Fr. David’s homily March 6, 2016.
Homily on left – Gospel reading on right.
The Elder Brother
The parable of the prodigal son and his family is beyond doubt one of the most familiar and touching stories Jesus tells. Over the years I have reflected on it in much the same way every year: as a testament to the wonderful grace that God shows us when we turn from a life without God to a life with God. As such it is a beautiful testament to something that God has done for us in our past. But how do we carry it forward day after day, year after year? Today I’m going to try to answer that question.
The parable of the prodigal son is the last in a trilogy of parables that Jesus tells about people searching for things they lost that were dear to them. There’s the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. Why does Jesus tell any of these parables? Luke chapter 15 begins this way: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the Scribes were grumbling and saying: ‘this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” Jesus launches into this trilogy of parables because the religious and social elite object to him ministering to and with those whom they deem undesirable. Who were they? They were tax collectors, prostitutes, the infirm, and sinners. The Scribes and Pharisees had no time for these outcasts, these undesirables.
This is precisely the position of the older brother in today’s parable. He’s on the side of the elite politicians and religious leaders. He finds his father’s mercy toward his sinful younger brother unconscionable. So to read this text with new eyes, I suggest that we place ourselves firmly in the role of the older brother. The text tells us remarkably little about the younger son’s actions; Jesus spends much more time telling his audience about the father and the older brother.
We know only that the younger brother asked his father for his inheritance while his father was still alive, and that he lost it all living a morally lax life in a distant country. Whereas the father’s reaction was to have compassion on his son and celebrate the return of a loved one, the older brother’s immediate reaction is anger: “‘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 that I might celebrate with my friends.'” While the older brother seems to be rightly incensed, the father’s response is compassionate. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours (Luke 15:31).” The older son claims that he has earned a higher position than his younger brother; he has earned the right to be provided for. The father is quick to remind him that he has always been provided for. Indeed, he has always had access to the entirety of his father’s possessions. The older son is suffering from the blindness that privilege so often brings: the assumption that one’s status, be it social, economic, or religious, is the sole product of one’s hard work rather than the confluence of numerous factors. This was illuminated for me during the last election cycle when President Obama challenged this assumption by saying,
“Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own…I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something: there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive”.
At the time he said this there was strong negative reaction. Many people grew angry that someone would challenge the idea that their status was anything less than a function of their own efforts. The fact that so many people would balk at the idea of sharing credit for their accomplishments with their own teachers shows how deeply held this belief is. The flip side of the assumption that one’s own place in the world has been earned by individual achievement is extending that same individualism to everyone. In the case of those of lower statuses, this implies a lack of individual achievement. The older brother grows angry because of his father’s joy over the return of his younger brother who has “devoured [his] property with prostitutes (Luke 15:30).” However, there is no evidence in the parable of this. This is an assumption that the older brother makes, and he makes it for the same reason that the “Welfare Queen” myth is so prevalent. The “people on welfare are lazy” myth. It is much easier to assume that those we deem undesirable are deserving of their positions because of their own actions rather than to risk investigating systemic reasons for their lack of well being, especially when we are benefiting from those same systems.
These assumptions must be challenged, not only because they leave the privileged blind to systemic injustices, but because they cause immense damage to the psychological and spiritual well being of those “undesirable others.” In the biblical text we can see the division caused by this mindset. The younger son views himself as unworthy of his family’s love, and his older brother agrees, even refusing to call him his brother, settling instead for “this son of yours.”
If we resist the desire to view ourselves as the younger brother whose forgiveness is cause for celebration, and instead take up the mantle of the recalcitrant older brother, then the text doesn’t give us quite the same nostalgic sense of gratitude for God’s forgiveness. Rather it places an imperative upon us to work for reconciliation of the “undesirable other” whenever and however, we can.
I remember a wise theology teacher long deceased but alive in many hearts, who once said: “We drink from wells we did not dig, and sit under shade trees we did not plant.” We are the beneficiaries of so many who went before us. We are where we are because others have toiled so that it might be so. Jesus’ parable challenges us to examine our assumptions about status, privilege, and hardship. It challenges us to remove questions of worthiness surrounding God’s love and forgiveness, and by extension, our love and forgiveness. It challenges us to move beyond platitudes towards reconciliation with those whom we see as undesirable. We have work to do, difficult work that much of the world is not willing to undertake. Jesus ends his parable unresolved. We have no idea whether the older brother sees the wisdom in his father’s actions. It is as if Jesus is looking beyond the parable to his immediate audience. He’s looking to us. It’s as if Jesus is asking us: “Those who were dead have come to life. Will you join the celebration?” “REMARKS BY PRESIDENT OBAMA AT A CAMPAIGN EVENT IN ROANOKE, VA,” BARACK OBAMA,HTTPS://WWW.WHITEHOUSE.GOV/THE-PRESS-OFFICE/2012/07/13/
David J. McBriar, O.F.M.
LUKE 15:1-3, 11-32
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and Scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them Jesus addressed this parable: “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began. Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”