03/27/22 – Reflections on the Two Sons


March 27, 2022
4th Sunday in Lent
Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Elder Alan Willadsen

For the last forty-four years, Tom and I have taken turns being the son who went away and always returned to a warm, loving welcome.  When I went away to college, Tom started high school and his personality bloomed beautifully, like the spring flowers now appearing.  When I would come home, Mom would kill the fatted meatloaf (always with a new and different recipe she was saving and wanted to try).  For a scant two years when Tom went to college and I was in graduate school, Mom really had her own life.  Then . . . I got married and moved back to Peoria.  When Tom would come home the tables were turned and there was reason to celebrate.  “Alan, you’re always here,” she would say.

Six weeks ago yesterday, I was sitting in the front row, right down there, between my wife and brother, at Mom’s Service of Witness to the Resurrection.  Tom and I, with Carole’s help, had spent a week or so together, reminiscing, going through Mom’s apartment, dealing with her bank accounts, laughing, making plans for her visitation and burial, and meeting with Pastor Denise.

Denise asked about Scripture passages and hymns.  We hadn’t found any specific plans or requests, so we improvised.  One hymn we selected was “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale”.   The second line of the fourth verse is “God of the Prodigal.”  I elbowed Tom (who had been absent far more and far longer than I).  He leaned over and replied, “You see it doesn’t say ‘God of the Bitter Older Brother!’”

Since it’s tax season, I was THRILLED when Tom offered to take boxes of Mom’s memorabilia and go through them over the next month.  When we would talk on the phone, exchange email, and when he returned three weeks later, he had discovered some new treasure.  Each time, though, that discovery was accompanied by a phrase like, “Mom really treated/loved/respected/was proud of us equally.”  Then, later, as he discovered boxes of “treasures” from the grandchildren, “You know, Mom did not have any favorites in our family.”  This week, as we shared ideas about this week’s lectionary, Tom wrote, “mom treated us as distinct individuals. I didn’t get the impression she favored either of us. I got the same impression about how she regarded her grandchildren.”

One of the concepts I struggled with as a child was that of a parent loving multiple children equally—yet differently—even though my experience was of true, equal love and affection for both of us.  Even so, invariably, one of us would say, in typical sibling style, “It’s not fair.”  Or “You love him more than you love me.”  That feeling, that perception, that struggle, that idea the other one is favored, started with Cain and Abel.  Then came Joseph and his brothers and became broader with Israel as “The Chosen People.”  It is difficult for us to accept true, absolute equality.  And yet, it seems to me the point of the Parable of the Two Sons is this:  God loves us all—each one of us–equally, individually, and unconditionally, regardless of where we’ve been, and rejoices when we seek God’s ways rather than our own.

Thinking about Jesus and his parables, there are two things I expect:  1) to hear Jesus speak to a generic crowd; and 2) to hear him explain the parable to his close followers after telling the story—sometimes because they don’t get it and sometimes so they can go forth and live out the object lesson.  Neither of those expectations is fulfilled in today’s passage.  The crowd is specific.  Jesus offers no explanation at the end.  Not unlike today’s culture, Jesus’s audience is divided.  On the one hand we have the tax collectors and sinners.  On the other hand, there are the religious leaders—the Pharisees and scribes.

In the verses omitted from Luke 15 (verses 4-11a), we hear the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  Both parables end with a proclamation of joy “over one sinner who repents.”  For Jesus to tell a parable about something familiar, like two brothers, would be in keeping with his style of teaching.

If you’re in the crowd as a sinner or tax collector, you’re “coming near to listen to him.”  You’re there willingly, maybe even thinking “Can I repent?  What’s involved in that?  There’s some hope for me still.”  Perhaps they’re even looking forward to being happy, like the Psalmist, who wrote “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” [32:1]

If you’re in the Pharisee and scribe camp, you’re in a crowd of grumblers, self-righteously gossiping about the people the storyteller is associating with.  You’re probably smugly thinking you’re still fine since you’re in the majority and not lost—though there’s no mention of what happens to the sheep who are not lost or the coins remaining in the woman’s pocket.

I think it is really easy for us to point fingers at things other people do wrong.  We understand how wrong it was for the younger son to insult his father by asking for his inheritance.  In fact, when he asks for what “will belong” to him, he knows it’s not even his yet.  But he’s too self-absorbed to care.  Imagine what life in the home was like for the few days it took the younger son to gather his things before setting out.  The description of where (in a distant country) and how he used the money (“squandered in dissolute living”) helps us judge harshly his conduct.  Imagine how offended the Pharisees and scribes would have been by the offensiveness of a Jewish person feeding pigs! This story just adds evidence to the case they are building against Jesus.

It is said we don’t turn our lives around until we bottom out.  Younger son bottomed out and became desperate.  The Psalmist [32:3-4] put it this way:

3While I kept silence, my body wasted away

through my groaning all day long.

4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

The younger son came to his senses, recognized who he was, and what he had become.  His self-awareness, admitting he was self-focused and had traded away his future, led to his willingness to change.  In turning back to his father, he might have been thinking about the Psalmist [32:5-6] who said,

5Then I acknowledged my sin to you,

and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”

and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

The younger son had no idea what sort of reception he was about to receive.  No idea.  The father’s response to his son’s confession was an exceedingly great joy!  At no time during his absence nor their reunion was there any mention—by the younger son or father—of the older brother.  The father focused on reunion, on life, and not on the sin the younger son confessed.  The father didn’t dismiss the confession, but neither did he dwell on the past.  Just as the younger son had asked for his share of “the property that will belong” to him, the father was ready to focus on the present and the future.  To the tax collector and sinner in us, we hear a message of great joy and hope.  The Pharisee and scribe in us are vexed beyond imagining.

As we turn to the older son, who we only know about because Jesus started the story with “a man who had two sons”, I suggest there is no substantive difference between the two sons—after all, they are brothers.  Older son separated himself from his father when he “became angry and refused to go in [to the celebratory feast].”  He displayed a sense of entitlement based not on his status as a son (like his younger brother), but on his display of obedience. He does not honor what the father offers.

Jesus says here, to the older son, to the Pharisees and scribes, and to us, there is more to being right with God than simple obedience in which we take great pride.  “Elder brothers obey God to get things.  They don’t obey God to get God himself—in order to resemble him, love him, know him, and delight him.  So religious and moral people can be avoiding Jesus as Savior and Lord as much as the younger brothers.”[1]  We think if we are obedient to God, God will give us what we want.  We treat God like a waiter who takes our order.  This message must have been difficult for the Pharisees and scribes to hear.

There is a story about a person approaching the pastor about how difficult it was to participate in the prayer of confession.  The pastor was dumbstruck and asked what was meant.  The person responded, “I haven’t broken a single one of the ten commandments.”  To the parishioner, obedience to some basic rules about living in the community meant they were right with God.

Listen to what Tim Keller has to say in The Prodigal God:  Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith.  “Here, then, is Jesus’s radical redefinition of what is wrong with us.  Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules.  Jesus, though shows us that a man who has violated virtually nothing on the list of moral misbehaviors can be every bit as spiritually lost as the most profligate, immoral person.  Why?  Because sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge just as each son sought to displace the authority of the father in his own life. . . Jesus does not divide the world in the moral “good guys” and the immoral “bad guys.”  He shows us that everyone is dedicated to a project of self-salvation, to using God and others to get power and control for themselves.  We are just going about it in different ways.  Even though both sons are wrong, however, the father cares for them and invites them both back into his love and feast.”[2]  That, my friends, is the Good News.  That is grace and mercy.  In that message, there is faith, hope, and love.

Micah told us God requires we do justice.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan and in Matthew 25, Jesus told us to care for those in need.  Paul helps us understand what God is doing in the parable of the two sons in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “that is, in Christ God [father] was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them [younger son, us], and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us [older son, also us].”  This story of two sons is about reconciliation with God.

“Jesus is redefining everything we thought we knew about connecting to God.  He is redefining sin, what it means to be lost, and what it means to be saved”[3]  Each of us is the younger son and the older son.  There is rejoicing when we humble ourselves and confess our sin.  There is also rejoicing when we recognize we have put our own priorities first—and change.

Amen and Amen.


[1] Keller, Timothy.  The Prodigal God:  Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith.”  New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008.  p. 49.

[2] Ibid. pp. 49-51.

[3] Ibid. p. 33.




© Elder Alan Willadsen, 2022, All Rights Reserved
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