Sunday March 31, 2019
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Moretz
Joshua 5:9-12; 2
II Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Two Brothers
I’m an elder brother of four. I was the first to come into this world, the first to feel the joy of being looked down upon by our parents and to hear and understand a word of love. But one day, before my second year, another arrived in our happy home! She had her own room. And she received the same words of love from my parents. They called her “Sarah,” telling me that her name meant “princess.” But in my tiny heart, I knew what her name really meant: “pretender,” pretender to my position in the palace of love and blessing. This was patently false, there was enough room for both of us, enough food, enough love, but I was blind to all that. Occasionally my concern would flare up in anger at her very presence, for she kept growing and taking up more and more space.
I remember a scheme I hatched to somehow stem the tide. When no one was looking, I threw a few eggs down one of our stairways. I told them Sarah did it, and they believed me, for a few years. Of course, in the end, my deceit was revealed, to my shame. But what had happened. I had become lost in a fog of petty malevolence that had obscured the reality that my sister is one of the most precious people that I will ever know.
What is it about siblings that can bring out our very best, and, yet, also our very worst? And this is not just our siblings, but also our family, and perhaps close friends (the family we chose). There is a closeness we can share with certain people, a closeness that lies beneath our hearts, like tectonic plates. And what comes of continental divides when they rub up against one another? Tremors stir us. Earthquakes reverberate which shake the spiritual foundations of our households. Volcanoes of bitterness may spew on anyone who has the misfortune to live nearby. The wisdom of Christ’s parable we read this morning is to expose these tectonic forces by conjuring up the story of an imaginary family. He shows us what is going on within them, so that we might have a better handle on what is going on within us, before the tremors can grow into a disaster.
This most venerable parable has not only been called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Tradition also has dubbed it “The Parable of the Two Brothers.” One can look at the parable as the relationship between the wayward son and the loving father, a bold and essential vision of the true mercy of God. In this other title, the focus is more rooted in the contrast between the two brothers, the one who receives the mercy of the father, and the elder brother who can’t bear it, who, instead seethes at the mercy his father gives to one so undeserving.
If this is a tale of two brothers at cross purposes, then we should hold it up to the light of certain primordial Jewish stories in the same vein. Like Jesus, the Torah does not shy away from the unflattering and caustic bitterness of sibling rivalry. One prime example is the patriarch, Jacob, and his brother, Esau, who not only wrestle one another from the very beginning in their mother’s womb, but their entire relationship is forever hobbled by the consequences of their long conflict over their father’s blessing. One could say that Israel was born from this almost deadly quarrel, for during this time Jacob is given the name ‘Israel,’ “he who wrestles, with God.”
And the pattern continues with Jacob’s son, Joseph, who inspires the bitterness and resentment of all of his eleven brothers. He receives the special favor of their father. represented by the gift of a “coat of many colors.” (It is no coincidence that the father in today’s parable gives his son a special robe to celebrate his return. The allusion to the Saga of Joseph is clear as a bell.) Because of this robe and other favors, the brothers come close to murdering their brother. As a last minute reprieve, they sell him into slavery, taking Joseph’s special coat back to their father covered in goat’s blood in order to deceive him. These brothers are ultimately reconciled, but it is a long time coming.
If we were to excavate the lowest strata of our sacred history, we would find the first siblings, the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Cain, the elder brother, became “very wroth, and his countenance fell” because of his younger brother. For a mysterious reason, God respected Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. This divine asymmetry provoked profound resentment in the elder brother. God tried to calm him down with personal counsel, but no matter. Cain’s feelings curdled into fury, and he slew his younger brother in a field. And so the first fraternity became the first fratricide, Creation’s cursed overture, setting the theme for all of civilization.
And so when Jesus weaves this tale of two brothers, one of whom is resentful because of favor and blessing given to the other, we should know that he is continuing this scriptural theme. And we would then understand the dreadful potential energy that lies at the end of a parable about brothers. This one ends too soon. For we don’t know what the elder brother will choose to do. Will he carry on the legacy of the resentful brothers of Genesis and turn to scheming, maybe even violence? Or will he quell the fire within, and receive his share of a blessing that is not his own? Like God did to Cain, the Father tries to calm the elder brother’s vexation. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.” The father is making the case for grace: love and blessing that is undeserved, yet something that just had to happen because of the father’s love. Unfortunately, we are not told if the father’s case convinced the elder son. We don’t know what he will do.
In this parable, Jesus aims to convince not just the Scribes and the Pharisees, but everyone who hears it of the father’s argument. He aims to equip us with the insight to overcome the folly of the elder brother. If we can see his folly, perhaps we can begin to see our own. Without this insight, if left unchecked, we risk desiring God to love others less: to privilege the early and spurn the late; to seek the saints, not the sinners; to love us, but not the resented them. But God will not be shrunk. God must be God. In his Great Unfairness, God has unfurled his mercy upon the whole world, a sun that rises on the evil and the good, on the stranger and on those we know only too well.
The true work of this parable is done when it draws our attention to the actual point of suspense in the real world: what will we choose? What will we do when people receive blessings from God that they don’t deserve, especially those people close to us that we can’t avoid? Will we be able to handle it? Or will we be a stumbling block to these little ones? Will we act out in destructive resentment in our own way? Will we set ourselves against the power of grace, lost in that self-righteous fog? Or will we find a way to be thankful and receive the Good News of God? Time will tell.
My mother had two more children, twins in fact, eight years after having me and Sarah. And when they came, I was a bit more mature, and, thankfully, my heart was ready in time. I was able to perceive that their coming would not mean less love for me, but it would mean more love in the home. And at their birth, I leapt for joy. For I could see the overflowing blessing that God gave, for them, for me, for all of us.
O God, we pray you make our hearts ready to leap with joy for every blessing, those you have given to us and those you have given to them. And if we cannot leap for joy, at least help us to get out of your way.