It’s not easy being an older son. Being the oldest child means you’re the keeper of the accounts, the one who makes sure things come out even. Parents are always trying to give younger siblings things you’ve worked hard to earn. I know. I’m an older son.
When I was in elementary school, my parents were strict about bedtime. It was eight o’clock, no questions asked. By the time I got to the sixth grade, I could stay up until nine, and on Tuesdays, the night Hogan’s Heroes was on TV, I could stay up until nine thirty. It was a privilege I had coming to me because of my age. But it was hard for me to enjoy Tuesday nights because my brother who was seven years younger than I got to stay up with me. It took me eleven years to earn the right to stay up late, but he got to do it at the age of four.
Being an older son takes hard work and a sense of responsibility. Psychologists have discovered that older siblings tend to be high achievers. We value hard work and determination. We try hard to please.
So I identify with the older son in the parable. The party his father threw for his brother wasn’t fair. Try to understand how irresponsible the younger brother had been. He asked his father if he could have his inheritance before his father died – and his father gave it to him. Imagine how that must have riled the responsible older brother. Then he didn’t give a thought to his future – didn’t invest any of it, didn’t use it to establish himself in a career. He completely blew it on a lifestyle that that makes the Kardashians look cheap. Yes, he finally came to his senses – when he didn’t have any more cash to burn. He came slinking home with his tail between his legs. But what does he get for it? Not even a reprimand. He gets a party, with music, dancing, and celebration.
The older son had to set things right. “Listen!” he lectured his father. “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.”
The older brother was standing up for what was fair and right. He was protesting a travesty of justice. Sometimes a person’s true character is revealed by an offhand remark or an unintended action. We can see what’s really bothering the older brother as he’s returning from the fields. As he gets near the house, he hears the sound of music and dancing. But does he quicken his pace to see why everyone is celebrating? Does he run to find out what good news they’ve heard? No. He draws back. He calls a servant over and asks what’s going on. Didn’t he trust his father? Didn’t he have confidence that whatever his father was celebrating was something he could celebrate too? No. He had to calculate whether or not his father was doing the right thing.
So the real issue wasn’t between the two brothers. When the older brother drew back and hesitated to join his father’s party it was before he knew his brother had returned. The real issue was between the older brother and the father. The older brother couldn’t join the father’s celebration until he was sure it met his standards.
It wasn’t that the father didn’t love him. “Son, you are always with me,” the father told him, “and all that is mine is yours.” That wasn’t enough for the older son. He also wanted his brother to be excluded. Unless his brother was excluded, he could not enjoy his father’s blessings.
So who was better off in the end? The profligate younger son who changed his ways and came back, or the older son who did everything just right but was offended by his father’s outlandish, unquestioning acceptance? In the end, it was the older son, not the younger one, who was separated from the father. That’s one of the dangers of staying at home and doing everything right. If we’re not careful, we start to think God loves us for what we’ve done.
I heard a story about a woman who died and went to heaven. When she arrived at the pearly gates, St. Peter met her and told her that admission was based on a point system. He told her that in order to get into heaven and spend eternity in the loving embrace of God, you had to have 200 points. Peter asked the woman how many points she had. She thought to herself, “This should be easy.”
“Well,” she began, “I taught Sunday school faithfully.”
“Great,” said Peter. “That’s worth a point.”
The woman cringed. “I went to church every Sunday.”
“Excellent,” Peter responded. “That’s another point.”
The woman was getting worried. “I cared for my elderly neighbor for years, up until she developed a heart condition and died.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Peter. That’s worth two points.”
The woman was getting desperate. “I tithed,” she said.
“One point,” said Peter.
Finally, in desperation, she said, “I’ll never be able to come up with enough points. It’ll take the grace of God to get in here.”
“That’s 195 points,” cried Peter. “Welcome.”
One thing that makes it hard for churches to welcome new people, especially people who are different from us, is all the good things we’ve done together. We gather each week for worship. We form friendships in our Sunday school classes and fellowship groups. We take food to Downtown Daily Bread and sing together in the choir.
But we’ve always got to remember that whatever we do as a church, it’s not for ourselves that we’re worshiping and learning and working. It’s for God. God in God’s absolute goodness blesses us when we live for God, but what we do as a church is not about us. It’s about God, who is always welcoming people home.
So, we keep those strong bonds we’ve built together. We hold each other accountable for our journey of faith. But remember, there are lots of others whom God would welcome into this, God’s church. God loves that person who comes for the first time, anxious and shy and wondering if she’ll fit in, God loves her just as much as God loves those who have been faithfully here for years.
Sometimes we act
as if God’s love is a limited commodity.
We act as if God is gracious and loving and forgiving to everyone, there
won’t be enough love and grace left for us.
But there’s enough. My parents
had enough love for my brother and for me.
It was more important for them to enjoy having the family all together
on those Tuesday nights around the TV than to enforce my abstract 11 year old’s
view of justice. The father in the parable had enough love for both his sons,
enough that he could celebrate having the family back together without loving
the older son any less. We can’t count
or measure God’s love. There’s more than
enough for everybody.
 Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001), p. 67.