There was a man who had two sons …Luke 15:11
So begins one of the greatest stories ever told, the story known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It is a story told by Jesus, of course. It is his longest parable, and probably his best known. And without a doubt, one of my absolute favorites.
There is so much to love about this story. And so many ways to approach it in a sermon. Three years ago, when I preached on it, I focused on the father, the man mentioned in the opening line “who had two sons.” The man whose unconditional love for both of his sons illustrates, in a beautiful way, God’s unconditional love for each of us. The man who shows us what it might look like to share that love with one another.
For my sermon this year, I want to focus on one of the sons. And since we have all probably heard many sermons about the famous younger, prodigal son, I thought I’d focus on his older brother today.
Part of the power of this story, it seems to me, is that we can relate to any of the three main characters in this story. At different times in life, we will relate to them differently. At times, we will certainly relate to the younger son, who has wandered far from home, at least spiritually speaking, spent all he had, and is ready to go back home. At other times, we will relate to the older son, who has never left home, has always tried to do the right thing, and is frustrated that God loves the prodigals among us. And then there will be times when we relate to the father, concerned about people in our life, praying for them, hoping for the day that they finally come home to the embrace of our loving God.
The way I see it, there are at least three sermons in this story, and probably many more. As I said, three years ago, my sermon focused on the father. And I said at the time that I might look at the older brother next time. So, that is what I’ll do today – focus on the older brother. I suppose that means that three years from now, Lord-willing, I’ll focus on the younger, prodigal son. But today, let’s look at the older brother.
The Elder Son
You know the older brother, don’t you? The father’s elder son? The one who has always done the right thing. Who didn’t demand his share of the inheritance before his father’s death. Who didn’t travel to a distant country, and squander his property in dissolute living. Who worked hard every day. Never disobeyed his father’s command. Always did the right thing.
And, when we get to his part in this great story, the one who is very angry. And rightfully so, it would seem. His father has never thrown a party for him. And now, he’s doing all this for his brother, who left home with half of the inheritance, who squandered it all away, and now has the nerve to come back home? He is angry, and we can see why. But even though he is justifiably upset at the way in which his younger brother is being received, is it worth missing this great party taking place at his house?
This story is told by Jesus to the Pharisees and scribes, who have also been grumbling, because Jesus is welcoming sinners and eating with them. They are the older brother, in other words. And this story holds up the mirror to them. To help them see that they are loved, too, but that the party is to celebrate the return of the prodigal. The celebration that Jesus wants them to join is for the tax collectors and sinners, who are listening to Jesus, learning from him, and being welcomed back into the fold of the faithful. They were dead and have come to life; they were lost and have been found. How can Jesus help but throw them a party?
Heaven and Hell
There is quite a party taking place in this story, but the older brother is missing it all. He refuses to go in. And this part of the story teaches us something important about heaven and hell. Think of the party taking place as heaven. Think of the prodigal son as being welcomed to heaven, not because of his perfect life, but because of God’s amazing grace. And think of the older brother as being in hell, not because of his sin, but because of his refusal to join the party. Maybe that is why hell must exist.
C.S. Lewis reflects on the existence of hell in several of his books. And one of the questions he tries to answer is: Why? Why is there a hell? If God is all-powerful, and if God wants all of us to be in heaven with Him, then why did he create a hell in the first place? Why does hell even exist? And the answer, for C.S. Lewis, has to do with our free will. Here is what Lewis says, in “The Problem of Pain”:
It is objected that the ultimate loss of a single soul means the defeat of omnipotence. And so it does. In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat. What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity. I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.
Our God-given free will, in other words, makes it possible for us to choose hell. It makes it possible for us to choose to miss the greatest party of them. It has to. There has to be a place we can choose to go away from God, or we would not truly have free will.
And this means that one way to think about hell is to think of it as having doors that are locked on the inside. It’s not that they can’t get out. They don’t want to. Those who are there choose to be there. They don’t want to leave. They don’t want to be in heaven.
It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Who would not want to be in heaven?! Well, the elder son in today’s parable, for one. He doesn’t want to join the celebration. Even though he is hungry. And tired. And the door is wide open to him. The father even personally leaves the celebration, to find his elder son, and to plead with him to join the party. But the son refuses. And that is his right. He has free will. He doesn’t have to go in, and he chooses not to. He chooses hell. And he locks the door from the inside. The elder son, to me, is the perfect illustration of why hell must exist. There has to be a place where we can go in order to be away from God. Otherwise, we do not truly have free will.
But, you might point out that the problem is not that the elder son doesn’t want to be with his father. He just doesn’t want to be with his brother. He’s not ready to forgive him. And he believes that attending the celebration implies that he has forgiven his brother. And, once again, his position is more than defensible. And by including the elder son in this parable, Jesus is teaching us something very important about heaven, and about hell, and about God.
I’ve already shared what I think he is teaching us about hell. But what about heaven? I think that Jesus is teaching us three very important things about heaven in this part of the parable.
First, Jesus is teaching us that we don’t get to choose who goes to heaven. God alone chooses. And he appears to choose anyone who wants to be there. Even the prodigals among us. It has often been said that when we get to heaven, we might be surprised by who is there. This parable makes a case for that.
Second, Jesus is teaching us that the rule in the father’s house, the rule in heaven, is the rule of grace. It is the rule of love. We don’t earn our way to heaven. We can’t. The elder son proves that, and so does the younger son. We can’t earn our way there. We can only receive it as a gift. No matter how undeserving we may feel, our heavenly Father is ready to open his arms to us, to welcome us as his son or daughter, and to throw a celebration for us.
And, finally, Jesus is teaching us that in heaven we must learn not only to say “Father” but also to say “brother.”And “sister.” What do I mean by that? Well, when the younger son returns home, he believes that he is no longer worthy to be called son. He is hoping merely to be treated as one of his father’s hired hands. He has to learn to say “Father” again.
But the elder son has to learn another word, and that is “brother.” In this story, the elder son never even admits that the prodigal is his brother. “This son of yours” is how he describes him to his father. To which the father responds, “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
At the end of the story, it is the elder son who is lost. And for him to be found again, for him to join the celebration, he is going to have to learn to say “brother” again. He’s going to have to see his brother. And it is not going to be easy for him. In fact, the story ends without us knowing whether he goes into the celebration. Did he go in and welcome his brother home? Or did he choose to stay outside? We don’t know. Jesus doesn’t say.
And I believe Jesus leaves the story there to teach us one more thing about heaven, hell, and God. That we, too, have a choice to make. Will we choose to go in? We are certainly invited, but going in has consequences. It might mean calling someone “brother” or “sister” who we feel doesn’t deserve it. It might mean seeing some people that we don’t expect to see. And it certainly means accepting grace as the Father’s rule for the household.
No one there deserves to be there. Not you. Not me. We can’t earn our way there. So maybe we’d rather not be there at all. Maybe we want to be “rebels to the end,” as C.S. Lewis calls those who choose hell. Maybe, but we sure would miss a great party. The greatest party of them all. And all are invited. Thanks be to God. Amen.