Embracing LovePosted: March 10, 2013
5: THE OLDER BROTHER
We like to focus on the younger son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We all long to be welcomed home by the Father. We are forgiven and the party is in our honor. And indeed, as the church reaches out to people outside the church we need to understand that God really, really wants to welcome everyone to come home. But where we in the church can really be helped is if we focus our attention on the elder brother.
SLIDE 6: RESPONSIBLE, HARDWORKING, DUTIFUL
The older brother has always done it right. He is responsible, hardworking, dutiful, and when God gives a party to welcome his worthless, irresponsible brother back into the family, the older brother refuses to join in the celebration. This worthless scum of a brother needs to be punished, made to shape up and become hardworking and responsible. Of course the older brother objects to the father’s misplaced generosity. Let’s see if we can understand the older brother, and maybe we will begin to understand how we need to change, if we are going to follow the way of Jesus.
The older brother feels badly for the way his younger sibling has treated his father. Verse 12 should probably be translated: “old man why don’t you just drop dead, so I can get what’s coming to me when you kick the bucket!” How could this younger son treat his father so? Surely the poor father was cut to the quick by this kid’s behavior, and the older boy feels badly for his father.
SLIDE 7: HIS OWN REPRESSED DESIRES?
The older brother probably also resented his younger brother for wasting the father’s resources. That no good scumbag took a third of the family fortune and went out and squandered it. Now we can ask how did the older brother know the younger brother blew his money on prostitutes? Was he there? Or is the older brother projecting some of his own repressed desires?
SLIDE 8: LESSER VIRTUES
Frugality and dutifulness are virtues, but for Jesus they tended to be lesser virtues than generosity, love, faithfulness and forgiveness. In another passage Matthew 23:23 where Jesus engages with the self-righteousness of the law keepers he says: “Woe to you, law keepers, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, but you have neglected the weightier matters of the law — justice, mercy, love and faithfulness; your minor virtues you ought to have done, without leaving the major virtues undone.”
SLIDE 9: HOT SINS – COLD SINS
A clergy colleague of mine used to suggest that there are “hot sins” and “cold sins.” The hot sins are sins of the passions or of the flesh: lust, anger, gluttony, addictions, even sloth. The cold sins are sins of the spirit: greed, envy, pride, self-righteousness, gossip, excessive business. This colleague noted that “good” people like the older brother make a big deal about the “hot sins” of others, but they don’t even recognize their own “cold sins,” that Jesus thought were more problematical than the sins of the flesh. One way to explain Jesus’ attitude is that the hot sins tend to get us into trouble. We know we have sinned, and the consequences can drive us to our knees seeking forgiveness and change. People who commit the cold sins usually aren’t even aware of their self-righteousness and so they seldom if ever seek forgiveness. Sin is sin, but the cold sins often go un-repented and un-forgiven, because they are un-confessed even unrecognized.
SLIDE 10: BIRTH ORDER
How do we help the elder brother come to the party? First we can understand that self-righteous people have a hard time embracing love. Why? Well sometimes it might be a birth order problem. We know that many, not all, but many first borns and onlys are perfectionists. They strive to be perfect. They want to do everything right. This may have something to do with parental expectations. You know with the first kid Mom and Dad have these high expectations, and then when the others come along they relax a little bit. I often hear oldest children complain that their parents let the younger children get away with a whole lot more than they ever thought of even trying. First borns are often the inheritors of the family mantle expected to achieve far more than any of the goof offs who come after them. So birth order may be a factor. Maybe that is why Jesus’ story with a younger sibling who messes up and a super responsible older sibling seems to ring so true.
SLIDE 11: WOUNDED
Another group who experience difficulty embracing love are people who are wounded. Wounds of course come in all different shapes and sizes, and many of our hurts are hidden from the eyes of others. In fact many of us have done such a good job of hiding our wounds, we may not even be consciously aware of them ourselves anymore. And so we compensate for the pain by trying to be right, and pushing away from love out of fear we will be hurt yet again, and then punishing those we consider unworthy or not measuring up.
SLIDE 12: PARADOX OF LOVE AND WOUNDEDNESS
The paradox of love and woundedness is that love heals wounds, but we push love away, because we are afraid it will hurt. Remember when we were children and we fell down and our caregiver had to clean the wound? Oh God not the mercurochrome! Accepting God’s love can be like cleaning a wound in order for it to heal properly. It hurts! Therapy often hurts. Counseling usually isn’t getting anywhere until the tears appear. We can’t come to God’s party until are willing to become vulnerable. Like a part of a poem from Kahlil Gibran’s the Prophet:
SLIDE 13: SHE KNEADS YOU UNTIL YOU ARE PLIANT
Like sheaves of corn love gathers you unto herself.
She threshes you to make you naked.
She sifts you to free you from your husks.
She grinds you to whiteness.
She kneads you until you are pliant;
SLIDE 14: SACRED FIRE TO BECOME SACRED BREAD
And then she assigns you to her sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you
that you may know the secrets of your heart,
and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only
love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing floor,
Into the seasonless world where you
shall laugh, but not all of your laughter,
and weep, but not all of your tears.
SLIDE 15: FEAR
So besides anger and resentment, fear prevents the older brother from coming to the party. Fear of love. Fear of the father. Fear of God. If we listen to the older brother’s complaint maybe we can hear the fear as well as the anger and resentment: “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me even a goat, that I might make merry with my friends.” The older sibling has done his duty. He stayed on the farm and served, not out of love for his father, but out of the fear of losing his inheritance – fear of what might happen if he left home.
SLIDE 16: GIVING UP ALL PRETENSE OF SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS
As I have admitted, I am a coward. I think I am like the older brother for on more than one occasion I have avoided sin not because I didn’t want to, but because I was afraid — afraid of getting caught, afraid of the consequences. Some people claim that fear of consequences is wisdom or prudence, but in my heart of hearts I know the truth it is cowardice. So I cannot stand in judgment upon those who have done what I have merely been too afraid to do. Embracing love means giving up all pretense of self-righteousness.
SLIDE 17: ANGER AND RESENTMENT
So how do we bring the older sibling into the party? How do we help the self-righteous embrace love? Jesus gives us a clue. The older sibling cannot even begin to hear the message of the father’s love until he has had an opportunity to express his anger and resentment – clear the air. Jesus left the Parable unfinished. We are allowed to imagine an ending for the story.
SLIDE 18: COME TO THE PARTY
In my imagination even after the father says: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” the older brother probably still has some choice words to share with the old man. I know in my own relationship with God, I have had seasons when I have expressed anger. And God never struck me dead. God never said, I was not longer welcome. Because even in spite of my anger, maybe because of my anger, God loves me. God says, come home. Come to the party.
And then in my fantasy the father offers to give the older son the same opportunity as the younger boy. He says, “Look I’ll sell everything else and give you the money.”
SLIDE 19: TAKE THE CREDIT CARD AWAY
And then the older son, because he is still basically a chicken says, “awe Dad, I don’t want to leave, I’m sorry, I didn’t appreciate how much you love me.” And then just because he is the older brother he says, “And by the way Dad that credit card you just gave him, take it away, OK?”
SLIDE 20: IN THE END LOVE IS ALL THAT MATTERS
The lives of the self-righteous can be redeemed, if they can learn that in the end love is all that matters. And if you doubt that wisdom, just try to image the last days or hours of our life, and tell me what matters more than love? At the ends of our live our regrets are never about material things, even taking the relative measure of success or failure in our lives. It’s usually about relationships, and in the end love is all that matters.
Let me close then with another piece of poetry from Kahlil Gibran about love – a tear and a smile.
SLIDE 21: A TEAR AND A SMILE
I would not exchange the sorrows of my heart
For the joys of the multitude.
And I would not have the tears that sadness makes
To flow from my every part turn into laughter.
I would that my life remain a tear and a smile.
A tear to purify my heart and give me understanding
Of life’s secrets and hidden things.
A smile to draw me nigh to the sons of my kind and
To be a symbol of my glorification of the gods.
A tear to unite me with those of broken heart;
A smile to be a sign of my joy in existence.
SLIDE 22: YEARNING AND LONGING
I would rather that I died in yearning and longing than that I live Weary and despairing.
I want the hunger for love and beauty to be in the
Depths of my spirit, for I have seen those who are
Satisfied the most wretched of people.
I have heard the sigh of those in yearning and Longing, and it is sweeter than the sweetest melody.
SLIDE 23: THE LIFE OF THE FLOWER IS LONGING AND FULFILLMENT
With evening’s coming the flower folds her petals
And sleeps, embracing her longing.
At morning’s approach she opens her lips to meet
The sun’s kiss.
The life of a flower is longing and fulfillment.
A tear and a smile.
SLIDE 24: THE LIFE OF CLOUDS IS PARTING AND MEETING
The waters of the sea become vapor and rise and come
Together and become a cloud.
And the cloud floats above the hills and valleys
Until it meets the gentle breeze, then falls weeping
To the fields and joins with brooks and rivers to Return to the sea, its home.
The life of clouds is a parting and a meeting.
A tear and a smile.
SLIDE 25: TO THE OCEAN OF LOVE AND BEAUTY
And so does the spirit become separated from
The greater spirit to move in the world of matter
And pass as a cloud over the mountain of sorrow
And the plains of joy to meet the breeze of death
And return whence it came.
To the ocean of Love and Beauty—-to God.