Parables from the Back Side: “Parable of the Spoiled Brothers”
Rev. Sandy Johnson
July 17, 2016
Our series, Parables from the Back Side continues this morning as we dive into the parable of the prodigal son, or as I have aptly renamed it, the parable of the spoiled brothers. We all know this story, right? The younger brother asks his father for his part of his inheritance and then blows it on wine, women and song?! When he is finally broke, he crawls back home, hoping to get a job at his father’s ranch feeding the pigs. Instead his father welcomes him home as the long lost son he is and throws him a party. Meanwhile, the older brother shows up and is angry that his dad is making such a fuss over his no-good younger brother.
Instead of welcoming his brother home, he storms off to sulk over the bad fortune he has received. In the midst of the whole story is the loving father, who not only allows his youngest son to learn a valuable lesson, he helps him pack his bag before he left. It sort of reminds me of the parent who packed a lunch for their children who wanted to runaway. Then when his prodigal son returns, he throws a party to celebrate that his son who was dead, is alive once more. The older brother becomes upset at the attention given his little brother and confronts dad about the party. Dad has to then reassure his oldest son that he still loves him and that he is still his favorite.
I think we all relate to this story because we have likely been each of the three leading characters. The father, the older brother and the younger son. When I graduated high school and went away to college I played the role of the prodigal. I stepped away from church and lived a rather raucous life as a sorority girl at Oregon State University. I used to joke that my major was sex, drugs and rock and roll. I’m not particularly proud of this period of time in my life but I can relate to being the younger son and the desire to go out on my own, to see the world, to taste the forbidden fruit as it were.
I have also felt the sting of being the sister who stayed home. At the end of my sophomore year I came home for the summer and was rehired at the job I had done when I was in high school. I worked in the mailroom at the Eugene Register-Guard, the local newspaper in Eugene. I worked all summer long to save money for my next year of college.
My older sister had never worked in high school and she was never successful in getting summer jobs as a result. I on the other hand, had worked two years in high school and every summer throughout college. This particular summer when she wasn’t hired she decided she would take some summer classes and she did. At the end of the summer our dad rewarded her with a trip to California to visit her girlfriend because he felt sorry for her that she had to “work” all summer. Are you kidding, she took two summer school classes and one of them was sign language!!?? Do you not see steady Eddy here? I literally worked all summer and there was nothing offered, no party, no fattened calf, and no trip to California. How quickly the sibling rivalry kicks in. Life just isn’t fair!
Although the focus of this parable is usually placed on the loving father who welcomes his errant son home, rejoicing that he is alive again, that he has been “found,” the back side of the parable dictates that we focus on the way the older brother responded to the events. This is the real climax of the story. “When read that way – the way it appears in the scriptures – the story doesn’t end satisfactorily, because there is, in fact, no conclusion. The conclusion is left up to the hearers. Most of the time we take the open-endedness of the parables for granted, but we seem to miss the conclusion of this story. For all practical purposes, we stop reading before the story is over, probably because we are so happy with the younger son’s homecoming.”
At the beginning of Chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke, we read that Jesus was meeting with tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about the company Jesus was keeping. In response to their criticism Jesus embarks into three parables about finding lost items – a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son. Jesus’ audience was the lost souls of Judea but the religious leaders couldn’t see that. They should have been happy to see these sinners coming to learn about religion.
All three of Jesus’ parables “say the same thing: Don’t hate what is lost; rather, rejoice in its being found. The climax of the stories is in the apparent anticlimax with which the third story ends, the portion we generally seem to overlook, the encounter between the older brother and his father. Herein is the point.
“Here Jesus introduced the “good people” to themselves, to the older brother inside of them. They were the people who stood at the edge of the crowd when Jesus was celebrating with the prodigals. And Jesus ended his story without telling them what the older brother did, because they were going to have to decide, since they were the older brother. Luke never tells us how this altar call turned out.”
So what happened to the older brother? “That’s a prime question for most of us, because many of us are like this older brother. We live quite responsible lives, obey the basic laws, are generally moral, and probably work hard. We especially work hard out in the father’s fields – community projects, PTA, service clubs, voter registration drives, half-a-hundred church committees. We’re in a position to sympathize with the older brother. We understand him. It may be that we’ve even said at times that we don’t blame him for being angry. He had good reason to complain.”
“Jesus loved this older brother, to be sure. At no point does he speak harshly of him. But it’s also clear that Jesus was disappointed with him. There is something very wrong with this older brother, but what is it?
“First, the older brother seemed to envy the sinner. There was more to his envy than the party which celebrated his brother’s homecoming. His refusal to attend the party might have been mean-spirited, but it does not reveal hidden depths of weakness. I fear he may have envied his brother for more reasons that just the party. He’s the one, you recall, who tells us that his brother spent his money on prostitutes; there is nothing about prostitutes in the story until the older brother mentions them. Perhaps he was recalling village gossip, because, without a doubt, that’s the sort of rumor which most often has spread through the neighborhood. Obviously he hadn’t got the word firsthand from his brothers, because he hadn’t yet seen his brother – he didn’t even know his brother had returned.
“Judging from what I know of human nature, the prostitute idea was something he conjured up in his very human, somewhat lustful mind. He probably said to himself often, before his brother’s return, “I know what he’s doing there in the city. He’s spending his time with beautiful, wicked women. Rotten Dog!” Then, under his breath he whispers, “Lucky Dog!”
“Good people are sometimes like that. We do right things, but we long for bad things. The older brother was like that. He envied his younger brother. To all appearances, he was a moral man, industrious and thrifty. But in his heart it may have been a far different matter.
“The older brother never really discovered the joys of home; no more, perhaps, than the younger brother before his days of wander. He didn’t realize how fortunate he was to be here, living in the daily blessings of a loving father. No wonder, then, that he asked his father, “What have you ever given me?” The people who listened as Jesus told the story knew what the father had given him, because the law of the culture required that the older brother get two-thirds of the family property at the time of distribution. He had done very well! He had the prestige, the comfort, and the challenge of a successful family operation.
“More important, he had the privilege of working with his father, someone who obviously loved deeply and generously. Even with all of that, he looked at his father and asked, “What have you given me?” He needed what his brother experienced in the pig pen: to “come to himself.” How often does it take a pig pen experience to help us realize how good we have it? When we are surrounded with great things, it is easy to take them for granted and we forget how great we really have it, that is, until it is all taken away.
“So it was with many of the religious people of Jesus’ day. They were scrupulous in following the details of their religion, but they weren’t enjoying it. They were working hard at the business of religion, but without fulfillment or lift. Then when they saw rank sinners coming to Jesus and enjoying the faith and friendship they found in him, they were bewildered. In fact, they resented it. They had lived in the house of religion all their lives, but had never experienced the joy of being there. Do you know anyone like that?”
We can see that the younger son was wasteful and threw away his life and his inheritance, because we see him do so, so dramatically. But so is the older brother wasting his life away, maybe not as obviously or dramatically, but just as tragically. “While the younger brother wasted himself in crude, riotous living, the older one did so in mean, small, selfish living.”
“One more word about the older brother, and perhaps it’s the worst of all: He didn’t know his father. He had grown up under his father’s kindness and love, yet somehow he never seemed to understand him. You can see this tragic flaw in the conversation about the younger son. The older brother couldn’t see how his father could love the boy, or why he would want to celebrate his return. He called the other boy “your son,” while the father tried to remind him that he was his brother. But he couldn’t acknowledge he had a brother, because he didn’t understand his father’s heart.”
“How is it possible to live in such proximity to goodness and never come to appreciate it nor want to emulate it? Most of us, either by experience in our own lives or by observing others, know we can be surrounded by beauty yet never really make it one’s own. The father was a giving, loving, caring human being, but the older brother never seemed to grasp it. He didn’t see his father’s love as it was expressed to him, and he didn’t want it expressed to his younger brother.”
This older brother, even though he never left the farm, he never traveled to the city and never spend all of his father’s money, was as much a prodigal as the younger son. “In his heart, he envied the younger brother, he never discovered the joys of home, he wasted himself as badly as the younger brother did, and he never understood his father. How could one be more prodigal than that?
“Someone once asked the preacher Friedrich Krummacher who the older brother was. Krummacher answered, “I learned it only yesterday. Myself. There is a chance the same thing might be said of you and me. Growing up respectable, moral, and religious, we may in truth be just as prodigal – just as far from home – as if we had gone to the far country of corruption.
If so, I have good news for us. The Father will welcome us home. He will throw a party for us, too. “Everything I have is yours,” he’ll say. “Come in and join the party. Better yet: Come in and we’ll make it a party!” Amen!
 Adapted from “Parables from the Back Side: Bible Stories with a Twist,” by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 1992.