Parable of the First-born Son

Sermon, October 15, 2016

Today, I would also like to look at another well-known parable in the Bible. It is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Or it could be called the the Parable of the Prodigal Father. Or it could be called the Parable of the Jealous Brother. Much like the last sermon, I would like to look at this well-known parable, but from a slightly different perspective.

Read the parable in Luke 15:11-32.

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to[b] one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his servants,[d] ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

This parable is sometimes called “the Gospel within the Gospel” because it puts the gospel message into a short parable form. I guess that is true in a sense, but that really isn’t the point of the parable. I had heard so many sermons on this story back in the US, and preachers would often struggle over something in the story. The son sinned against his father… so if it is supposed to mirror the Gospel, there should be a payment… a ransom… a substitutionary atonement for the sins of the son. I heard preachers try to deal with that issue… but their difficulty was that they were mistaken on two levels.

Level 1. This is not a story of Guilt… it is a story of Shame. Guilt is about payment of debts, and declaration of innocence. Shame is about alienation and restoration. Let me reword the story slightly, so that the shame side is more easy to identify.

Once upon a time, there was a man of power, status and wealth. He had two sons, whom he loved, who would each get a half share of his vast holdings when he died.

One day, his younger son came to him and said… “I don’t want to wait until you are dead to inherit your wealth and power… I want it now.” Such a level of disrespect is hard to fathom, but despite this, his father honored his request and gave him his half share, and his older brother his other half share, while he was still alive. The younger son took the wealth given to him and left his father, family, and land to go far away where he could do whatever he wanted.

Sadly, this younger son, was not only dishonoring to his family, he was also bad at handling money. It just seemed to slip through his fingers. Soon he was broke and forced to take about the most degrading job… the only job he could get… working as a hired hand– underpaid and underfed– feeding pigs.

One day, starving, he realized that no matter how humiliating it would be to go back home, it would still be better than his present situation. At least the hired hands of his father are fed well enough.

Humiliated, dirty, and starving, he goes back home. As he nears his hometown, his father sees him from far off– the disrespectful son, now an object of ridicule to all who know him. Without thinking twice, the father lifts his robe and begins to run… a remarkable thing to see— only children and servants ever run.

He embraces his poor son… welcoming him home as his own. The son acknowledges his own unworthiness, but the father will have none of that. This young man is the son he lost, was alienated from… but now he is back and will be honored as a true son… with new clothes a new ring, and a great feast of honor for all the neighbors to see him as restored.

So the story is not about sinning as much as shaming his father, shaming himself, and then being given even greater honor from the father after his return.

But on a Second level, is even a bigger issue. The story really isn’t about this runaway son. It is more about the other disrespectful son– the first-born.

We realize this when we look at the first two verses of Luke 15.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

This parable is a response and a challenge to the Pharisees and Scribes. They feel it is dishonoring… shameful… to interact with people who are considered sinners. Spending time with people who are shameful is, in fact, shameful.

Jesus, challenging their thinking tells the story of the lost sheep– a shepherd that rejoices when a lost sheep is found. Then he tells the story of a lost coin… and the joy a woman has when in her search she has recovered it. And then he tells the new story… the story of the lost son… the prodigal son. Perhaps he didn’t need to. The story simply expands on the idea of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

In fact, the story itself follows a classic pattern of so many stories.

  1. A child is from a good and stable family but becomes dissatisfied.

  2. He (or in some cases, she) runs off to do his own thing.

  3. He discovers his own foolishness and realizes his family knew what is best all along.

  4. He comes back and is incorporated back into the family… poorer but wiser.

The Prodigal Son has this story form, but so does the origin story of Spiderman. So does the story of Pinochio… and even the Wizard of Oz… to name but a few.

So this part of the story is beautiful… but not hugely unusual… and not directly related to the problem of the Pharisees and Scribes. So Jesus continues the story into a new conflict.

You see… while the feast was going on with all of the family, friends, and community present, the firstborn son returns. He is shocked that his younger brother… his shameful… foolish… disrespectful brother is back… and is being treated like royalty… and given a party with this spoiled brat as the guest of honor.

The first-born son is so disgusted by his own brother and the fawning over of him by his father, that he actually becomes the shaming one… refusing to join the party arranged by his own father. The father who ran to accept a shameful son, must now again step outside of the festivities to reason with another shameful son. The father explains that honoring his second son in no way dishonors his first-born son. The father is honoring his second son because he has finally come home.

So how does the first-born son respond to his father? We don’t know. Luke doesn’t say, and I think Luke doesn’t say, because Jesus did not say.

Frankly, Jesus could not give an answer, because the answer must come from the listeners. It was the Pharisees and Scribes who were disgusted by Jesus welcoming sinners and feasting with them. They were the older brother who was unwilling to welcome these younger brothers and younger sisters who had been lost but are now found. Did they change their mind and share the joy that Jesus had? I hope so, but I have my doubts.

What role do we embrace when one who is far from God starts the first steps of being led by God back into the family? Do we take the role of the joyful father? Or do we take the role of the disapproving brother?

Most of us would say that we take the role of the father… finding joy in return of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. That may or may not be true… but I can tell you churches as a whole tend to take the role of the first-born brother. That is because even if 90% of the church is thrilled about a sinner coming back to be part of the church family, the other 10% can spoil the celebration… just as the older brother could spoil the party for his younger brother.

Let me give you a few examples from my own experience.

Years ago, I was part of a brand new Bible study. An acquaintance of ours was leading the group. About half the group would describe themselves as Protestant Evangelical. About half would describe themselves as Catholic. One of the people who came was a cross-dresser, a bakla. The Bible study started out well… but started to break down a bit as the Bible Study leaders started going on about how horrible the Catholic church is… and then started quoting all of the Bible verses about the sinfulness of homosexuality. This, not surprisingly, did not help the Bible study group. The Bible study leader may have felt that she was helping them… but that was not what they heard. The younger son needed to learn that being part of the family means he can’t be wasting money and living with pigs. But first, he needed to be welcomed and accepted. What some of these Bible study members heard was that they aren’t really welcome as they are… they really aren’t worthy of acceptance.

This is hardly unique. I know several people who do ministry with the night entertainment community. These include the club dancers, the GROs, the prostitutes. In some ways they are more difficult to reach because they are caught in an economic trap and often substance addictions that they don’t know how to get out of. On the other hand, they are easier than some because they KNOW that they are not where they want to be. They can relate all to well to the younger son suffering and struggling while satisfying the hungers of pigs.

One of the biggest challenges for those who minister to this sub-culture is what to do with them when they come to Christ. No church wants them. Christian NGOs might take them… but often times, they are paraded before donors to draw money into the organization… leaving them feeling used… again. I had a friend here in Baguio… a pastor of a local church that told these ministries. Our church will welcome those from the night entertainment community that are seeking to come home to Christ. We will accept them… we will welcome them. I don’t fully know how the experiment went, but I don’t think the church accepted them. I know that my friend left the church about 8 months later, and the new pastor did not share the same vision as the predecessor.

My question for you is this… who are the people we cannot accept. Who are we unable to accept and welcome to our church?