As some of you know, I have three older brothers; the oldest being 13 years older. When he was in his late 20’s, he wrote a book that featured three brothers and a father who was in the Navy. It bore some remarkable similarities to his life. However, when I read it I was a little perturbed that there was no sister. He just left me out completely. I mentioned something to my brother about this and he replied, “This is a book about redemption, you don’t need redemption.” He was alluding to the fact that he and my other brothers were kind of wild children and teenagers. I was not. Also he was writing about himself as a high school student, which was when I was about 4 years old. I was not satisfied with that answer. It seemed to me, that I was being punished for being good. What he did not realize was that I would get back at him by featuring him in sermons years later.
This Gospel reading is often referred to as The Prodigal Son. The word prodigal is nowhere in the text. It has been assigned to the text because it describes a wasteful or reckless extravagance. Yet the way the father describes the younger son is lost, which is a far better description. Additionally, it is not merely the story of one lost son. It is the story of two sons who are lost. One is lost in a distant country. The other is lost in his own home, with his own family.
It might not seem so horrible to us that the younger son asked for his inheritance while his father was still alive. However in this time period, that would have been considered the ultimate insult because it is basically saying to the father, “You are dead to me.” In asking for his inheritance early, he cut himself off from his entire family. To make things worse, he wasted that money on self-indulgent living. He is not a likable character, not the kind of underdog you want to root for. He only returns when he runs out of money and is on the brink of starvation. He’s kind of a jerk.
The other son isn’t particularly likeable either. He is jealous and resentful. While his brother is a jerk, you would assume that the elder brother would be at least a little happy to have his brother back safe and sound. While the elder brother is not likeable, I think he is a little more relatable for most of us. I imagine that most of us have had some experience where we have witnessed someone else being celebrated or rewarded when it was clear to us that they in no way deserved to be celebrated or rewarded. It’s not fair. I think there are few things that are more disconcerting to your average human than when we witness something that is unfair. Despite the fact that most adults know life is not fair, we still feel the need to make it be fair. And even if we know that life is not fair, we at least want God, the almighty, all knowing God, to be fair. And why would an all knowing, almighty God, reward a son who wished his father dead, took his money and then came back when he needed him?
Why? Because there is nothing fair about God’s unconditional, unrelenting love. When that unfair love is directed to us, it doesn’t seem to bother us that it is unfair. Let’s consider this elder son. It’s true that he was the good son. He stayed with his family and did his work, but he also had servants. It is clear from the text that his father was wealthy and generous. He was able to provide for his sons in ways that other people could not. His father was also clearly compassionate, forgiving and loving. He was a good father. He was the kind of father who ran out too meet his disrespectful and ungrateful son and pronounce forgiveness before forgiveness was even asked. Do we really think the elder son ever lamented the unfairness of having a life like he had, having a family like he had when so many had nothing compared to him? I doubt it. Because he felt that was what he deserved. He was entitled to that kind of life.
He was lost, not because he had chosen to escape to another land, but because he chose resentment over gratitude, because he chose to lament the unfairness of a father who loved his brother too much instead of thanking God for a father who loved him with an unrelenting and all powerful love. When we think of this parable, we can probably all see in our minds eye the father who runs out to meet his foolish and selfish son who treated him like he was dead. It is a dramatic and compelling scene. But how many of us picture the father who then seeks out his bitter and unforgiving son and begs him to come inside; who reminds his petulant child that while he might not have rewarded him with a fatted calf, it didn’t matter because everything he owned, was already his. The father didn’t have to reward him with the fatted calf, because the elder son owned the fatted calf. God has already given us everything we need.
When I was working on this sermon, I thought a lot about my own privilege and the truth is that most of are born into privilege, just by being born as an American. Most of us have guaranteed access to free education and clean water. We take these things for granted even though there are many in our world (and some in our nation) who do not have these privileges. But in the end, that is not what this story is about. It is a story about something else we often take for granted–God’s grace. No matter where we are born or who we are born to, we all are born as children of God, beloved by God.
Every day and every hour, we make a choice. We can either be grateful for this amazing gift, this amazing grace, or we can be resentful for the ways that life has cheated us, or what we do not have. That was the sin of the elder son. He could not be content or thankful for what he had because of his bitterness about what his own brother was receiving.
It is hard to let go of resentment. But there is a way. Embrace gratitude. You cannot be grateful and resentful at the same time. Thus when you find yourself growing bitter over some perceived unfairness, remember the gift that you have, the gift that God has given you. Everyone gets lost at some point in their life. Each one of us has a story of redemption. Part of what the season of Lent is about is admitting that we are all lost and then making the choice to be found. God is looking for you. God is that father who is staring into the distance, waiting for us each one of us to return to him. Embrace gratitude. Choose gratitude. Because God has already chosen and embraced each one of us.
Footnote: If you are interested in this subject, I encourage you to read “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Henri Nouwen. It is inspired and helped me a great deal on this sermon.