of himself, not as a son and heir. He was not generous like his father – either towards himself or towards those around him. He had everything, according to the father, but acted as if he had very little, and must work for what scarcity he had and must hoard it in case it wasn’t enough. Thus he was offended by his brother’s independence, his eventually mis-guided search for happiness, and by his unconditional welcome home.

As we think about these two sons, we must remember in terms of the younger son that we have made our share of mistakes. We have turned away when we should have stayed close. Terrible things have happened, around us, maybe to us, and maybe we would be in worse shape if it were not for what is beyond our own control. But I wonder about the older son, whether he sensed too much of himself in his younger brother. Maybe he is judgmental about himself, about his own failings and weaknesses, and temptations, and in rejecting his brother, he rejects his own weakness and failings.

In Jesus’ story, there are two sons. Both were estranged from their father’s love and generosity, by their father’s “prodigal” nature. The word “prodigal” means extravagant and lavish. Not immoral or licentious. It is really the father in Jesus’ parable who is prodigal or extravagant – he loves both his children, even though they fail, turn away, are estranged, are judgmental, and are fighting with their sibling. We should call it this the Parable of the Prodigal Father.

Notice that the parable is open-ended. We don’t know if the older brother ever went into the party and was reconciled with the rest of his family. We don’t know if the younger brother stayed with his father, and got his act together, dealt with whatever stuff he had to deal with. We may have our own suspicions and prejudices – let’s be honest – especially if you find yourself identifying with or focusing on one brother or the other.

But this story is not about one brother or two brothers. The story is about a father, with two – with many – children. So let us, for the sake of our own enrichment, be playful for a moment and imagine an ending to this story. Let us be creative – I have not taken this tack before until this past week.

If the younger son came to realize that his father loved him unconditionally, extravagantly, and was truly forgiving and accepting of him as he was, wouldn’t that child want to stay with that love? Wouldn’t that child, that son, find himself wanting to please his father, to devote himself to what the father cared about, not to prove anything or justify himself, but in gratitude and for the joy, the happiness, of the abundant life he was finding with his father?

And if the older son came to realize that his father loved him unconditionally, and therefore he did not need to feel so guilty or anxious about earning or proving his own merit, wouldn’t that older son also relax and welcome such love. Wouldn’t he welcome his brother, (loving him as he came to love himself), and devote himself to caring for his father’s estate and being a good steward of his father’s estate and inheritance and resources? And would the older son, as well as the younger, come to share in the generosity of the father and extend that generosity to others? Think about such an ending – how would knowing such love and generosity change such lives?

The key to the story, to the Gospel, is the father – our Father, our loving God. It’s about being God’s beloved children, now, as we are. That is what Jesus came to teach us, with his stories and his life.

Let those with ears to hear, listen. Amen.

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