Amazingly Unwelcome Grace
Gen. 4:3-8 luke 15:22-32
The young man hasn’t had a “come to Jesus moment”, but he has come to his senses. He’s in a land far from home without even two pennies to rub together, taking care of pigs his religion taught him were unclean, wishing he could eat the the refuse he’s throwing out to them to eat. How did this happen?!
He hatches a plan. “I’ll go back home, tell my father I was wrong, tell him that I sinned against him and against heaven and don’t deserve to be called his son and that I don’t expect him to take me back in as a son. He can just treat me like a hired hand. Yes, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
We’ve always thought he repented. I don’t think so.
But let’s be clear about one thing–his father didn’t let him get as far as giving his prepared speech before running out to him and falling all over him and kissing him, he’s so happy to see him. We cannot miss that important point, that the father’s lavish show of affection happened before a word ever left the boy’s mouth!
George Buttrick writes that “…the father in the parable is playing a role no proper Semitic patriarch would enact. He has left his honor behind, his position, his community standing. In a way, he is behaving like a mother–kissing, dressing, feeding.” Buttrick goes on to say, “Perhaps… Bernard Brandon Scott is correct in arguing that Jesus’ image of God has broken with patriarchal authority, [has broken with] absolute sovereignty, and been feminized.”
It’s as if Jesus was saying, “Yes, you can assume that the unconditional love we normally associate with a mother is the kind of love God has.” As we say, only a mother’s love. At the time it was a radical stance for Jesus to take. And still is.
We ususally stop at this point in the story–maybe because we’ve run out of time at the Bible study, but more likely because we don’t like to dwell on the second half of the story, so we don’t even try to leave enough time for it. But we haven’t finished telling the story if we only get as far as the prodigal. Jesus clued us in on that when he began this, his premier parable, with the words, “There was a man who had 2 sons.” It should be called something like, “A Father and his Two Sons”.
The church has instead called it the Story of the Prodigal Son, maybe because the part about the elder brother hits a little too close to home. The elder brother is bummed out that his younger brother has gotten the royal treatment upon returning from his trip “blowing his wad,” his share of the inheritance demanded of the father before he had died! “It was as if our father was dead to him,” he says to himself, “while I, the responsible one, who has always stayed home and worked hard, don’t even get a goat-pickin’ with my friends!”
The Smothers Brothers captured the sibling rivalry that so characterizes human existence in their brother act. Tommy says to Dickie, “Mom always liked you best. You got a dog. All I ever got was chicken!”
A little girl captured on video on Christmas morning comes to mind. She and her older sister have finished opening all their presents and, while the 6 year old sister is happy as a lark, the four year old, with bed head hair is pouting. You can hear the mother ask her what’s wrong. Hands across her chest, lower lip protruding, she says, “I wanted lipstick.” As if to say, “If you really loved me you would’ve known that’s what I wanted and you would have given it to me!”
It is the universal story. And Jesus, in his story of not just the one, but two sons, is retelling the parable in Genesis that the creationists have tried to turn into a science lesson. In their clamoring to be sure everything is literal, as if that’s the only way truth can be heard, they don’t realize that it’s a parable about how the sibling rivalry for approval–Dad’s, mom’s, God’s–is a story as old as dirt. Maybe they don’t want to hear the theology they’re supposed to hear. (That’s right, no more defending scholarly biblical criticism from me. I’m going on the offensive against literalism, which has only been around only about 100 years. What happened to the church’s ability to understand metaphor?)
So let’s look at the story again, not because it happened once, but because it happens all the time. Cain and Abel each brought their offering and God approved Abel’s offering. Cain was dejected over this, and killed his brother.
Jesus’ parable of the prodigal and his elder brother is the same story.
In one–the Genesis story–there is resentment for grace shown to a brother whose actions were pleasing. In the other–the parable Jesus told–there is resentment for a brother who received grace in spite of his deplorable actions, and, yes, they were deplorable.
Cain the murderer in the Genesis story and the dutiful elder brother in Jesus’ parable are essentially the same character–a brother resenting what his sibling received.
Unfortunately both did what they did–Cain presented his offering and the elder brother stayed home and behaved–for the same reason: to get approval. It wasn’t because goodness sprang from the depths of their being. They wanted to do the right thing, sure. The world can’t operate on not doing the right thing! And the parables are not telling us it’s not important to do the right thing. It is asking us to consider our motive in doing the right thing. Because we can’t be happy campers if our motive is not right. What’s more, if we resent what life has given someone else, and not us, we are probably tempted to resent them, and are likely withholding our love from them, which will depive them, and us, of a lot of joy.
The resentment which Cain and the elder brother have from their brothers belies their motive–they did the right thing in hopes of being approved. Don’t we want doing the right thing to be more than that? I do. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s not. Our joy will be be incomplete until it is motivated by our desire to do the right thing consistently. That’s why Jesus told the story of the waiting, forgiving father who wants the best for both his sons. In both cases, the outcome is left open.
Of course we empathize. We welcome the grace extended to us all in life on this earth. We like to see others enjoy the bounty of God’s grace. But, like Cain, we’re not all that happy when more is handed out to those we don’t think deserve it any more than we do! And like the elder brother, yes, our nose gets out of joint when it seems to us that someone who doesn’t deserve it at all gets the attention we think we do deserve!
But let’s consider…in the Genesis story it’s Cain God goes to (which, again, we can only fully appreciate if we understand and are okay with the fact that it’s not a science lesson and it’s not a historical account!). It’s a parable which was told to tell us something about our souls and about God’s loving regard for us. It’s theology–it’s not science and it’s not history. God goes to Cain and says to him, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?”
And in the story as Jesus retells it, the Father leaves the party to ask the elder brother why he hasn’t joined in the festivities. “Where were you? I was looking for you at the party and I couldn’t find you.”
In the novel Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Patterson a young woman tells her story about growing up on the Chesapeak Bay with her twin sister–her beautiful, talented twin. “I was the elder by a few minutes,” she writes in this first person narrative. “I always treasured the thought of those minutes. They represented the only time in my life when I was the center of everyone’s attention. From the moment Caroline was born, she snatched it all for herself.
When my mother and grandmother told the story of our births, it was mostly of how Caroline had refused to breathe. How the midwife smacked and prayed and cajoled the tiny chest to move. How the cry of joy went up at the first wail–”no louder than a kitten’s mew.”
“But where was I?” I once asked. “When everyone was working over Caroline, where was I?”
A cloud passed across my other’s eyes, and I knew that she could not remember. “In the basket,” she said. “Grandma bathed you and dressed you and put you in the basket.”
“Did you, Grandma?”
“How should I know?” she snapped. “It was a long time ago”
I felt cold all over, as though I was the newborn infant a second time, cast aside and forgotten…My mother went 8 or 10 times each day to the hospital to nurse Caroline.
But what of me? “Who took care of me while you were gone?” The story always left the other twin, the stronger twin, washed and dressed and lying in a basket. Clean and cold and motherless.
Again the vague look and smile. “Your father was here and your grandmother.”
“Was I a good baby, Grandma?”
“No worse than most, I reckon”
“What did I do, Grandma? Tell me about when I was a baby.”
“How can I remember? It’s been a long time.”
My mother, seeing my distress, said, “You were a good baby, Louise. You never gave us a minute’s worry.” She meant it to comfort me, but it only distressed me further. Shouldn’t I have been a minute’s worry? Wasn’t it all the months of worry that had made Caroline’s life so dear to them all?
Her story moves to years later when Louise is expressing to her mother her desire to leave the island as her sister Caroline has already done. her mother affirms her in her decision, acknowledgeing that she herself, in choosing the island, left her own people and built a life for herself somewhere else. She tells her daughter, “I certainly wouldn’t deny you that same choice. But, oh, Louise, we will miss you, your father and I.”
I wanted so to believe her. “Will you really?” I asked. “As much as you miss Caroline?”
“More,” she said, reaching up and ever so lightly smoothing my hair with her fingertips.
I did not press her to explain. I was too grateful for that one word that allowed me at last to leave the island and begin to build myself as a soul, separate from the long, long shadow of my twin.
I can say without a doubt that whatever the greatest love you imagine God has for anyone–you or anybody else–God loves you more than that.
And the writer of the Genesis story, and Jesus in his retelling of it, wants us to be assured of that love because, like Louise finally believing that she is loved, it is what makes the happiness God wants for us possible for us.
God comes to us elder brothers and says,
I noticed you were not at the celebration and I missed you!
Come join the party. I so much want you there. In fact, the only thing that will make my joy complete is if you’re there to share it with me.”