The Prodigal Brother: Self Righteousness
A Summer Family Reunion: Lessons From Our Faith Ancestors
Sunday, June 24, 2018
On New Year’s Day of this year, Caleb and I attended the Peach Bowl football game at the new Mercedes Benz Stadium in Downtown Atlanta. It was bitterly cold, the wind was howling and there were people everywhere! What I remember is that as we got within about 500 or so yards of the entrance, we encountered a street preacher. With great passion, much anger and profound authority he challenged our priorities, pointed out our sinfulness and challenged us to believe the Bible and to enter into a relationship with Jesus.
As we continued toward the stadium and out of earshot of his preaching, I honestly found myself wondering about who he was, his life, his faith and what it was that had compelled him to take to the street on the coldest day of the winter to date and on a holiday to boot. In many ways, I admired his courage and his commitment and I recognized fully that he possessed a fearlessness in his walk with Jesus that I do not have.
In many ways, what he said was right. Many of us in that crowd did have the wrong priorities. All of us were sinful. And, all of us needed the relationship with Christ that he spoke of with such passion. Again, he was right about a lot of things. But, he also reminded me on that cold, New Year’s Day that there is a right way to be right and there is a wrong way to be right.
I don’t mean to be critical of his faith or the way that he chose to live it out, but from my perspective, yelling at strangers, speaking first from the position of God’s judgement rather than from the position of God’s hopefulness and trying to preach to people while they all freezing to death and on the way to a ball game are not, at least again in my opinion, the best ways to share the Good News. In fact, little of what he said felt very much like good news! For me at least, these were the wrong ways to go about saying the right things.
I find this idea of a right way and a wrong way to be right to be a central idea of the story that is front of us today regarding the parable of Jesus that we almost always refer to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Yet, this morning, I want us to think about this as also being the story of the Prodigal older brother. For the truth is that both of these sons had wondered away from the ideas and the ways that their father wanted them to embrace although they had done so in two very different ways.
Of course, the younger boy had strayed by leaving home. He had done so in dramatic fashion. In essence, one day he told his father that he wished he was dead. He asked for his share of the inheritance right then while his father was still alive. Having received it, he spent all of it in short order on what Luke refers to as “wild living”. When a famine swept the land where the younger son was and with the boy trying to eek out a living by feeding pigs, he came to his senses, was repentant and decided to go home.
It is his homecoming that also puts his brother in the spotlight too. And, it is here that the parable takes an unexpected turn. What Luke teaches us is that there are two prodigal’s here – the younger son who strayed to the far country and the older brother who never left home but who was as lost as his younger sibling. The younger prodigal was lost in the midst of bad decisions, putting his own needs above those of everyone else and sinful behavior. The older prodigal was lost in righteous anger, self righteousness and the deep desire to prove his own worth by proving everyone else’s failures. In many ways, he was right – he was right that he had staid home and been faithful to their dad. He was right that compared to his brother he had done what was expected of him. And, he was right that he had worked much harder. But, he went about being right in the wrong way. He was right and self-righteousness, not right and humble. And, there is a big difference between the two.
If you look closely at the story, his claim to rightness led him to do several interesting things. First, his claim to rightness led him to exaggerate his brother’s sinfulness. Have you ever noticed that when Luke describes the younger brother’s decisions, the gospel writer simple says that he spent his money on “wild living”. But, when the older brother describes his younger brother’s behavior, he exaggerates saying that he had been “with prostitutes” a claim that Luke never makes. Second, he minimizes his brother’s worth. In his eye’s his brother is all bad, of no account, not worth wasting their time on. Yet, obviously, their father didn’t feel this way but rather was simply glad that this member of their family had come home. For their father, the younger boy was far from worthless or hopeless.
We do the same two things. When we are in the right yet go about being right in the wrong way, we also exaggerate and we minimize. We regularly exaggerate the poor decisions, awful choices and terrible living of those that we want to separate ourselves from. And, we also minimize the good that is still a part of their lives because we can no longer see it and because we act as if it is no longer there in any shape form or fashion.
Now, I want you to hear me clearly when I pause for a moment and say this – I am not suggesting in any way that we should completely ignore the bad decisions or consequences of those who have disappointed us, failed us or have broken the hearts of those that we love. On the one hand, I am not suggesting that we throw the book at them and totally right them off, and, on the other, I am not suggesting that we sweep all of their bad decisions under the rug and act like those decisions are not there.
Instead, I am suggesting the path of humility and forgiveness that appreciates our own fallenness and that names the ugliness of the sinfulness of others not by wanting to disown them or throw stones at them but by wanting to help them as a fellow struggler and as a fellow sinners.
You have heard me mention before Calvin Miller’s memoir Life is Mostly Edges and chances are you will hear me mention it again. It is a beautiful and honest account of the famous teacher, writer and Baptist minister’s life. In the book, Miller talks at length about his childhood in Enid, Oklahoma and the difficulties that he, his parents and his ten siblings faced.
They were dirt poor, they lived in a three room house with 11 residents and their family life was anything but stable. In his honest recollections, Miller places much of the blame squarely on his father Frank. Frank Miller rarely worked and spent most of what he had on alcohol. In remembering him, Calvin Miller shares heartbreaking stories. He tells of the Thanksgiving that their father cashed in a gift certificate for a turkey that had been given to their family while spending it all on a night of drinking. And, he remembers the ramshackle house that their father built for them that was never finished because he ran out of money leaving their home to never be painted on the outside and the walls inside never to be carried beyond the framing and studs to actually include plaster so that the rooms could truly be divided.
Ultimately, when Calvin was still young, after time in jail, his father signed the papers giving their mom Ethel the divorce she wanted.
In the midst of these sad details of his prodigal father, Miller titles a chapter in the book, “The Five Gifts of A Scoundrel”. In it, Miller again is very clear about his father’s shortcomings but he is also very clear about the five good things that Frank Miller gave to their family in spite of all the bad. He remembers the gift of 9 children that Frank and Ethel Miller had together. He gives thanks for the little three room house that his father provided that did keep them dry and warm even if it was never painted or finished. He remembers his father’s help to his mom when one of his siblings died. He remembers that his father didn’t make a fuss about his Mother’s wanting a divorce knowing it was the right thing. And, he remembers one birthday, his 15th when his dad visited with him. Miller doesn’t let his dad off the hook but he also doesn’t over exaggerate his badness or minimize the few good things. Instead, he does what the older brother in our story could not do. He finds the way of forgiveness and humility and says the right things in the right way. And, it was this right way that allowed him to be present and a part of his father’s life when the prodigal father came back to Enid after all of those years away to die.
There is a wrong way to be right. But there is also a right way filled with humility, forgiveness and equal measures of honesty and grace to be right. There are prodigals in all of our lives. Which way will we choose? Amen.