March 6, 2016 “Elder Siblings” – Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
“Elder Siblings”
March 6, 2016 – Fourth Sunday of Lent

I really should just sit down now. We could just confess our sins and accept the invitation of this parable to come to our Father through the body and blood of His Son at His Table. This most loved parable of Jesus needs very little in the way of explanation. It’s a huge astronomical body of a story, with a grace and a gravity that pulls you into it and makes you feel like it’s your own story.

There are just three main characters, but most of us identify with at least one of them. You may have been the prodigal child, wandering off on our own course, only to return to the love that was always waiting for you. You may have felt the resentment of the good child who did everything right only to discover that it didn’t matter much, that you weren’t loved anymore than some prodigal was. Or perhaps you’ve been a loving parent, watching and waiting, praying and hoping for the return of the child you would welcome with open arms. It’s likely that at different points in your life or even all at once you’ve been two or even all three of these characters in your own story.

The incredible gravitational force of Jesus’ story is personal draw. We get it, we understand it with our hearts as much as our minds. It’s our own story, repeated over and over in our lives, in our families, in our relationships. That’s why there’s not a whole lot more to say once we’ve heard the story and really listened to it once again.

In the past when I’ve preached on this parable, I’ve acknowledged its gravity by simply retelling it in a more modern setting. Two or three times I’ve told it as a golfing parable, about an aging golf-pro father watching his two sons play a round and keeping score for them. One son followed in his father’s footsteps and became a pro himself, practicing and working on his game all the time. The other son dropped the game when he left home and was as careless about it as he was about everything else. In the end they learned their father wasn’t keeping score at all, and his love for both of them had nothing to do with how well they performed on the golf course.

Looking back over old sermons on this text, I discovered a story sermon on this text that I had forgotten about, maybe because I’ve been pulled in deeper than I had imagined twelve years ago when I preached it. I started out, “There was a man who had two daughters…” Back then I thought I was speaking fiction, just a story, with only the faintest connections to my own life. I never really imagined I would have a younger prodigal daughter of my own, wandering away from her faith. Yet here I am, here we are.

In that story I pictured a man with daughters named Elaine and Lucy. Elaine was the good child and Lucy was the prodigal. I told how Lucy seemed to seek out trouble from her youngest years, always testing the limits. I said that at age 3 she flooded their home by trying to flush her older sister’s favorite stuffed bunny down the toilet. That was how they grew up, with Lucy getting into more and more serious trouble while despising her always obedient, perfect sister.

Most of that sermon was about Lucy and her rebellion. I detailed her misbehavior until she ultimately left home at age 18, taking a credit card and one of the family’s cars. I said that her father tracked her journey across the country by calling the bank about the charges she put on the card. Today I would have to say he followed her by the GPS in her phone and watching the charges on-line.

Like I said, my retelling was mostly about the prodigal. That’s how we usually hear Jesus’ parable. We think of our own sin and rebellion and picture God as that loving parent ready to welcome us. But as Fred Craddock reminds us, and as we remembered in Sunday School last year, this is a parable about two sons. [1] The father loved them both, he was generous to them both. Notice in verse 12 that when the prodigal asks for his share of the inheritance, the father “divided his property between them.” And what I want to focus on today is that he “went out” to them both.

In my old sermon story, I should have put Elaine there alongside her father as he tracked her sister. She would have asked him to cancel that credit card she was using for her escapades. She would have told him to quit paying for Lucy’s cell phone. If she wasn’t going to come home and play by the rules, then why should she be a drag on the family’s resources?

The elder brother in Jesus’ parable should have more of our attention because that’s to whom He told this story. That’s why we read the first three verses of this chapter, to hear who the first audience was. It wasn’t a room full of prodigals at the rescue mission. It was a crowd of scribes and Pharisees grumbling about all the prodigals Jesus was welcoming and hanging out with.

So as much as we feel warmed and welcomed by God in this story when we think about our own prodigal selves, it’s really a story more for elder siblings than for their delinquent younger brothers and sisters. Just like we’ve been remembering all this Lent, the great message of God’s love and forgiveness not only sets us free from sin and guilt, it calls us to be like Him, to be loving and forgiving like God is. And we cannot be like our loving Father if we are hanging back and refusing to enter into His own joy at forgiving sinners.

In my story about the man with two daughters, the last scene was the father’s fiftieth birthday party. Lucy was still gone, but his wife and daughter Elaine threw him a huge party. He refused to have the candles lit on his cake, wanting to wait a little longer to see “if anyone else would be coming.”

As it happened, Lucy did show up that evening. The other guests had all gone, the cake was still untouched, and Dad was sitting looking sadly out the window. When she walked slowly up the steps, he saw her, ran to the door and embraced her, thrilled that she had come home for his party. It was totally by accident. She hadn’t remembered her father’s birthday. Her card was maxed out. She was out of money and homeless. She had been living on the streets and realized home was better. So there she was.

Dad didn’t care. He called for Mom and Elaine who had gone to bed. He lit the candles himself. He told everyone it was time to celebrate because his daughter was finally home. He even gave Lucy a present, an heirloom ring from his mother. That’s when Elaine got up, stalked to the door and walked out, slamming it behind her.

Just like in Jesus’ story, the father went out to talk to that elder sibling, to remind her of his love for both of them. He sat on the steps with Elaine and asked her how could he not be happy that her sister was back? How could it not be time for a party? But he loved her just as much. Everything in the house was hers if she wanted it. And he had a precious present for her too. Wouldn’t she please come back inside?

My story ended like Jesus’ parable. I did not tell what Elaine did, only what her father did. He got up and went back in the house, leaving Elaine out there on the steps. Then he sat down in his chair, looking out the window, and started waiting again, this time for his other daughter.

That’s our God and that is you and I. He is always waiting, always full of loving forgiveness, whether it’s for our sins or for our hard and unforgiving hearts. My guess is that just like in Jesus’ time, many of us are elder siblings needing to come in and join the party as our Lord welcomes home His prodigals. We start back inside by admitting our resentment and remembering our own prodigal sins.

In Jesus’ parable that’s what the elder brother failed to recognize. Notice in verse 29 that he says, “I have never disobeyed your commands.” As elder siblings we must admit the falsehood in a claim like that. As we heard from Paul in II Corinthians 5, we are all reconciled to God through Christ, not through our own obedience. And because that’s how we’ve been shown the love of God, we have a “ministry of reconciliation,” to show that same love to our brothers and sisters.

Prodigal child or elder sibling, Christ died and rose to welcome and receive you into the Father’s love. He’s waiting for you.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 188.