Sermon for Sunday, October 9, 2022 The Rev. Megan Collins
We’ve been in a series on the parable of Prodigal Son these past few weeks. A parable is a story Jesus tells to teach us about ourselves, and to teach us about God. Two weeks ago we heard the first part of this story.
Jesus tells us there was a man with two sons. The younger son decides to demand his share of the inheritance while his father is still alive. The father, for reasons we don’t understand, decides to give it to him. Then the younger son takes off and loses all the money he was given partying and living large, then he comes crawling back in disgrace to his father. But instead of punishing him, the father runs out to meet him as he walks home, throws a robe around his shoulders, and then starts planning a huge feast to celebrate. It doesn’t matter what he had done. His father was simply glad he had come home. But then the story goes on. Let’s read from the gospel of Luke, chapter 15:
Now his elder son was in the field, and as he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’ ”
I am so excited about our part of the story today, because today we get to talk about the older brother. I love the older brother, because the older brother, is me. I am actually a younger sister in the birth order in my family, but I definitely have older sibling energy.
There are all of these studies on how birth order impacts who we are. In these studies, they share the characteristics of children that tend to be similar based on where they born in the order of the family. There are certain traits that the research points to as common in middle siblings, or youngest born, or only children. Then there are some traits we see in older siblings. They are things like being perfectionist, structured, controlling, achievement based, goal oriented, independent, and stubborn.
That person sounds awesome to me. I think I am an older sibling trapped as a younger sibling in my family’s birth order. So I read this story and I totally get the older brother. While the younger son, the prodigal son, was off finding himself, the older brother was doing what he had always done, the right thing, what was expected of him. But then one afternoon while he is working he hears music and laughter off in the distance. He smells the beginning of a meal being prepared. He gets curious and he asks someone what’s going on. Then he finds out that his younger brother - the one who disgraced his father and left, the one who took a part of the inheritance and turned his back on the family - he has come back home. His father, who has clearly lost his mind, is throwing him a party. The older brother is furious. He refuses to go into the party, so his father comes out to reason with him, to try and get him to come inside. But the older brother refuses to move. He stays outside, sulking.
If you’re like me, when I first read this story, I am on team older brother. I think I would have refused to go to the feast too. Why on earth would I go to a party for that slacker? I have been here working this whole time. I have done everything right, even if I didn’t want to. Where is my party? Where is my goat? So we might be tampered to balk at how the older brother is presented here. But let’s look a little closer. Because when we look at the story of these two brothers, there isn’t just one son who is lost in sin. There are two.
The younger brother’s sin is really easy to see. He rejected his father and, as the older brother so succinctly puts it, he “devoured your assets with prostitutes.” He is clearly lost.
But the older brother is lost too. Like the younger son, he wants to control his father. But he is doing it in his own way. He is right that he never disobeyed a command, and he worked like a slave doing everything expected of him. But he didn’t do it because he loved his father. He did it for the control.
If he could just be perfect, if he could just do everything right, then he would earn the things he deserved. His life would be good, and he would get everything he wanted from his father. It wasn’t about what his father could give to him. It was about earning it based on his own merit.
This sounds familiar to most of us.
If I can just be perfect, If I can just do everything right, then I will earn the things I deserve, then my life will be good, then I will be safe, then I will get everything I want from my Heavenly Father. But here’s the problem. That’s just not true. Older brother types find a temptation in making faith transactional. If I give you this, then I will get that. If I give God my obedience and follow every command and pray just the right way, then God will give me what I want.
Maybe it started out in the right place. You came to faith, or grew up in the faith, and when you decided to follow Jesus you wanted to do everything right. So you read the Bible and came to church and prayed all the time. But after a while, it became more about doing everything right than about Jesus. It can become more about rules and a religion instead of a relationship. This is especially dangerous because it is so easy to miss. It looks, on the outside, like you are crushing it. You are super Christian. You do so many good things. You have your whole life together. But, deep down, you are in turmoil. You wonder everyday if you are actually good enough, if you have done enough, to earn it on your own. Or something bad happens and you think if you have just been more faithful, just prayed harder, it would have been better. Or someone criticizes you and it rocks your world because you have built an entire life on being perfect, and you wonder if you just tried harder if you can show them you are, in fact, perfect. Who told you you could be perfect? Who set the expectation for your behavior at a bar you could never reach? It wasn’t Jesus.
Jesus never wanted you to be perfect.
Jesus wanted you to be in a relationship with him.
Yes, what we do does matter and it does make a difference how we live, but these good works, they show up as a byproduct of our faith, as an overflow out of a relationship with a God who changes us. It isn’t something we do on our own to earn God’s favor.
There is nothing you can do that will make God love you more, and there is nothing you can do that will make God love you less. The love God has for you, it’s a gift, it’s grace.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "For 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."
Jesus never wanted you to be perfect. Jesus wanted you to be saved. This relationship Jesus has offered to you is something you can’t earn, no matter how good you are. It’s not something you can control. If you think that God is transactional then you will be disappointed. God cannot be controlled by what you do - no matter how good it is. Sometimes bad things happen, and sometimes it is because you messed up, and cause and effect takes it course. Some of those bad things are just awful and terrible and we don't know why they happen. But we do know this - it wasn’t a lack of faith, it wasn’t that you didn’t pray hard enough. God is not a gumball machine where if you put in the right amount of money a piece of candy will come out.
It’s also not just about what we think we deserve. It’s about what we think other people deserve too. The older brother in our parable wasn’t just angry because he had done everything right and wasn’t rewarded for it. He was mad that the younger brother had done something wrong and was still being celebrated by the father. That’s the problem with holding yourself to a standard of perfection that you have created. You start holding other people to that standard too. When life is transactional, when faith is transactional, we want other people to get what we believe they have coming to them. We want other people to do what we would do. We want people who mess up to be punished, and people who do well to be rewarded. We want things to be fair. I get it. I really do. Doesn’t it make our world seem right when someone gets what they have coming to them? When good people always have good things happen to them, and bad people only have bad things happen to them? But Jesus doesn’t work like that. Instead, in our story, the father throws a party for the one who recognized his sin and came running back home and into the father’s embrace. That’s grace. Grace isn’t transactional, and it certainly isn’t fair. But grace is the way God has chosen to love us.
The parable of the prodigal son ends at a standoff between the father and his older son. The older son is still standing outside, separate from his father, and from his brother. He is still angry. The father is reaching out, offering a grace and a love that wasn’t about what the older brother had done right. It was about who he was, as the father. But then the parable abruptly ends, and we don’t know what the older brother decides to do. Does he finally go into the party, or does he stay outside instead? Does he choose to accept the grace the father offers, even if it doesn’t line up with his worldview, with his understanding of what is fair, or does he choose his own way instead of the father’s?We don’t know what he does, and there’s a reason Jesus leaves the parable unfinished. It has to do with who Jesus is sharing this story with, the people around him. And that’s where we will pick up next week.
For today, older brothers, let’s stop here, and remember this:
Jesus doesn’t want you to be perfect. He wants you to be His.