I could have killed that brother of mine—more than once. Arrogant, proud, know-it-all. Always out on the town; plenty of friends; popular and confident; but always selfish and never offering to help. I’m the elder, but do you think that ever mattered to him? Not a chance. Always trying to tell me what to do; never listening to reason, never accepting anything I say, and never pulling his weight.
I tried telling Father but that didn’t help. “Try to be patient with him,” Father would say. “He has so many strengths you know, and so much to learn,” he’d tell me.
“You are both so different; we have to learn to accept our differences,” he said once.
“Nonsense!” I said. “He should learn to take responsibility and show some respect. When did he ever do any proper work around here? He’s old enough to earn his keep.”
Father said, “He reminds me so much of your mother—so strong and free, yet so vulnerable.”
“Vulnerable? What utter rubbish! He’s so arrogant; he expects everything to go his own way. Mother was too soft on him,” I said. “That’s the problem.”
“And so are you,” I thought to myself.
Had I been around that day; that unbelievable day when Father’s softness hit an all-time low…, had I been around that day, there would have been hell to pay. As it was I told Father exactly what I thought.
Father had always spoken of dividing the farm between us two brothers. “There’s no one else,” he would say.
Well a few years back it seems that little brother’s self-centred impatience got the better of him. Apparently he told Father that he wanted to leave the farm and start out on his own. He demanded (demanded, mind you); he demanded his share of the inheritance—can you believe it? Father’s still alive and well. What a cheek.
I had stayed in Jerusalem after the Passover, trying to arrange the sale of some of our cattle. When I got home a week later, it was a done deal. The house in Galilee, which belonged to Mother’s family, was always going to Mother’s pet. The farm would be mine, and Father had enough cash to pay the little brat the difference. But it left the farm with only a small working capital. Heaven help us if there was a drought or any other catastrophe. But why should that brat care? He had what he wanted, and no one else matters in his little world.
“What about you?” I asked Father. “What are you going to live on?”
“Oh,” he said. “My needs are modest. I have enough for myself. Besides,” he added. “I’ll still be pulling my weight on the farm and earning my keep. You don’t have to worry about me.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said, really annoyed. “That little brat didn’t stop for one moment to think about you and your needs.”
What really angered me was thinking about what he was going to do. He’s the laziest person I know. He hadn’t done an ounce of proper work his entire life. He never finished what he started; got bored when anything took longer than five minutes. In spite of Father’s glorified view, his only strengths were making friends (although I wouldn’t want his “friends” thank you very much) and spending money. I reckon it’s the spending money that makes the friends.
Although I was very angry, as anyone in their right mind would be, I also thought, “Good riddance. Now it’ll just be Father and me, and we can get on with life. Father will see just how hard I work and, just maybe, he’ll begin to appreciate me.”
Huh! You think? Well that’s not how it worked out. Father would go on and on asking what I thought my brother was doing and where he was and whether he was coping. I just lost it one day: “Do you think that son of yours care one bit about what you are doing, and how you are coping, and whether you have enough to live on? I don’t want to talk about him thank you very much. He’s gone. Good riddance. We’ve got more than enough to keep us busy without having to worry about him. I assure you, he’s not worrying about us!” Father didn’t talk about him much after that.
We received news every now and again. My hedonist brother seems to have drifted around (“from party to party and den of iniquity to den of iniquity,” as a friend of mine put it). He was last seen living it up in Damascus. Well, how long he thought his money would last without trying to replace it I have no idea. No doubt he thought that gambling was a viable job. And he’d soon find out that the so-called friends he lavished his money on, wouldn’t return the favour.
I had responsibility for the day-to-day running of the farm and Father would help out in the decision-making and in the busy seasons. After a while he took to sitting on the front porch in the mornings with his coffee, staring into the distance. Often he would stroll down the district road.
At first I thought he had decided to start easing up—perhaps taking time to contemplate the days when Mother was still alive. But sometimes it seemed as if he was waiting for someone, expecting something to happen. Then it dawned on me. For goodness sake! He’s wishing that brat would come back. I just seethed. As if we didn’t have enough trouble; why should he want that…that…? He should be disowning him, not wishing him back. And how does he think I would feel? Oh no, he won’t have given any thought to me.
Well, we didn’t hear anything about my brother for some two or three years. Then it happened. I was on a neighbour’s farm when he slunk back home. One of the servants told me about it later.
Father was apparently standing on the porch looking into the distance. Suddenly he shouted, “He’s alive! He’s here!”
Then he pulled up his robes and he literally ran down the road. Ran, I tell you. A venerable old man, shedding his last ounce of dignity, running down the road like some peasant child. And for what? To greet a passing king? Oh, no; to welcome home, like some conquering hero, that worthless younger son of his.
Father made such a fuss of him. You’d think he’d saved the nation, or at least the family honour. Huh! There wasn’t much honour in what he’d been up to, I can tell you that.
I didn’t know what was going on when I got back—the crowds, the noise. I grabbed one of the servants and got all the sordid details. Including, can you believe it, the fatted calf. A gift for the most honoured of guests. My friends and I would be lucky to get a runt from the flock for a special occasion, let alone the fatted calf. Has that crazy old man finally taken leave of all his senses?
I asked him. That night. In the middle of the party. I wasn’t going inside—Father came out to see me. He actually wanted me to go in and celebrate with him: his dead son come back to life. I nearly chocked.
“Oh great,” I said. “And what about me? I’ve been here all along, slaving my heart out. You don’t throw any parties for me. But that brat of yours, who owns nothing here, nothing I tell you, comes snivelling back because he’s got nowhere else to go, and you throw a party. And tomorrow? He’ll want his share of the inheritance all over again. Over my dead body!”
Father seemed to think the brat still belonged here somehow, so I told him: “What that son of yours did was a sin. He’s dishonoured you, his father, and the memory of our beloved mother. He’s lived a foul life in defiance of our holy God. And I will not take part in any celebration; I will not defile myself in his presence. And you’re not just celebrating; you’re condoning his evil ways. How can you pray, or go to Synagogue when you’ve made yourself so unclean?”
“Do you think that this is how God wants us to act—to welcome sinners at their first cry for help? Do you think God would go running down the road to welcome an undeserving sinner into his home, and forgive him just like that? What sort of God would do that?”
From Luke 15 11-32
What sort of God would do these things?
Would welcome an underserving sinner home?
A sinner who has ignored him, rejected him, dishonoured him?
What sort of God would do that?
What sort of God would find a way, would pay the highest price,
To forgive, to heal, to reconcile?
What sort of God would do that?
A friend of sinners;
One who gathers up his robes and runs towards us;
One who lays down his life to befriend us;
One who says, “I have not come to judge the world but to be its saviour.”
One who brings good news to the poor;
Who proclaims freedom to captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind.
One who releases the oppressed, and comes to save God’s people.
Oh God, you do all of that for us, for our neighbours, for our world.
How can we receive your gift?
How can we thank you?
How can we give you praise?
A story told at Prestbury Methodist Church on 7 August 2011