The Other Brother,
My sermon from today Sabbath November 14, 2015
Scripture Reading: Luke 15:25 – 31 Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.” 28 But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. 29 So he answered and said to his father, “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.” 31 And he said to him, “Son you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 32 It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive and, and was lost and is found.”
The man seated beating his breast and looking at the returning son is a steward representing the sinners and tax collectors, while the standing man looking at the father in a somewhat perplexing way is the elder son, representing the Pharisees and scribes.
By putting the elder son in the painting as the most prominent witness, however, goes not only beyond the literal text of the parable, but also beyond the painting tradition of his time. Thus Rembrandt holds on, not to the letter but to the spirit of the biblical text.
By painting the young son in the arms of his father, but also the elder son who still choose for or against the love that is offered to him, Rembrandt presents us with the “inner drama of the soul” – his as well as my and perhaps yours as well.” Just as the parable of the prodigal son encapsulates the core message of the Gospel and calls listeners to make their own choices in face of it, so, too, does Rembrandt’s painting sum up his own spiritual struggle and invite his viewers to make a personal decision about their lives.
There was a time when I looked upon this painting in which the father embraces his returning son and it was rather easy to perceive it as inviting, moving, and reassuring. But when I saw the whole painting, I quickly realized the complexity of the reunion. The main observer, watching the father embracing his returning son, appears very withdrawn. He looks at the father, but not with joy. He does not reach out, nor does he smile or express welcome. He simple stands there at the right apparently not eager to come and join in.
It is true that the “return” is the central event of the painting; however, it is not situated at the physical center of the canvas. It takes place at the left side of the painting, while the tall, stern elder son dominates the right side. There is a large open space separating the father and his elder son, a space that creates tension asking for resolution.
The main observer is keeping his distance, seemingly unwilling to participate in the father’s welcome. What is going on inside this man? What will he do? Will he come closer and embrace his brother as his father did, or will he walk away in anger and disgust.
These externals suggest that he and his father have much in common, and this commonality is underlined by the light on the elder son which connects his face in a very direct way with the luminous face of his father.
The Elder son has the grace of Christ shining on him, he has a degree of Christianity. But there is a painful difference between the two. The father bends over his returning son. The elder son stands stiffly, erect, and his posture is further accentuated by the long staff reaching from his hand to the flood. The Father’s mantle is wide and welcoming and the son’s hangs flat over his body. The father’s hands are spread out and touch the home-comer in a gesture of blessing; while the older son’s hands are clasped together and held close to his chest.
There is light on both faces, but the light from the father’s face flows through his whole body – especially his hands – and engulfs the younger son in a great halo of luminous warmth; whereas the light on the face of the elder son is cold and constricted. His figure remains in the dark and his clasped hands remain in the shadows.
The parable might well be called “The Parable of the Lost Sons.” Not only did the younger son, who left home to look for freedom and happiness in a distant country, get lost, but the one who stayed home also became lost. Outwardly he did all things a good son is supposed to do, but interiorly, he wandered away from his father. He did his duty, worked hard every day, and fulfilled all his obligations but became increasingly unhappy and unfree.
What scares me is the realization that I might become this bitter, resentful angry man and that he might be closer to me spiritually than the lustful young brother.
Being the only child in the family, I well know what it feels like to have to be a model son. Perhaps you like me have harbored a strange curiosity for the disobedient life that I myself didn’t dare to live, but which I saw being lived by many of my friends.
Perhaps you, like me did all the proper things, mostly complying with the agendas set by the many parental figures in my life – teachers, spiritual directions, Pastors and Sabbath School Teachers – but at the same time I often wondered why I didn’t have the courage to “runaway” as the younger son did.
It is strange to say this, but keep in my heart, I have known the feeling of envy toward the wayward son. It is the emotion that arises when I see my friends having what appears to be a good time doing all sorts of things that I condemn. Outwardly I called their behavior reprehensible or even immoral, but at the same time I often wondered why I didn’t have the nerve to do some of it or all of it myself.
The opposite could be true as well, I could be the son that returned home and then later wished he still had the life of the people that he sees around him.
Yet for some that return home and are welcomed by the father, they never look back at the past life, but slowly begin to take on the qualities of the older brother. They forget their past and the wonderful grace that was extended to them by the father and slowly begin to live life by the letter of the law, with little love or warmth for those around them.
The lost-ness of the elder son, however, is much harder to identify. After all, he did all the right things. He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hardworking. People respected him, admired him, praised him, and likely considered him a model son. Outwardly, the elder son was faultless. But when confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his young brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there become glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years.
The scripture confirms this by what is says in verse 28, “But he was angry and would not go in.” How close the older son had been to the father’s house that he was able to talk with a servant, hear the music and the merriment. But instead of being happy and rejoicing at the return of his brother who was lost and had been considered dead, he become resentful. The lostness of the resent “saint” is so hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous. There was always the conscious effort to avoid the pitfalls of sin and the constant fear of giving in to temptation. But with all of that there came a seriousness, a moralistic intensity – even a touch of fanaticism that made it increasingly difficult to feel at home in the house of the Father. I became less free, less spontaneous, less playful and others came to see me more and more as a somewhat “heavy” person.
The words “Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never game me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.” But the attack against the father does not end there, but continues in verse 30; “But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.”
These are words of self-righteousness, self-pitying, and they are words of jealousy. Yet I hear a deeper complaint. It is the complaint that comes from a heart that feels it never received what it was due. It is the complaint expressed in countless subtle and not so subtle ways, forming a bedrock of human resentment. It is the complaint that cries out: “I tried so hard, worked so long, did so much, and still I have not received what other get so easily.
Why do people not thank me, not invite me, not play with me, not honor me, while they pay so much attention to those who take life so easily and so casually?
It is in this spoken or unspoken complaint that I recognize the elder son in myself and perhaps you can recognize the elder son as well.
A complainer is hard to live with, and very few people know how to respond to the complaints made by a self-rejecting person. The tragedy is that often, the complaint, once expressed leads to that which is most feared; further rejection.
From this perspective, the elder son’s inability to share in the joy of his father become quite understandable. When he came home from the fields, he heard music and dancing. He knew there was joy in the household. Immediately, he became suspicious. Once the self-rejecting complaint has formed in us, we lose our spontaneity to the extent that even joy can no longer evoke joy in us.
With fear he calls one of the servants and asks: “What is this all about.” There is the fear that I am excluded again, that someone didn’t tell me what was going on, that I was kept out of things. The complaint resurges immediately; “Why was I not informed, what is this all about?” The unsuspecting servant, full of excitement and eager to share the good news, explains: Your brother has come, and your father has killed the calf we had been fattening because he has got him back safe and sound.”
But for the older brother this shout of joy cannot be received. Instead of relief and gratitude, the servant’s joy summons up the opposite, so: the scripture says “He was angry then refused to go in.”
Where resentment exists, joy cannot coexist for misery loves company. The music and dancing which should have been inviting to him became a cause for even greater withdrawal.
Unlike a fairy tale, the parable provides no happy ending. Instead it leaves us face to face with one of life’s hardest spiritual choices: Do I trust in God or do I not to trust in God’s all-forgiving love. I myself am the only one who can make that choice for me just like you are the only one that can make the choice for yourself.
In response to their complaint, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” Jesus confronted the Pharisees and scribes not only with the return of the prodigal son, but also with the resentful elder son. It must have come as a shock to those dutiful religious people. They finally had to face their own complaint and choose how they would respond to God’s love for sinners. Would they be willing to join them at the table as Jesus did? It was and still is a real challenge; for them, and for every human being who is caught in resentment and tempted to settle on the complaintive way of life.
The more I reflect on the elder son the more I realize how deeply rooted this form of lostness really is and how hard it is to return home from there. Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being. Resentment is not something that can be easily distinguished and dealt with rationally.
It is far more malicious: this something that has attached itself to the underside of one’s life. Isn’t it good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing and still it seems that my resentments and complaints are mysteriously tied to such praiseworthy attitudes. The connection often makes one despair.
It seems that just when I want to be the most selfless, I find myself obsessed about being loved. Just when I do my utmost to accomplish a task well, I find myself questioning why others do not give themselves as I do. Just when I think I am capable of overcoming temptations, I feel envy toward those who gave in to theirs. It seems that wherever my virtuous self is, there also is the resentful complainer.
Here we are faced with our own true poverty. Totally unable to root out my resentments that are so deeply anchored in the soil of my inner self that pulling them out seems like self-destruction. How to weed out these resentment without uprooting the virtues as well?
All this begs the question: “Can the Elder Son Come Home?”
But the father wants not only his younger son back, but his elder son as well. The elder son, too, needs to be found and led back into the house of joy. Will he respond to his Father’s plea or remain stuck in his bitterness?
The Bible does not answer that question. And as I look at the lighted face of the elder son in Rembrandt’s painting and then at his darkened hands, I sense not only his captivity but also the possibility of liberation.
This is not a story that separates the two brothers into the good and the evil one, only the Father is good. He loves both sons. In the Story he runs to both sons. He runs out to meet both for he wants both to sit at his table and participate in his joy.
The younger brother allows himself to be held in a forgiving embrace while the older son stands back, looks at the father’s merciful gesture yet reluctant to step over his own anger.
Yet the father’s love does not force itself on the beloved. Although he wants to heal us of all our inner darkness, we are still free to make our own choice to stay in the darkness or to step into the light of God’s love. God is there, God’s light is there. God’s forgiveness is there. God’s boundless love is there. What is so clear is that God is always there, always ready to give and forgive, absolutely independent of our response. God’s love does not depend on our repentance or our inner or outer changes.
Whether I am the younger son or the elder son, God’s only desire is to bring me home.
But the story of the elder son put all these thing in perspective and sheds new light on an agonizing question of who is more loved. The simple truth is God does not love the younger son more than the elder or the elder more than the younger. How do we know, because the Father goes out to meet the elder son just as he did the younger.
Then Jesus gives the most reassuring words a loving parent could say, “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.
These are the words I must pay attention to and allow to penetrate to the center of my soul. God calls me “My Son.” The Greek word for son that Luke uses here is Teknon which is an affectionate form of address. What the father literally says is “Child” “Oh my child, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.”
The Father directly moves beyond the superficial and stresses his intimate relationship with his son when he says; “You are with me always.” The father has shared everything with him and he has made him part of his daily life and kept nothing from him. All I have is yours. There could be no clearer statement of the father’s unlimited love for his elder son. The Father’s unreserved, unlimited love is offered wholly and equally to both of his sons.
The joy at the dramatic return of the younger son in no way means that the elder son was less loved, less appreciated, less favored. The father does not compare the two sons. He loves them both with a complete love and expresses that love according to their individual journeys. He knows them both intimately. He understands their highly unique gifts and shortcomings.
He sees with love the passion of his younger son, even when it is not regulated by obedience. With the same love, he sees the obedience of the elder son, even when it is not vitalized by Christian love and passion.
With the younger son there are no thoughts of better or worse, more or less, just as there are no measuring sticks with the elder son. The father responds to both according to their uniqueness. The return of the young son makes him call for a joyful celebration. The return of the elder makes him extend an invitation to full participation in that joy.
In the house of my father there are many places to live, “Jesus says, Each child of God has there his or her unique place, all of them places of God. I have to let go of all comparison, all rivalry and competition, and surrender to the Father’s love. This requires a leap of faith because I have little experience of non-comparing love and do not know the healing power of such love. As long as I stay outside in the darkness, I can only remain in the resentful complaining that results from my comparisons. Outside of the light, my younger brother seems to be more loved by the Father than I; In fact, outside of the light, I cannot even see him as my own brother.
God is urging me to come home, enter into his light, and to discover there that, in God, all people are uniquely and completely loved. In the light of God, I can finally see my neighbor as my brother, and the one who belongs as much to God as I do. But outside of God’s house, brothers and sister, husbands and wives, lovers and friends become rivals and even enemies; each perpetually plagued by jealousies, suspicious and resentments.
It is not surprising that, in his anger, the elder son complains to the father: “You never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends, but for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his loose women you kill the calf we have been fattening.” These words reveal how deeply hurt this man must feel. His elf-esteem is painfully wounded by his father’s joy, and his own anger prevents him from accepting this returning scoundrel as his brother. With these words “this son of your” he distances himself from his brother as well as from his father.
He looks at the two of them as aliens who have lost all sense of reality and engage in a relationship that is completely inappropriate, considering the true facts of the prodigal’s life. The elder son no longer has a brother. Not, any longer, a father. Both have become strangers to him. His brother, a sinner, he looks down on with disdain; his father, a slave owner, he looks up at with fear.
But the story of the prodigal son is the story of a God who goes searching for me and who doesn’t rest until he has found me. He urges and pleads, he begs me to stop clinging to the power of death and to let myself be embraces by arms that will carry me to the place where I will find the life I most desire.