Sermon March 27: Luke 15:11b-32 Brothers Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever heard the old fable of the blind men and the elephant? I'm sure that some of you have. It's an ancient Indian fable -- it turns up in Buddhist and Jain and Sufi teachings with little variations -- but the basic story has become quite well-known across cultures.
And essentially, there's an elephant, and there are a half-dozen blind men who touch the elephant and then describe it. One says an elephant is like a tree -- he's touching the elephant's leg. Another says, no, an elephant is like a wall -- he's touching its side.
One touches its tusk and says an elephant is like a spear, another its ear and says an elephant is like a palm leaf fan -- you get the idea.
In the end, of course, what they -- and we -- learn is that no one of us sees the whole picture. Each of us, our perspective is limited in some way. And the only way to get even a sense of the whole picture is to listen to and consider other people's perspectives as well as our own.
See the part of the elephant they see, as it were. Or, walk a mile in their shoes, as Atticus Finch puts it, in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird.
It's a pretty terrific fable under any circumstances, it seems to me -- pretty much a message that never gets old --
But particularly striking when we've just heard the Parable of the Lost Son. Because this parable of Jesus, which only turns up in the gospel of Luke, in the passage that we heard this morning -- this parable, more than any other of the parables of Jesus, I think, is the one in which our own perspective when we hear it, seems to matter so much.
Shapes our reaction to it so sharply. IF, at least, our perspective when we hear it is the perspective of the older brother.
Because if we hear it identifying with the younger brother? It's not provocative, it's not upsetting, it's just lovely and warm and comforting. It's a parable of God's grace, it's a parable of unconditional love, it's a parable of forgiveness and welcome and embrace.
But if we hear it identifying with the elder brother? Which based on my very unscientific statistical analysis of conversations with people after every time I've preached on it, the vast majority of us do? It IS provocative, and it IS upsetting, and it's not just "oh what a lovely parable, the lost is found" – we react. Sometimes pretty sharply.
And we probably even know, while we're reacting the way we are, that it's not our best look. I've always sort of thought that's why the elder brother actually stays outdoors, doesn't join the party – because he kind of knows it's not it's best look.
Oh, everyone's rejoicing, the lost is found, love is unconditional, grace abounds – and he knows he shouldn't be feeling so resentful, and he knows he shouldn't be feeling so angry, and he knows he shouldn't be feeling so hurt, but he is.
And so plus he's probably feeling ashamed. About all the feelings that he's feeling.
That we might be feeling too, if we crash up against this parable every time we hear it, because we hear it as that elder brother.
Which we might. And it's exactly why Jesus includes the elder brother in this parable.
Because this is the third parable in a triad -- a series of three -- about stuff that gets lost. There's the lost coin, but Jesus doesn't bother mention how the other nine coins feel -- of course he doesn't. And then the lost sheep, but we don't get any musings about how the other ninety-nine sheep feel -- we're probably meant to assume they didn't even notice one of their buddies had strayed off.
But when it comes to the lost son, Jesus knows the water's going to get muddy for some of his listeners, for some of us. Rejoice for a found coin, rejoice for a found sheep -- sure! God is amazing, unconditionally loving, seeking the lost until they're found.
But when it's a lost son? And we'd never have gotten ourselves lost? Ya, we're going to need some help.
That's why Jesus includes the elder brother, and his bitterness. His pain. Because it's real. Because we can hear Jesus rattle on about God's unconditional love and God's unconditional grace until the COWS come home along with the sheep --
But if we're like that elder brother, God's unconditional love and God's unconditional grace actually on the ground? In real life? Can seem completely unfair.
Because they are. Or, in fact, because they're not. Because, in fact, God’s love and grace are entirely equitable. God’s love and grace are there in equal measure for the good son and the prodigal son, for the saints and the sinners, for the dependable hard-worker and the one who's a pain in the neck.
Which is utterly fair. And yet can feel so unfair. Astonishing and amazing and a gift beyond measure if we identify with the prodigal son -- and infuriating and bitter if we identify with the elder son.
Which is why Jesus includes the elder brother. Because that perspective is real. The nature of grace IS provocative.
It's completely counter-intuitive -- our human default is to assume that goodness is earned and we reap what we sow and we get what we deserve. And meanwhile God's grace is just God's grace, raining down upon all of us apropos of none of those things at all. Unearned, unjustified, indiscriminate.
It's really hard to GET. Truly, in our bones. And lost coins and lost sheep just don't convey the full outrageous measure of it.
For that we need people. Messy messy people with their messy messy perspectives. Irresponsible prodigal sons, and elder brothers who get furious with resentment, and fathers who love them BOTH unconditionally.
Because if we look back at who Jesus is telling this parable to, he's telling it to tax collectors and sinners AND scribes and Pharisees. He's telling it to a whole bunch of prodigal sons – tax collectors and sinners who've turned back "home" and have been welcomed with the outpouring of joy –
AND he's telling it to a whole bunch of elder brothers – scribes and Pharisees who've only ever been faithful and dependable and reliable, and "of course you're beloved and everything I have is yours".
And if ALL of them, tax collectors and sinners and scribes and Pharisees, can now go away having been wholly and completely assured of their father's unconditional love – which they have –
The fact of the matter is, the story's not over. This parable needed messy messy people to achieve the full measure of its import, but the story's not over. There's a messy messy unfinished ending still. BECAUSE of those messy messy people. And that's what Jesus leaves his listeners with. That's what he leaves us with.
There once was a man who had two sons, is how the parable begins. But it's also how it ends. And what's profoundly striking in the abrupt way it ends is what's missing.
Because the prodigal finds his way back to his father, and the father finds his elder son and brings him back too – but they still haven't found their way back to each other.
And honestly, I think that's that hardest part of all. It's not grace theoretically, grace that surprises us with joy or challenges us with its unconditional equity – it's grace on the ground. It's messy. And are we going to be up for it.
Like, the prodigal son, beautifully restored and forgiven by his father, is he ever going to notice the repentance and apology he owes his brother?? Because that doesn't even seem to be on his radar. And it really should be. He's broken that relationship too.
And the elder son, reminded afresh that he's always been loved by his father, is he ever going free himself from this burden of resentment he's been carrying around? Because right now it kind of doesn't look like it. Right now he looks really stuck.
So the two of them, they're restored to their father, but frankly that was kind of the easy part. God is God and grace abounds and love abides. The hard part is being restored to each other. No matter what our perspective is, or which brother Jesus' listeners identify with. The hard part is being restored to each other.
The tax collectors and sinners, the prodigals welcomed home, it's hard to take on that humility and shame of having hurt someone, and needing to apologize. But that's what being restored in relationship requires, that acknowledgement and honesty, that trusting in grace on the ground.
And the scribes and Pharisees, the 'elder brothers' who've always carried the weight, who've always picked up the pieces, it's hard to let go of resentment that's maybe pretty justified. It's wearisome, the hurt was real, it's wildly unsatisfying. But that's what being restored in relationship requires, that decision to lay it down and move on, that trusting in grace on the ground.
So there once was a man who told his listeners, the rascals and the dutiful, a parable about a father who had two sons. And he knew we'd each hear it from our own perspective. He wanted us to. He wanted the prodigals to feel the unconditional embrace, he wanted the elder brothers to feel the reassurance – he knew we'd identify with these brothers, and he wanted us to.
So we'd finish the story. See the elephant in the room. And trust in the grace we abide in to help us do the hard work it takes to be restored to one another as brothers, sisters, siblings in one family, children of God. Amen.