I made a rather remarkable discovery yesterday. Well, remarkable to me, at any rate. I have only preached one sermon on the parable of the lost (or prodigal) son in ten years (and that was seven years ago). This surprised me because it’s one of my favourite stories that Jesus tells. I’ve written about it a fair bit on this blog. I’ve described it in pretty breathless terms. But I haven’t preached on it much. This seems a rather glaring omission.
Well, this Sunday I plan on addressing this deficiency in my preaching repertoire. It’s my last sermon before I head out on a sabbatical, and I figured it would be a good story to explore on my way out the door. It’s also the last sermon in a series based on faith questions provided by members of my congregation. The specific question I’m addressing on Sunday is, “What about the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son?” What about him indeed. The bad son who stumbles home to mercy gets most of the headlines. What about the good son who stayed home?
We know the story, right? The younger son has had enough of his father’s house and sets off flush with his father’s cash and a bucket of desire. Perhaps he’s elated to be rid of the oppressive shackles of a father who doesn’t understand him and a life that he never wanted. He doesn’t know where he’s going or for how long, he just knows that he’s free and that nothing will stand in his way now. He knows that his departure is one big extended middle finger to the people and the place that formed him in countless ways, but he doesn’t care.
The older son grumbles in the shadows, rehearsing his list of grievances against his miserable ingrate of a brother, against his weak and pathetic father, against the burden of duty that he daily struggles under, against a screwed up world where merit is ignored and incompetence justified, where virtue goes unrewarded and vice has a riotous good time. He hates that his goodness goes unnoticed.
According to Tim Keller in his fantastic little book The Prodigal God, the older brother is just as lost as the younger brother. Indeed, his lostness is of a more dangerous sort, because it is predicated on his own rectitude. He believes that righteousness must be rewarded (particularly his own) and that sin must be punished. His categories are fixed and unyielding. He is a rule keeper all the way, and he has little use for those who don’t keep the rules.
According to Keller, older brothers are a far bigger problem in the church than younger brothers. Older brothers tend to be angry a lot and have a strong sense of their superiority over others. They are driven by a slavish sense of duty and turn faith into a system of joyless fear-based compliance. They can be really, really self-righteous. They resent those who haven’t earned the Father’s love and mercy (as they, presumably, have). They can’t tolerate those who enjoy all the benefits of home despite not being nearly as diligent or smart or holy or morally upright as they are.
Older brothers are everywhere. You may have noticed this.
Older brothers on the right tend to be full of evangelical zeal, doctrinal precision, and personal piety. They are faithful to the church. They like preachers who “just preach the bible.” They tend to be quite conservative politically and theologically, and look down on those who have the wrong views about abortion and same sex marriage and pipelines and race and who knows what else. They tend to define their purity in opposition to those “other Christians” who are so obviously wrong and have completely misunderstood who Jesus was and what he wanted.
Older brothers on the left tend to be activist warriors, full of evangelical zeal, doctrinal precision and personal piety (if of a different sort). They like preachers who summon them to justice and solidarity and political advocacy. They tend to be quite liberal politically and theologically, and look down on those who have the wrong views about abortion and same sex marriage and pipelines and race and who knows what else. They tend to define their purity in opposition to those “other Christians” who are so obviously wrong and have completely misunderstood who Jesus was and what he wanted.
But there is another kind of older brother, too. These older brothers look at both conservative bible warriors and liberal activists with a sneer of condescension and thank God that they are like neither of these miserable sinners. They exist (so they think) peerlessly and comfortably above the fray, refusing to follow along with either herd. They congratulate themselves on their ability to identify the shortcomings and biases and idolatries of those other older brothers. They are confident that they, alone, have consistently been about their father’s business, while their degenerate brothers have been off chasing blindly down various dead ends.
Perhaps these older brothers are the most lost of all.
According to Richard Lovelace, all older brothers have the same thing in common:
[They] are no longer sure that God loves and accepts them in Jesus, apart from their present spiritual achievements, [and] are radically insecure persons… Their insecurity shows itself in pride, a fierce, defensive assertion of their own righteousness, and defensive criticism of others. They come naturally to hate other cultural styles and other races [and, we might say, other theological perspectives or approaches to faith] in order to bolster their own security and discharge their suppressed anger.
God save us from the older brothers that we so easily become. Protect us from ourselves. Gift us with the reckless mercy that you so prodigally distribute. Teach us how to love and to be loved. Give us the grace and the wisdom to come home.