The Older Brother
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

August 20, 2017

Luke 15:11-32

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

We know this story, don’t we? The son who asks for all of his inheritance up front, a third of what his father has (since he’s the second son, the elder one would get a double portion), and goes out and spends it all in profligate ways. Profligate is one of those words preachers use when they don’t want to say hookers and gambling and booze.

(As one commentator writes:)

It is a surprise in a Middle Eastern story that the younger son speaks first. He is out of his place already! What he speaks is even more astonishing. He is basically telling his father to “drop dead.” All Eastern commentators on this story acknowledge that the son’s request is totally illegitimate. It is an unthinkable request. A father only gives the inheritance in death.

The father should explode with anger at such an inappropriate request. He does not explode. He grants a request that was completely unimaginable in his time. Such is the nature of the father in the story. This is a very unusual father!

– Richard A. Jenson

The younger son adds insult to injury, spending all his money, having to hire himself out as a farm hand to a pig farmer. For Jesus’ audience, it is bad enough to go through all of this, but now this man is living among animals that are unclean. He has divested himself of all dignity, all family, all place among the people of God.

And the anger of the older brother is understandable. Regardless of the fact that he will receive his share, a double share compared to his younger brother, he is outraged. The words used here get translated as property or living, as in the father divided his property, and the elder son complaining that the younger son wasted the father’s living with prostitutes, the word is bios. The younger son has split the father’s life, and wasted the father’s life.

So the anger of the older brother at the younger brother is not simply the jealousy of the party thrown for his brother, or being mad that the younger one got away with stuff he could never get away with. It is anger that the very order of things is at risk. This is not right, on a deep gut level.

The audacity of the request, the amazingly stupid decisions made once the request is answered, the welcome of the son coming home as though he were a conquering hero or a dignitary, all of this offends the very fiber of the being of the older, diligent, faithful son. Perhaps we can understand it.

But one who has made such decisions, when he repents, he finds himself accepted. Here is the hope of Jesus we live in, that when we turn to God in trust and hope, we are accepted.

And this story is about one who made such decisions.

We live in an age of the older brother, don’t we?

The white older brother harbors anger and fear for the order of things against people of color.

The straight older brother expresses outrage and fear for the order of things against people who are LGBT. LGBT is one of those things we say when we don’t want to say lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

The well off and settled older brother is nervous and concerned about the order of things when people in poverty speak up for changes in the system.

And people of color did not choose to be born of their parents, with their skin color, any more than white people did.

And we have learned much over the last few decades about gender, sexuality, and how much of the late 20th century understanding was based not on timeless truths but the worldview post Sigmund Freud. We have learned from listening to people that gender and sexuality are complex, not nearly as black and white as we used to think, and that one’s sexuality is not simply a “choice.”

And any exploration of poverty needs to also examine the roles of race, gender, policy, and history. There are choices involved, to be sure, but poverty itself is a powerful force against making good decisions.

So there come some questions.

What does the white older brother lose when people of color are afforded the same benefits of society that the white brother?

What does the straight older brother lose when people who are gender-nonconforming, same-gender loving, or otherwise queer are welcomed and afforded the same rights and protections that the straight brother has always known?

What does the well off older brother lose when people are helped to leave poverty, when safety nets are repaired, when the homeless child of God is seen first as a fellow child of God?

If the story is true for one who made such bad choices, how much more so might it be true for those who did not have a choice, but are cast out anyway?

And the father goes out to the older brother, hears his complaints, wipes his tears, wraps his arms around him and says,

‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. [You lose none of your inheritance!] But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’

Thanks be to God.