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The Elder Son
(From the Gospel, St. Luke xv. 11ff, Trinity IX)

A Story of Two Brothers:

Most of us have read this famous gospel tale countless times. It is a lovely story of redemption that is thoroughly universal: the story of undeserved love and grace shown an errant son who has acted willfully and selfishly, thoroughly ruined his prospects and virtually destroyed his life, and yet receives to his utter amazement and surprise the warmest and sweetest of welcomes from a loving father, who, wonder of wonders, restores him to his place within the family in spite of his great folly.

It is, of course, a type of Christ's gracious restoration of fallen humanity and of each of us in particular. Some of us have been in the very role of this “prodigal son”, either in the story of our relationship to God, or within our own human families. It is a lovely story with the most favorable and happiest of endings.

But standing off in the shadows of this happy, sunny account is the figure of the elder brother. He seems almost a foil to the repentant younger son, as he stands there rebuking his father in sulking resentment. We can hardly decide whether to laugh at him with scorn for his apparent self-pity, or feel sorry for his inability to exercise the same forgiving grace toward his brother that his father has shown.

On a completely different level, we are inclined to strongly sympathize with him and to try to view things from his perspective. After all, here he has been a good boy, stayed at home, gone to work every day, obeyed his father and not been a liability to him... But who is it who receives a great fanfare of ceremonial attention as if he had been the one who had accomplished the most? His younger brother, the wasteful, profligate, fast-living, irresponsible little wretch that he was! No wonder Big Brother was angry and resentful, we exclaim to ourselves!

We can all see slices of our own experience somewhere in this picture, I think. Some among you, for example, were elder siblings, and some of you were younger. I was “the baby of the family” with two older brothers several years my senior. I'm sure they resented the preferential treatment I was able to manipulate for myself if necessary. Doubtless they were placed against their wishes at times in having to watch out for me, and even baby-sit me, in my comparative helplessness and immaturity. I was also probably the most wayward of the three of us in terms of getting into pure trouble.

The little red wagon of my life perhaps bumped the loudest and longest on the rough back-roads of young adulthood, until I learned to return to my true Father, my Father in heaven, when I became a Christian believer many years ago.

But I don't want to focus on the “prodigal”, this morning, but to look hard at the poor figure of the elder brother, because he seems to be the one dark cloud that casts a shadow on what is otherwise the sunniest and brightest of days: a day when another big, big chance is given to one who deserved no further chances at all.

A day of grace. A day of new beginnings.

Examining the Elder Brother:

Why is the elder brother found in such a state of rejection of the entire process? I think if we can answer this question successfully, we will learn some important things about our own attitudes, as well.

Let us first note that the older brother is unimpugnable in terms of his duties and responsibilities. He has never flinched from them. He has been the model of patient obedience, and that over a long, long period of testing. He has been his father's right-hand man. Even more significantly, when compared to his younger brother, he has brought his father no bitter sorrow, grief, and misery by unwisely requesting an early inheritance, then marching off with it to distant lands to thoroughly ruin himself, squandering the greatest gift the father had to bestow upon him. For all the father knew, his younger son might even have died during his sojourning, and so on top of the heartache caused by the prodigal's willfulness is the mourning associated with a possible shameful and ignominious death far from home. Who could plumb the depths of this father's heart at the worst of his moments as he waited for his lost son?

No, the elder son had done none of these things. He would seem to eminently merit the highest commendation and praise. And in fact we get a glimpse of his parent's true appreciation for the untiring labors of his older son in these words: Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.

How could we rephrase that declaration?: “Son, I am so deeply glad, so grateful that I have you by my side. And I acknowledge your commitment and fidelity toward me. And furthermore, you have, now, and always have had, complete access to all that I have, just as if it were your own. Nothing is withheld you, and nothing ever will be”.

What, then, should we do with Elder Brother? Should we just leave him alone, to go off by himself, far away from the music and celebration? Would we go with him? What is to be learned from his role in the story?

I think we have to be courageous and examine his conduct, as charitably as we possibly can, since I am sure that my own attitudes are implicated in his behavior. Why did he react the way he did? Could he have done differently?

We must, I believe, conclude something very painful, if very human, about the older brother's underlying motives in his apparently faithful, obedient lifelong service. I say“human” because these things are very understandable from our perspective. If we've worked conscientiously and hard, we feel we should be justly rewarded. If we deserve commendation, we expect it, or at least hope for it. If we've proven wise, and self-controlled, and orderly, in contrast with others who have not, we feel that our effort should be acknowledged and should receive due reward. All of that is easily understood. But when we are speaking of Christ's Kingdom and its rules and laws, we are not dealing with things on a merely human level at all any more.

It is precisely our humanness that Christ our Lord is constantly calling us away from, in order to impart something far higher and more wonderful: His very own divine nature. That nature is always at odds with human nature, often in complete contrast with it. And all of these stories our Lord told during His teaching ministry were intended to instruct His hearers about the New Order which He is about to inaugurate through His sacrificial death and resurrection.

It is this very, very high calling toward which we are constantly being steered as Christians. It is so lofty a goal and out of the way that we can never hope to touch it without God's help.

Christ was introducing His Jewish audience to a new administration.

  • It is Law supplanted by Grace.
  • It is the righteousness imparted by God Himself versus self-righteousness.
  • It is the humiliating realization that we are incapable of earning our way to Heaven, and have no recourse but in lowliness accept that great price that was already fully paid for that purpose.

There is a summons to each of us in this new order. It is to service without thought of self, offered with no strings attached, rendered with the very real possibility of receiving no commensurate appreciation from any living soul, and even with the very real sense that divine approval may seem long delayed in arrival.

It is to duties fulfilled with only a very far-off sounding guarantee of one day hearing from the Lord's own lips, "Well done, my good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord." (Mt. 25:21).

Back now to Elder Brother. We must conclude that his service to his father had been offered in the wrong spirit: with the growing complexity and magnitude of his responsibilities one can imagine a very subtle change going on in his heart and mind. The filial relationship which should always have love at its core had been replaced by the sterile, loveless, mechanical sort of contract-mentality that characterizes an employee's relationship with an employer: “I do this for you, and you do this for me.”

Oh, how sad! As soon as love and devotion depart from any of our obligations, whether it be children to parents, parents to children, husbands to wives, wives to husbands, friends to friends, there enters the cold, heartless substitute of mere duty, offered now in full expectation of reward. And very nearby hover the dark specters of resentment, self-pity, anger, and even hatred that so easily arise out of such circumstances: “How dare you not appreciate my work on your behalf! How dare you not offer me public recognition! And you would go even further and ignore me and instead promote a complete waste to a place of honor?!”

How easily do even we New Testament believers eagerly return to a religion of obedience and law, do's and don'ts, wages for work, offering our service as some form of medium of exchange with God.

The Way Out:

So how could the elder brother have refreshed his perspective, and how can we, so that when grace and appreciation are shown others we can be spared that painful experience of witnessing a rush of negative emotions rising within us, instead of being able to set ourselves aside enough to join in the celebration of something as lovely as the restoration of a lost soul?

Let me suggest the following: I must constantly monitor my own motives in all life's service to which I am called:

“Am I doing this out of love and of principal concern for others and what they will get out of it, doing my best to get the 'big I' out of the way along with my expectation, even craving, even demand for acknowledgement?"

"Do I trust enough in the promises of God to truly, really believe that He has set Himself to reward me, in spite of the apparently long time I have to wait for it?"

"Can I perform all of life's services as un-self consciously as possible, purposely endeavoring to take little note of the extent of my work, how much time I spent on it, how much hard currency I invested in it, knowing that focusing on such things is counterproductive and may even ruin my appreciation of any reward that does come?"

"Can I trust such a father as these brothers had? I think the answer is “yes”: a father who both receives with love and joy a son whom he was sure had died as a result of his own stupidity, and a father who will surely not hold back an iota of himself and all he possesses from a son who has loyally and faithfully served."

I can and I must.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Holy Trinity Church, Waterville ME
Ed Kalish, Deacon

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