Rewriting the story of the first brothers

“There was a man who had two sons…,” the story begins, except that it is a story within a story that begins with grumbling voices, muttering, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Yes, indeed, he does. It all begins with how Jesus embodies the reconciling love of God.

“There was a man who had two sons…,” the parable begins, inviting us to find ourselves in it, inviting us to identify with the younger or the older sibling, with the father or with one of the party guests, or with the mother who is conspicuously absent throughout, and we don’t know if it’s for reasons of narrative economy or because of a cultural bias that sees little reason to tell stories of a woman who had two sons or a man who had two daughters. Garrison Keillor, I read somewhere, once opened, “There was a man who had two sons … and a daughter-in-law,” and then he told the whole story from her perspective. I’ll have to look it up sometime, if only to find out which of the two sons she was married to.

I grew up being both the younger of two sons and the older brother of a younger sister; so I know the feeling of being second in line, I’ve worn my share of hand-me-downs. I also know the feeling of seeing the younger one get away with stuff for which I had to pay dearly while listening to my brother telling me I didn’t know how easy I’d had it compared to him who singlehandedly cleared so many trails through the thickets of parental insecurity, always three years ahead of me. I know, I know, it’s hard to be the firstborn, the crown prince.

One of the first stories in the Bible is about two brothers, Cain and Abel, and we know how that one ended for the younger of the two. The book of Genesis contains the story of our deepest roots and our oldest wounds, and in every generation of Abraham’s children, we encounter the pattern of the two brothers – Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, the sons of Jacob who act like one and their little brother Joseph – and in each case, it’s the little brother whose story we remember and follow. It’s almost like there is a desire at work to rewrite the story of the first brothers, a story of rivalry and death.

“There was a man who had two sons…,” the parable in Luke opens. At some point in the past, Bible publishers started adding section headings to the text. Stories were given titles, and titles direct attention. Titles suggest what to hear or how to read. “The parable of the prodigal son” it was called and that’s how we’ve read it, leaving the older brother standing in the field as though he wasn’t really part of the story anyway. No one thought of calling it “the parable of the prodigal father” until just a few years ago, or “the parable of the brothers and their prodigal father.” What would you call it?

You take a look at the two sons, and you notice that neither is a particularly attractive character. The younger is disrespectful, self-absorbed, and reckless, perhaps manipulative. The older comes across as heartless, resentful, and jealous. But whether we like it or not, we can identify with either, at least to a degree, men and women alike, I presume. We wonder what it might be like to be so brave and just leave home to go and see the world. Sure, he is reckless, but he is young and we admire his adventurous spirit. Perhaps you were once just like him, or perhaps you wish you had been like him, just a little. Or do you find it easier to relate to the firstborn, the responsible one, the one who does what he says and shows up on time and takes care of the family farm? “Doesn’t he have a point?” you say to yourself, and perhaps you know all too well what it’s like to make sacrifices every day and no one seems to care, let alone appreciate or celebrate what you do. Is it too much to ask to be treated fairly? The property had been divided, and each one had been given a fair share, and the younger chose to cash it all in and squander it. It may be good and right to give somebody a second chance, sure, give him work to do and food to eat, give him a roof over his head—but a party? And this wasn’t a fried chicken and potato salad party. They killed the fatted calf, expecting the whole town to celebrate.

And then there’s the father who apparently doesn’t believe that children who are old enough to go away should also be ready to live with the consequences of their choices. When his son comes home – broke, humiliated, and hungry – dad is beside himself, acting like a fool. Forgetting just about everything that is proper for a patriarch in his culture and what most of us today would consider reasonable or wise, he runs down the road and throws his arms around the young man, shouting orders over his shoulder between hugs, “The robe—the best one—quickly. The ring—bring it—put in on his finger. And sandals, bring sandals!—Kill the calf! Invite the whole town! Let us eat. Let us celebrate! This is my son; he was dead and is alive again!”

Only Jesus could come up with a story like this. In our version of the story, the younger son would have some explaining to do. In our story, the father would be waiting in the house, sitting in his chair, arms folded, with a stern look on his face. He would listen to what the young man had to say for himself, and then, perhaps, he would look at him and say, “Well, I’m glad you’ve come to see the error of your ways; I hope you learned your lesson. Now go and help your brother in the field.”

In our story, there wouldn’t be a party. But it’s not our story. It’s Jesus’ story for us. Sinners felt at home in the company of Jesus; even notorious sinners who were shunned by everybody in town came near to listen to him, or just to be around him. He did not avoid them. He didn’t turn them away. He didn’t mind being seen with them, and he even broke bread with them, openly. Some people were wondering why Jesus didn’t at least wait until those sinners had changed their ways. His actions were confusing to them, and their hearts were pulled back and forth between a genuine desire to understand and loudly demanding an explanation.

In response, Jesus told stories about the joy of heaven, God stories of a shepherd who searched the hills for one lost sheep until he found it and of a woman who swept the house from the attic to the basement, searching diligently for one coin she had lost until she had found it. Every human being is a precious child of God first and foremost, Jesus taught, and he lived to make that reality tangible, and he would die embodying the deep truth of God’s love for us, regardless of how sinful or righteous we take others or ourselves to be. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. God’s love, he taught us with his life, is not a reward for the good boys and girls. God’s love is the ultimate reality. Out of God’s love all things have been created; God’s love holds all things so nothing and no one can fall deeper than into the arms of God; and when all things come to an end, God’s love will abide and God’s beloved in it. It is because of God’s love that we come to ourselves in that distant country where we squander our inheritance until we remember that we are beloved sons and daughters of God. The younger son in the parable did everything he could not to think of himself as a child of his father and a brother to his brother. But the father never stopped thinking of him as a beloved child. Never.

We are at the end of the parable. The elder brother is standing outside the house; light, laughter and music are pouring through the windows, but he can’t move. Or is it that he doesn’t want to move? No one has asked him whether he wants to be reconciled with this good-for-nothing wastrel. No one has asked him how he feels about wearing the second best robe, since the best one apparently has been given to this wandering squanderer. He is standing outside, arms crossed, fists clenched, his jaw tight. He refuses to go inside. It feels good to know who’s right and who’s wrong, and he knows which one he is. But the father comes outside and pleads with him to come in. He doesn’t want this to end with one brother chosen and the other rejected. He wants this to end with a feast which fairness cannot host, but which love never tires to prepare. He wants this to end in reconciliation and rejoicing.

We all get lost, whether it’s by wandering off to a distant country of loveless self-absorption or by never leaving at all – it doesn’t matter how we forgot that we are not strangers or each other’s keepers, but beloved sons and daughters of God and each other’s brothers and sisters. What does matter is that God rejoices when we begin to remember.

The parable remains open at the end. We don’t know if the elder son will enter the house of reconciliation. We don’t know if in the end being a son and a brother will have more weight than being right and being hurt. We can be confident, however, because of the one who told the story and lived it, that the father will not stop searching for the brothers, pleading with them and embracing them until they are reconciled. The feast will not be complete until every son and daughter of God remembers that we are made for communion with God and with each other.