Isaiah 53:7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
A man was speeding down the freeway when he was stopped by a police car. “Do you realize you were doing 80MPH in a 60MPH zone, sir?” asked the policeman. “That’s impossible, sir, I never break the speed limit,” replied the driver. The driver’s wife interrupted and said, “Yes, you do, I’m always telling you to keep your speed down.” The policeman said, “I also noticed, sir, that you didn’t have your seat belt on. You put it on as I was walking over to your car.” That’s not true, Officer; I always wear my seat belt,” replied the driver. “No, you don’t, I’m always telling you to put your seat belt on,” said the driver’s wife. “Woman,” the driver exploded, “can’t you, just for once, keep that big mouth of yours shut?” The policeman was a bit shocked by how the driver was speaking to his wife, so he moved around to her side of the car. “Does he often speak to you like this, ma’am?” “Oh, no, Officer,” the wife said, “only when he’s been drinking!”
Today, we near the end of our current journey. The New Testament story of the Prodigal Son is one of the best known, most scrutinized stories in the Bible. But at its heart…what is the story REALLY about? Who IS the Prodigal? And what does it have to tell us about our lives? Through January and February, we’re asking all of those questions- and many more- as we take The Long Journey Home. Each week, we’re focus on a few verses from the Prodigal Son story- unpacking it to see what is underneath and, more importantly, what it has to say to us.
Since there won’t be a day when we hear the whole story at one time, I’ll offer what I’m calling my Reader’s Digest version every week. Here it is!
“A man has two sons. The youngest decides he is tired of the simple life. He demands his share of Dad’s inheritance. He gets it, goes off to the big city, squanders every penny on proverbial wine, women and song and ends up eating hog slop…literally. He crawls back to Dad, who welcomes him with open arms and throws a big party. The older son is hacked off about it but Dad says, ‘Buck up.'” The end. Hey- I WARNED you it was the Reader’s Digest version!
The first week, he demanded and got his inheritance, set off for a far-away land and squandered everything. The second week, a famine hit, he ended up as a hired man feeding pigs…and longing to eat the hog slop. The third week, he came to his senses, realized that his father’s hired servants have food to eat and a place to sleep a decides to go home and confess his sins to his father. The fourth week, he got home and his dad ran to him, hugged him and kissed him. The younger son confessed that he had sinned against both his earthly and heavenly fathers and wasn’t worthy to be called “son”. Week 5, the father interrupted him and called for a robe, a ring and a pair of sandals for his younger son. He also instructed that the fatted calf be prepared because his son who was lost has been found, who was dead is now alive. Last week, the illusive older son came home and found out from a servant what was going on- walking into the middle of a party he didn’t even know about. And that’s where we pick up today’s Scripture.
Luke 15:28-30 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
So the older son hears what is going on- the YOUNGER son has come home- and he is hurt, conflicted, upset. He’s mad. In fact, he is SO mad that, after a long day of hard, physical labor, he won’t go in the house. He REFUSES to go in. The expression that was used when I was a kid is this- he was so mad, he could SPIT! So he stands outside. I imagine, instead of simply standing, however, that he is pacing, muttering, punching one fist into the other open hand.
Notice what Dad does. He goes out…LOOKING…for the older son. Sound familiar? Earlier in the story, he stood on the porch, looking for the younger son. Now he goes out on that same porch, looking for the older son. And what did he do once he found the older son? It would be easy to imagine that Dad would scold the older son. “Get your rear end in that house this instant, Mister! Who in the world do you think you are, anyway? I brought you into this world and I can take you out…AND make two more just like you! You don’t GET to throw fits- when I say ‘Jump!’, the ONLY response I want to hear out of you is, ‘How high, Sir?!’”
But Dad doesn’t scold, berate or yell at. Instead…he pleads. Pleads. Not just “ask”- PLEAD. He pleaded with the older son to be happy that his younger brother was back home, safe and sound. He pleaded with the older son to come in and be a part of the celebration, part of the family.
But the older son is having NONE of it. And he sets that tone right out of the box- “Look!” That one word betrays the disrespectful attitude he has toward his dad at the moment. I don’t know about you, but if I had started a conversation with my dad with, “Look!”…once I came to, I would have been apologizing and swearing I would never do it again!
But that’s just the left jab. The right-hand knockout punch is yet to come. “All these years I’ve slaving for you…” Let’s be honest- “slaving” isn’t exactly the warm-fuzzy that you want out of a happy, healthy family relationship. “And not only did I SLAVE for you, I never…did I mention NEVER?…disobeyed your orders.” Not requests. Not suggestions. Orders. The older son is clearly hurt and just as clearly wants Dad to feel the hurt, too.
Then, the older son continues with his accusations. “You never even gave me a GOAT so I could celebrate with MY friends.” Why a goat. Well, like today, a goat would be seen as a step down from the fatted calf. The older son didn’t even get the grilled hot dogs, let alone the steak! There seems to be long-smoldering discontent in the older son. Being the oldest, he has always had to be the grown-up. He has always had to be more mature, step up and be counted. Not true of the younger son.
“This son of yours!” The older son can’t even bring himself to claim the younger son as his brother. YOUR son! My wife and I joke about, “Do you know what YOUR son did?” That’s the attitude the older son has here- only he MEANS it! This is NOT a joke.
The older brother has the knife stuck in…and now he twists it. “This son of YOURS squandered YOUR property on prostitutes. And how do you punish HIM for HIS behavior? You killed the fatted calf and throw a BIG party!” If you want proof that the older son is simply trying to inflict as much pain as possible- spread the wealth, if you will- look no further than this passage. Nobody has made ANY mention of prostitutes. But the older son is right there, filling in the blanks from his imagination. He offers some pretty sharp criticism of both his dad and his brother.
So what’s the motivation for the older son in this part of the story? What is it that makes him lash out like this? I mean, there’s obviously anger here. He makes that pretty clear. There’s frustration. There’s exasperation. Even rage.
But it seems to me that those things are NOT the disease- they are merely the symptoms. They are very REAL, but they all point to something deeper. What? What is that deeper thing that they all point to? For my money, all roads lead to pain. Pain and jealousy.
The older son is jealous of the attention his idiot brother is getting. He’s pained by the fact that he does what he’s supposed to do, day in and day out, and gets NOTHING for it. He’s a GOOD boy- he sleeps with his socks on. And all Dad can do is ignore Gallant and praise Goofus. Life’s not fair…and then you die.
The truth is that jealousy leads to pain. And pain leads to frustration, anger, rage. When you hurt, it’s a pretty short trip to wanting everybody else to be as miserable as you are because- as we all know- misery LOVES company! Where do you turn when you find yourself there? That place- jealousy and pain- can easily be a pit with no bottom. And that’s where the older son is, standing on that porch, railing against his family, the party going on, full bore, inside. Again- where do you turn when you find yourself there?
Recently, I attended a conference for the clergy in our United Methodist Illinois Great Rivers Conference. There, our new Bishop spoke. And he shared with us two questions that he likes to ask- of himself and of others. And those two questions are both incredibly simply AND deeply complex. They are: 1. What’s our business? And 2. How’s business?
What’s our business? And how’s business? If you’re a shoe store or a restaurant, the answer to the first question is pretty simple- selling shoes, selling food. And the answer to the second question is pretty simple as well- look at the year-end financial statements and you will KNOW how business is.
But we aren’t a shoe store or a restaurant- although we serve enough food that we COULD be a restaurant. We are a church. We are the body of Christ. We are the 50,000 red-hot poppin’ watt body of Christ in Mercer County, Illinois. That’s who we are. But, what’s our business? Well, I would say that our business is that we exist to connect people to Jesus Christ.
OK- that’s our business. Then…how’s business? Well, we too could look at year-end financial statements to assess the answer to that question. And if we did, we would walk away feeling like business is pretty darn good! And financial health is an important indicator of how business is for a church. But it’s only ONE indicator…and not the most important one, either.
We exist to connect people to Jesus Christ. That means we are responsible for each other. And that is NOT just the folks who are already here. It’s also those who have yet to join us. And many of those folks- many of us- struggle with jealousy and pain. Many struggle with feeling like we don’t matter, like nobody would even notice if we were gone. What do we do about that? What CAN we do about that?
Next week, we will wrap this series up and we finally bring the long journey home to a close. And as we do, we will see how the dad- Father- reached out to his older son in the midst of the pain and the jealousy. It’s a great example for us- not only how we can reach out to others but also how we can be more open to those who are reaching out to us.
Jude 1:3 Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.