This beloved parable of the Prodigal Son is a welcome change—wouldn’t you agree?—from the gospel lessons we’ve been hearing these last three Sundays. In the first three weeks in Lent Jesus has been tempted by the devil and threatened by King Herod. And Jesus has spoken of the grim reality that all of us—all of us—stand condemned under God’s suspended sentence, God’s righteous judgment.
These have been tough words to hear, slogging our way through Luke’s gospel….so this morning we’re more than ready for a little break, a respite, a chance to rest in a word of pure comfort and patient mercy.
And it would certainly seem that that’s what we find here in Luke 15. Having been trudging down the way to the Cross….this morning’s gospel text tells us to sit a spell, put our feet up and simply bask in God’s amazing grace.
This is one story we never tire of hearing. We never grow weary of recalling the prodigal son’s brief adventure in that far country, his wasted life, his remarkable turnaround, and then his joyful homecoming, into the arms of his waiting father--a parent determined to let bygones be bygones, to wipe the slate clean, to grant a totally fresh start.
Who could hear this story and not share in its joy?
Well, come to think of it, there is one person—right here in the story, in fact—who is not one bit happy. Our text says that he is so “angry” (v. 28), so incensed that he stubbornly stays out in the backyard, refusing to come to the big homecoming bash.
And, what’s worse, this man is “next of kin”--part of the family—another son of the same generous, waiting father—the older brother of the man who came in from the cold.
We might wish that the parable simply ended with verse 24 where it says: “And they began to make merry.” If the parable ended there, the loose ends would be tied up—the redemption complete.
But Jesus never set out to tell the tale of just one son.
No, when Jesus spun this yarn, he declared—from the beginning—that he was going to tell about “a man who had two sons” (v. 11) So if we pass by the elder brother, if we skip over the older son, we will have missed most of what Jesus wants to say here.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the elder son—his side of the story is really the linchpin in this parable. The redemption at the heart of this parable will be incomplete as long as the older son is still out in the backyard, huffing and puffing and refusing to come in to the homecoming.
Who is this elder brother?
He is the one who didn’t ask for his cut of the family fortune early.
He is the one who didn’t pack a knapsack and set off to see the world.
He is the one who didn’t squander his father’s treasure living like a party animal.
He is the one who didn’t spiral down, down, down to the degradation of slopping hogs— work no self-respecting Jew would ever consider doing.
Who is this elder brother?
He is the upright, upstanding, responsible child—most families have at least one of them! He is the one who fancied himself obedient to a fault (v. 29).
He is the one who delayed gratification, who worked like a dog for the success of the family farm.
The elder son is the one who set aside his own interests over long years of toiling for his father—the one who did everything right, kept his nose clean, lived by the rules…
….and, it would seem, resented every minute of it.
Notice, please how both sons have little “speeches” they work on and practice, waiting for just the right moment to deliver them to their father.
The younger son’s speech is his “I’ve hit rock bottom” confession of guilt, his desperate plea for undeserved mercy—“Dad, just let me come home, live in the barn, and be one of your hired hands…”
The elder son’s speech sounds very different. Starting in verse 29 he shows his true colors: “Listen! (he hurls the word at 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Who is this elder son? He’s the one who is at least as lost as his younger brother ever was. We might even say that the responsible son is more lost, more hopeless, more imperiled than the prodigal son was when he came to his senses in that pigpen.
The elder son may never have left home—physically, geographically—but he was light years away from home relationally, spiritually.
Who is this elder son? He is the one who cannot abide forgiveness for the irresponsible, the one who will not tolerate mercy shed on the undeserving. He is the one inside all of us who worries that somewhere, somehow, some good-for-nothing is going to get off the hook, scot-free.
Jesus told this parable of two sons, within earshot of the two sons themselves, as they had popped up along The Jesus Road. Listen again to the opening verses of Luke, chapter 15: “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2).
There they were, the two sons, in the opening lines of this chapter.
First there were the “tax collectors and sinners.” Think of them as “younger sons.” Wayward ones. Folks facedown in the pigpen. Persons who had hit rock bottom and were trying to find their way back home.
Jesus told this parable of two sons in the presence of a bunch of “younger sons.”
And right alongside them was a peanut gallery filled with “elder sons”—the “Pharisees and scribes,” muttering under their breath: “This guy embraces notorious sinners and even breaks bread with them. Why--he’ll sit down at table with anyone!”
Jesus told this parable surrounded by younger sons, fresh back from losing it all in a far country—and also elder sons, huffing and puffing and refusing to come to the homecoming party Jesus brought with him wherever he went.
It makes you wonder whether in this place, too, there might be a whole company of younger sons (and daughters) along with elder sons (and daughters)--gathered right here, right now, this very morning, trying to make sense of this ancient story.
I think that is the case. And I bet most of us here need look no farther than the dynamics of our very own families, to find ourselves somewhere in this story.
Some among us could tell some great stories about being the black sheep of our families, wasting part of our lives, looking for adventure in all the wrong places. Some of us have hit rock bottom and (to borrow language from the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous) some of us have “admitted that we are powerless…and that our lives have become unmanageable.” (The First Step of AA)
Others of us have lived the life of the responsible elder child, the son or daughter who made our parents proud, kept her nose clean, fulfilled his duties—but perhaps never, never felt completely at home. Some of us, if we were painfully honest with ourselves, could say: “You need not go to a far country to get good and lost!”
And then there is Jesus, smack dab in the middle of it all—smack dab in the middle of this whole messed-up family. There, right there, is Jesus….welcoming sinners of all stripes, and eating with them.
Wherever Jesus went, wherever Jesus still goes, he brings with him a traveling homecoming party. Jesus declares that wherever you are—whether you’re face down in some barnyard or standing out in your own backyard, seething with old resentments—Jesus declares that wherever you are—the doors are open, the party is starting, and it won’t be the same without you.
For some, those are words of sweet, sweet restoration.
For others, those are fighting words—words to attack. In fact, at the end of his earthly journey, a bunch of elder sons did attack Jesus for welcoming everyone to his homecoming party. Those elder sons were so incensed with Jesus that they nailed him to a Cross—and for a time it looked as though they had silenced Jesus forever.
But then on the third day, a wild rumor was heard that he, Jesus, himself had come back from the far country of death, back to his family, back home—to make sure that the doors would never again be locked, but would remain always open to receive anyone and everyone who wants to come in out of the cold.
Dear friends, dear younger sons and daughters, dear elder daughters and sons alike: your Lord Jesus Christ bids you come to his homecoming party. Whether you come in the front door from some far country—or whether you sneak in by the back door--there’s a place set for each of you.
Lawrence Robert Wohlrabe was born in Mankato, MN. He graduated from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and Luther Seminary, St. Paul. Luther Seminary awarded him a Doctor of Ministry degree with distinction.
Ordained in 1981, he served parishes in Willmar, MN; St. James, MN; and Moorhead, MN. He was also on the staff of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, and the SW MN Synod ELCA, Redwood Falls, MN. Larry was elected bishop of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod on June 10, 2007. He was re-elected bishop of the synod, to a second 6-year term on June 7, 2013.
Larry's wife, Joy, has worked many years as a hospital and hospice social worker. They have two young adult children, Erik and Kristen (married to Aaron) and two grandchildren, Olivia and Micah. Note: the views expressed here are Bishop Wohlrabe's views--not those of the NW MN Synod.