“Irresponsibility and Grudges” Colchester Federated Church, March 31, 2019, (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32) Fourth Sunday of Lent

As human beings we know the basics that we need to survive—food, water, and shelter.  Though we also know that the quality of our human relationships helps us to have fulfilling lives.  Good relationships in our families, with our friends, in our places of employment don’t happen completely by accident.  Because good relationships take work.  There’s this theory of human behavior called Family Systems Theory proposed by Dr. Murray Bowen that’s helpful to keep in mind when attempting to have good relationships.  It’s also helpful to keep in mind when we encounter stories about families like today’s story in the Gospel according to Luke of the Prodigal Son and the Older, Responsible Brother, and the Merciful Father. 

One of the interesting aspects of Family Systems Theory relates to research done by Dr. Walter Toman called Family Constellations.  Dr. Toman studied 3,000 people trying to understand how peoples’ personalities may be shaped by sibling positions.  Whether we are the oldest brother of brothers or sisters.  Or the youngest sister of sisters or brothers.  The oldest sister of sisters or brothers.  The youngest brother of brothers or sisters.  A middle child.  A twin.  An only child.  The sibling positions we grow up with have an effect on our personalities.  Our sibling positions even help explain why some relationships can feel like a lot of work and some relationships require very little effort. 

Dr. Toman studied how our sibling positions effect how we behave toward one another.  Because people who studied human behavior had theories for a long time about how much of our personalities are formed by the early years we spend within our families of origin.  And Dr. Toman wanted to see how this played out among brothers and sisters and only children for the rest of their lives.  As explained by Dr. Roberta Gilbert in her amazing book Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking about Human Interactions, “Dr. Toman’s work identified the very order of a person’s birth as well as the mix of genders in that configuration, all other things being equal, as major determinants of personality characteristics.”[1]

As we turn to the Prodigal Son and the Older Brother we can keep sibling positions in mind to see how the story plays out in ways that may be universal to our human experiences.  For instance, here are some characteristics of the oldest brother of brothers (from Dr. Toman’s research.)  The oldest brother of brothers finds it easy to assume responsibility for other people, especially men.  He is nurturing and caring for that group and expects loyalty and trust in return.  Though he accepts responsibility easily, he may become bossy.  He knows and implements the ingredients of achievement.  And the oldest brother of brothers can be sensitive and shy around women.

Keeping in mind the Prodigal Son now.  The youngest brother of brothers is more of a follower and leans especially on men.  He works well with other men who appreciate and respect him.  He may be obstinate, daring, bold, and complaining.  Physically strong, he is kind-hearted.  He isn’t interested as much in achievement as he is the joys of the moment.  And with women he is soft, yielding, faithful, and unpredictable.[2]  Of course not all of Dr. Toman’s sibling position research is a perfect match for every single person.  But we can see patterns play out.  We know that the experiences we have in our families of origin do play a role in our personalities and the way that we see the world as adults. 

In our Gospel story we are dealing with the oldest brother of brothers and the youngest brother of brothers.  The way they behave and interact with each other and their father is familiar to us.  And may even bring up our own stuff because we’ve seen this story play out before.  We have the younger impulsive brother who is daring and lives for the moment.  We have the older more reserved brother who assumes responsibility more often than not.  We know people just like them.  We see these scenarios play out.  We may even identify with one of the characters in this parable that Jesus tells!

It’s not surprising that people have literally rolled their eyes over the years at me with this story of the Prodigal Son.  One parishioner once told me that this story is as hard for her as the laborers who get hired to work at different times of the day and all get paid the exact same amount.  Because for her these parables Jesus tells are just not fair.  Spoken like someone who must be the “responsible one” a lot, right?  The fact that the Prodigal spends his inheritance on “extravagant living,” “wild living,” “dissolute living” depending on how verse 13 is translated and comes crawling back home with empty hands and empty pockets, with empty promises is a reality that families have dealt with and will deal with.

It’s no wonder that the older, responsible ones among us tend to seethe a little on the inside at the seeming injustice of it all.  We may deeply identify with the older brother’s harsh words to his father, “Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction.  Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fatted calf for him.”[3]

It’s worth asking if he’s angry or hurt or both.  Because maybe the Older Brother realized that he could have been living a little and didn’t need to live a joyless life just because his younger brother took his share of the inheritance and hit the road.  Maybe he realized that he may have stayed home to keep up the family homestead, but he didn’t have to do so with a chip on his shoulder and a grudge in his heart.  So the frustration comes out that all this time he had been doing what he was supposed to be doing—being the responsible one.  Yet his father was possibly more concerned about his youngest son off living a wild life than the son who was right there next to him making sure that things got done the right way.

The older brother won’t even come inside the house, which was an insult.  And when he said “I’ve served you” for all these years the implication is that he served his father like a slave.  It’s like saying, “I’ve been out there in the fields and in the barn and going to market slaving away for you.  And you haven’t even given me a young goat to eat with my friends.  Now this son of yours (notice he doesn’t say my brother) comes home, and you must roll out the red carpet for him and give him the fatted calf.  The best animal we have on this whole place that I’ve been taking care of all these years?”  We can feel the anger and frustration, the grudge and resentment that has been building and building inside of him as he’s been home working day in and day out for the family.

The father responds to his oldest son by saying, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.”[4]  He’s trying to tell him that he knows his faithfulness and has seen his faithfulness.  It hasn’t gone unnoticed.  Everything the father has will belong to the older son eventually because he already gave half of what he owned away to his youngest son.  But something remarkable has happened, his youngest son has come home.  Maybe the father passed him off for dead, knowing that he was up to no good in a foreign land for so long.  Someone being lost and now being found is worth celebrating, always. 

Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote a book called The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming where he mused on this parable from the perspective of the younger son, the older son, and the father.  He interpreted Rembrandt’s famous painting of this Bible story character by character.  Going character by character is a compelling way to read Bible stories on a deeper level anyway.

Reading once through and imagining yourself as the Prodigal Son.  Reading another time and imagining yourself as the Older Brother.  And reading one final time as the Father.  If we put ourselves in the position of the different characters we begin to feel the story.  We ask ourselves how it would feel if we went away from home, messed up really bad, and needed to come home in humility and ask for forgiveness.  We ask ourselves how it would feel if we stayed home and saw our brother come back in defeat and how it would feel to see our father running out and giving him the royal treatment.  We ask ourselves how it would feel if we were a parent thinking that our child had been lost and would never realize the error of their ways.  And then we see them off in the distance coming home, and feel moved to compassion.  Because the father’s response, Jesus tells us, is incredible.  He runs out to greet his son, hugs him and kisses him.  His dad welcomes him home with open arms.  This is the ultimate vision of acceptance and love.  As Henri Nouwen rightly states, “The young man being embraced by the Father is no longer just one repentant sinner, but the whole of humanity returning to God.”[5]

In the end we may strongly identify with one of the three characters in our story.  Though the reality is that there are times when we may be the Prodigal or the Older Brother or the Father.  There are times when we get things right.  And there are times when we get things so very wrong.  There are times when we must celebrate with someone who finally comes home.  We know that our job isn’t to kick them when they’re down, but to show them compassion and welcome them back.  There are times when we are irresponsible.  There are times when we bear a grudge that prevents us from living a joyful, fulfilling life.  Maybe we identify with different characters at different points along our journey, and that’s just how it goes.  Though God is always there to welcome us back.  No matter what.  With arms open wide.  Meeting us on the road back home.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D., Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking about Human Interactions, 85-86.
[2] Gilbert, Extraordinary Relationships, 199-200.
[3] Luke 15:29-30, Common English Bible.
[4] Luke 15:31-32.
[5] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, 58.