Sigmund Freud wrote, “a child’s position in the sequence of brothers and sisters is of very great significance for the course of his later life.” Our family system and where we fall within that system as males or females, first, last or middle born, has a profound impact on how we perceive ourselves and relate to others outside of the family. A person’s birth order can often reveal a lot about their personality and temperament. Each position comes with its own set of advantages and challenges.
Austrian psychologist Walter Toman studied thousands of typical families and in his book Family Constellation attempted to catalog the common characteristics of those in similar birth and gender positions. For instance he writes that the eldest of brothers often has pronounced leadership qualities, is often very successful at what he does, can be quite meticulous in his person and possessions, and has very high standards not only for himself but others. His tendency is to be conservative and respectful of authority.
The youngest of brothers by contrast often has a rebellious streak. He is often a mystic or romantic, headstrong, capricious, unpredictable, and impulsive. He rarely plans ahead but instead lives for the moment and his immediate desires. He is used to receiving things and tends to squander his money and be careless with possessions.
None of this is an exact science of course. As the youngest of brothers for instance I of course don’t fit the description at all! Well...perhaps there is more truth to it than I care to admit.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells a story about two brothers in these two types are very much on display. The story is commonly referred to as the parable of the prodigal son. The one referred to in the title is the youngest son who impatiently demands his inheritance from his father and squanders it all with reckless living. In fact the term prodigal means extravagant and wasteful. Pastor Tim Keller has pointed out that the youngest son is not the only prodigal in the story. The father too seems extravagant and even wasteful in his generosity and forgiveness to his youngest son. You have perhaps often heard this story told as a parable about the amazing and abundant grace of our heavenly father towards sinners. Tim Keller explores the extravagance of God in this respect in his wonderful book “TheProdigal God.” If you are intrigued by what I am about to say, I recommend you read the book. Much of the interpretation I offer is gleaned from its pages.
I am not however going to focus on the father this morning, but on the elder brother in the story. Jesus originally told this story to a group of pharisees who were offended by the way he welcomed tax collectors and sinners. They were the elder brothers, the responsible ones, who were meticulous in everything they did, and kept all the rules. They were offended because Jesus seemed to give special treatment to the irresponsible and immoral losers who did nothing to earn God’s favor. As the good, religious, church going people, shouldn’t they be the ones to get the first place with God?
Jesus’ story isn’t one about a good and a bad brother. Both have wounded their father, both are sinners, but in different ways. The younger brother’s sin is more obvious. He was greedy, he was lustful, he was a drunk, and incredibly disrespectful to his family. The elder brother’s sin is less obvious but in someways more insidious more difficult to root out. He was proud, self-righteous, he had contempt for his brother, and although he did things the “proper” way, his sense of entitlement to his father’s wealth was every bit of presumptuous.
The story reveals to us the heart of a truly godly father, but what about the elder brother? The elder brother in the story serves as an anti-type for the true and godly brother rather than its example. What can we say, based on this story, about what it means to be a true brother or a true sister to our brothers and sisters who have gone astray?
First, a true brother knows that he is his brother’s keeper. When they wander far from home and go astray he goes out looking for them to bring them home. Jesus told not one parable but three to the grumbling pharisees. For the sake of brevity, our lectionary omits the beginning two. First the Parable of the Lost Sheep in which the shepherd leaves the 99 to seek the one who was had wandered off. The second is the story where the woman sweeps her whole house to find her lost coin and rejoices to find it. Both stories are about someone who seeks the lost, but who seeks prodigal? Instead of going after his brother to talk some sense into him, the elder brother stays home and fumes.
Second, a true brother rejoices to see his brother restored. A true brother wants to see his brother lively righteously and joyfully. The true elder brother shares in his father’s love for all his children. In the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin, there is a call to rejoice at what has been lost and found. In the story of the prodigal there is the same invitation, but with one difference. When the younger brother returns, the elder refuses to join in the rejoicing at his restoration despite his father’s pleading. He cares more about himself and his own inheritance than his brother.
Perhaps you can relate to his anger. The younger brother has already squandered his inheritance. The remaining assets are all by right the inheritance of the elder brother, but of course the father isn’t dead yet. The elder brother has been faithful all these long years believing that one day all the father has will be his. For the father to restore the youngest, it must be done at the expense of the elder son. It doesn’t seem quite fair does it? That fine robe, the golden ring, the big party, and fatted calf all come out of what the brother believes to be his rightful inheritance.
Which brings us to the third and most difficult characteristic of a true brother. A true brother sacrifices all for the sake of his brother. He is as prodigal in his love and generosity to him as the father. He puts the needs of his brother before his own. Forgiveness is never easy or without cost. It requires great sacrifice. Where can we find a brother who loves us like that?
Jesus Christ, the first born of all creation and the true Son of our gracious Father is our true and faithful elder brother. When we had wandered far from our fathers house and squandered our inheritance, he came looking for us to bring us home. He rejoices with his father at each sinner who repents and turns to him. He willingly accepted the sacrifice necessary to restore us. He bore in his own body on the cross the terrible consequences of our rebellion. He was his joy to do so out of his great love for us. He is as prodigal in his mercy towards us as his father. You might even say that Jesus is the prodigal son. If we have a brother who has loved us like this how then should we love our brothers and sisters?