Where Will the Elder Brother Find His Rock Bottom?


A sermon preached on Sunday, March 31st, 2019 based upon Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32.  

At the outset of this parable, the two brothers seem altogether different.  One seems to epitomize responsibility, a good work ethic and respect for his father; the other seems the embodiment of laziness, disrespect, and self-centeredness.

But I want to suggest that when you scratch beneath the surface the two brothers aren’t really so different after all.   There are three things they have in common.

The first similarity is that they are both altogether clueless regarding the extent in which their father loves them.

The second is this:  They are both fundamentally self-centered.

The younger brother’s self-centeredness is on full display.  How thoughtless, how cruel to ask his father for his share of the inheritance now — while the father still has lots of life left in him!  He’s essentially telling his father that he’d prefer he were dead.  Wrapped up in himself, he doesn’t really have a clue of the pain his actions are causing his father.  His self-centeredness involves a hardened heart that blocks the natural compassion a son should have for his Dad.

But the older brother is also self-centered, though his self-centeredness is better disguised.  His more socially acceptable form of self-centeredness involves a devotion to an image he has carefully crafted to project to the world:  that of goodness, and responsibility and respectability. His ego gets lots of strokes whenever people admire how “good” he is, and this perception of his “goodness” is dependent upon the comparisons people make between him and others — and in particular his younger brother.

You could say he is the model of perfection, and in that, perfectly self-centered.

If love means freely giving yourself away as a blessing to others, the older brother lacks this capacity.  He likes to view himself as a “giver”, but his giving always comes with a hidden cost – a subtle message to everyone he interacts with of “you owe me.”  He carries around inside his head a ledger sheet that tracks all the good he has done for others, and the good others have done for him, and he makes a point of never being in debt, always having others indebted to him.  It leaves him feeling superior, entitled, in control.

It would make him anxious if he found himself in debt to another.

His father gave him life and the farm that is his home and so much more, so he actually is in debt to his father, but he is loathe to acknowledge this fact.  The elder brother blocks out this indebtedness by not really seeing himself as his father’s son; for all practical purposes he sees himself as his father’s “hired hand”.  The best, hardest working hired hand his father could ever have.  “What would he ever do without me?”

There is a third way that both brothers are alike:  buried underneath their well-fortified self-centeredness is a self that is made in the image of God – a self with a profound capacity to love others and to allow love in.  It’s a self that would have been easy to recognize when they were young as it is with all young children. But overtime their true selves have gotten covered over.

The distinct forms of their self-centeredness sets the two brothers on altogether different journeys, each with its own internal logic.

The elder brother stays home because it is there that he can maintain control and get his ego stroked for the image he projects of goodness, responsibility and perfection. And as the first born son in those days he stands to receive the lion’s share of the inheritance.

There is also a logic to the younger brother’s leaving.  He really can never “win” if he stays home on the farm.  Ultimately, the farm will never be his.  But more than that, he will always fall short in comparison to his brother.  Never good enough, never responsible enough, never competent or hard-working enough.  So what’s the use to hang around and continual come out on the wrong side of the comparison?

Although his leaving home ultimately proves to be a terrible mistake, you have to give the younger brother this:  he’s willing to take a risk – to launch out into the great unknown – somewhat like Abraham and Sarah before him – trusting that things will work out somehow.  You would be right to call it the bravery of a fool, because his immaturity and self-centeredness will lead him to make really poor choices on his journey to the far country.

Nonetheless, perhaps there is in this willingness to take a risk a tiny glimmer of the light that shines forth from that buried self made in the image of God.  Because, you see, God is the ultimate risk taker.  Creation itself was an enormous risk.  The incarnation – God’s decision to take the plunge to fully enter this broken creation in human form – that, for sure, was a risky business.

The parable tells us just the bare bones details, so we are left to conjecture, which is one of things I think parables invite us to do.

What did the older brother feel when his younger brother announced his plans to take his inheritance and leave?  I’m guessing there was a least a pang of sadness and grief. There is always some mixture of love and hate in the relationships of siblings.  Hopefully over time the love prevails over the hate, but there’s never a guarantee that this will happen. As I noted this week in my Lenten scripture postings, there sure are a lot of stories in the Bible of destructive sibling rivalry, going all the way back to Cain killing his brother Abel.

As is the case with all first-borns when a little usurper arrives on the scene, the elder brother must have resented the heck out of his little, screeching baby brother who stole away so much of his parents attention.   But it’s also safe to assume that over time the elder brother came to love this little brother — to feel protective of him — maybe even to have some fun with him, at least when they were both young.

So I’m guessing that the elder brother’s heart initially ached when his little brother first announced his intention to leave home.  There was a sense of loss arising within him for whatever love had lived within for his brother.  And this heart ache – this sign of his innate capacity for love — was actually an expression of that buried true self.

But I’m also guessing that the elder brother found this emotion of grief and loss threatening – it left him feeling out of control and he never liked to feel out of control – and so quickly the feeling of grief gave way to anger, condemnation, and of course, the oh-so familiar territory of feeling superior.  “I would never do such a thing to our father!” 

So with his brother’s cruel departure his status of being the “good” son — the responsible, respectful son — will be permanently set in stone, or so he thought.  “My brother left and broke my father’s heart.  I stayed and did my duty. Can anything be clearer regarding who’s ‘good’ and who’s ‘bad’?”

The younger son goes off and squanders his inheritance.  The foolish, self-centered choices he makes ends up leaving him penniless and all alone in the world.

He hits the proverbial “rock bottom”, although as I said in posts this week there is some ambiguity regarding what exactly is happening at this point.  Is he truly remorseful for what he did to his father, or does he simply realize that this father’s hired hands have a far better life than he has starving away with the pig poop?

Nonetheless the younger brother has received a great humbling. A crack has occurred in his self-centeredness that can, as the saying goes, let a little light in.

He heads home. Having, as I said at the start, never understood the depths of his father’s love for him, he hopes merely to be taken in as a hired hand and the benefit of a roof over his head and three square meals a day. And so the younger brother must have been absolutely astonished when the old man throws respectability to the wind and comes running down the road to give him a big bear hug – cutting him off before he gets a chance to finish his well-rehearsed speech – in particular, the part about becoming a “hired hand.”  The love he never really grasped begins to penetrate his heart when the new sandals are placed on his bare feet, and a fine robe put around his shoulders and the ring marking him as a son placed upon his finger, and when his father starts making plans for the biggest, blowout party they’ve ever had on the farm.

Whether we realize it or not, we are all on a spiritual journey, and the goal of this journey is to resurrect that buried true self — the one made in the image of God — the one that can give and receive love freely.

Although we would prefer it wasn’t so, hard times have an important role to play on this journey.  Hitting what is referred to as “rock bottom” in whatever form this takes serves a purpose:  it humbles us; it cracks open our de-fault self-centeredness.

Hence, the great spiritual challenge of the elder brother is this:  where exactly will “rock bottom” come from when you are already “perfect” – when it’s not in your DNA to go out and mess up royally the way the younger brother did?

Remember, Jesus told this parable and two shorter ones in response to the complaints of the Pharisees regarding the fact that Jesus was partying with the “sinners and tax collectors” – the younger brothers who have in various ways messed up in life.  How will the elder brother/Pharisee let go of his pride, recognize his well-disguised self-centeredness, humble himself and go into the party, hug his long lost brother who was dead but now is a live and join the conga line?

So the parable ends with what could be the closest thing the elder brother will come in having a “rock bottom” experience.  Maybe in light of the party he’s missing out on, he finally acknowledges the fact that his tried and true strategy in life hasn’t really worked.   That the ledger sheet he has kept running in head has gotten in the way of experiencing what love really is.  That all the energy he spent earning his father’s love was a wasted, because his father already loved him unconditionally.  That his father’s love has always been there waiting for him to let it in.  That everything that belongs to his father has always belonged to him as well.  That he has missed out on joy.

As in last week’s parable, once again we both personal accountability, and the necessity of grace, held together in tension.

For the younger brother, the memory of the home he once had with his father and the love he knew there — unappreciated though it was — calls to him as (prevenient) grace.  But he must decide for himself to get up and make the journey home, where he is astonished to experience the grace of his father’s open-hearted welcome home.

Grace and accountability are both present for the elder brother as well.  Grace, represented by the Father who cherishes him so coming out into the field like the Good Shepherd in search of the lost sheep, imploring him to come into the party.  But the older brother must decide whether he will accept the gracious invitation.

The choice the younger brother had to make was easier than the one required of the older brother.  After all, the younger brother has nothing left to lose.


From the elder brother’s point view, there seems as though he has a lot to lose.  He has to leave behind the ego-boost he routinely gets by feeling superior to all those who fall short by his standards. He has to let go of his self-righteousness and his impeccable reputation.

The Apostle Paul is a classic example of someone who made elder’s brother’s journey safely home.  As we will read in a passage scheduled for next Sunday – Paul came to realize that in the end all that stuff he had clutched to so tightly really was just so much rubbish – compared, that is to life inside the party – the incredible love revealed in Jesus.

So what about us?

Who do you find yourself identifying with in the story?  Most of us, I suspect, myself included, find ourselves identifying with the elder brother.

Will we accept the invitation?

This parable ends open-ended.  We must make the choice that determines how the story ends.

We have good reason to believe that in the end, grace will prevail.  In the parable of the Good Shepherd that Jesus told immediately before this one – it doesn’t say if the shepherd finds the lost sheep”.  It says, “when” the shepherd finds him.

It’s just a matter of time before grace will lead us home.

Better sooner than later.