Watch the video of this sermon (starts at 29:25).


A lot of people don’t know this, but I was a precocious child: I emerged from the womb on my own strength and took the tools from the doctor and cut my own umbilical cord. To tell you the truth, I hadn’t even needed that cord in the first place, having obtained my own food through my own hard work in utero.

I slept in a crib of my own making, nourished myself with milk from cows I had found in the wild and domesticated myself. I spun cotton in plants I myself had raised from seedlings and wove my own clothing. I taught myself to speak and read merely by conducting my own extensive field research and deducing through my own mental ability the phonetic values of each letter. Having taught myself to read, I self-educated all the way from pre-school on up, when I wasn’t busy with everything else. There was not a scrap of clothing that I wore that I did not make, not a morsel of food that I ate that I did not harvest or kill myself. Not a piece of information that I did not obtain but through the deductive powers of my own intellect. I am not now, nor have I ever been, in need of anyonefor anything. I am the very definition of the “self-made man.” I don’t owe anybody anything. Everything I have, I deserve.

My younger sister, on the other hand, was actually delivered by a doctor. Fed by my mother, wrapped in clothing by my parents, and placed in a crib my parents had paid for. She was sent to school to learn and had teachers to teach her how to read and write. She was constantly dependent on my parents for food, clothing, and shelter. God, what a slacker.

Of course, older siblings, it seems, have a long history of seeing their lives compared to their younger siblings in this way.


For this is what’s going on in the gospel lesson from Luke we heard read earlier. The famous parable of Jesus’ called “the Prodigal Son.”

Two sons, one responsible, the other not. One hardworking, the other a little “entitled,” shall we say? The younger one asks for his share of the inheritance now, takes the money and blows it all on reckless living abroad. When he’s hungry and envying the pig slop he’s serving the pigs in his minimum-wage job, he realizes he never had it so good and would be better off being one of this father’s servants than his current life.

So he goes home, and while still far off, causes his father to begin preparations for a tremendous feast in honor of his long lost son who has returned.

Now, the elder son is understandably irked: he’s been here the whole time, being the good kid, while the younger son is off blowing through his inheritance. And now the younger son comes home and he gets a party? How is that fair?

word cloud of sermon text
Image courtesy Wordle.

Now, scholars think this is a parable that addresses a conflict in the early church, between the longtime Jewish believers and those newly converted pagan Gentiles who had been brought into the faith. You can imagine Jewish Christians who’d been faithful followers of the Covenant for centuries looking over at their only-until-recently Zeus-worshipping Gentile congregants and saying, “Wait, they get the same inheritance as us? You’re throwing a banquet for them?” 

The fact that we call this parable “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” highlights some of the problems with the way we’re inclined to interpret it. We are inclined to look at this as a story of how merciful and generous God is with the younger, prodigal son. How quick God is to forgive, how abundant the forgiveness. And we’re tricked into thinking that this parable is about the younger son. Sure, the older son has an interesting role in being the party-pooper for his younger sibling’s homecoming, but the story is about the younger one.

But Jesus begins the parable by saying, “There was a man who had two sons.” This parable is not just about the younger one, it’s about both. And truth be told, probably more about the older son.

See, even understanding the text as being about a conflict in the early church, we’re still inclined to think it’s about the younger sibling, still inclined to think that this is a parable about the newer members of faith and how excited God is to welcome them into the fold.


But there’s an interesting thing going on here. The elder brother is furious and doesn’t even want to come inside. When his father pleads with him to do so, he answers:

‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

Luke 15:29–30

After the elder son lists his complaints and the reason for them, note what the father does not say. The father does not say, “You’re right. You’ve always been such a hard worker,” or “I know, you’ve really worked hard for everything you have, it’s just that your brother is a special case and needs our help.” The father says simply, “Son you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

See, more problematic than the attitude that the younger sibling is getting by with lower requirements is the attitude that the older brother has believing that he has earned his way in. He thinks that what he has from his father is his by right because he’s earned it; his brother is benefiting from charity. God, what a slacker.


This phenomenon of assuming our own merit and others’ own dependency is not confined to a hypothetical elder son in a parabolic story. This attitude is everywhere.

So much so, that it was said by college and professional football coach Barry Switzer that, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”

Throughout Lent, we have been on a journey with a sermon series entitled “The Redemption Road.” But as I reflect on roads, I find that the path of assuming that we have attained something by merit and others are benefiting from charity or a handout is one road we all too often take.

You see it all the time when people who had the good fortune to have been born in a particular place imagine that the benefits of that place by right belong to them as against those who might migrate there later on.

You see it when people who belong to a racial group that has been privileged in law and in fact for four centuries complain that efforts to balance the inequities are “racist” against them and socially destabilizing.

You see it when men who have had a pretty good uninterrupted 5,000 year run of power and dominance that has placed them in a privileged position are so threatened by the very idea that power could be shared by women that they view the idea as just as reckless as the father’s banquet for the prodigal.

You see it when people who have long had a place at the table of sacred community by virtue of sex, race, gender, or sexual orientation complain that the Divine Order will be upended if anyone dare offer a chair at that table to someone who doesn’t fit that traditional pattern.

There are an awful lot of us who were born on third base who imagine that we’ve hit a triple.


But why should this be?

When I was the United Methodist campus minister at American University, there was one ministry that I was particularly fond of. During finals in the winter semester, I would table in the campus center for about six hours a day giving out free chocolate: Reese’s mini peanut butter cups and multiple varieties of Hershey’s kisses. We called it “Spiritual Therapy Through Chocolate.” We even had signs that said, “Free chocolate: think of it as spiritual therapy for finals,” and “Chocolate: proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” (That was a line originally said by Ben Franklin about beer.)

But there was something interesting I began to notice as we handed out these little morsels of grace: people were suspicious. “What do I have to do to get the chocolate?” they’d ask. “Nothing,” I’d say. “It’s free.” “Do I have to sign up or anything?” “Nope. It’s free.” “I’m not Methodist.” “You don’t need to be; it’s free.” 

I eventually put a sign on the table that said, “Free Chocolate: if you had to do anything to get it, it wouldn’t be free.”

But the entire thing was an object lesson in how difficult it is for people to accept grace. There had to be a catch. Something we wanted from them. Some way they were supposed to earnthe chocolate.

But as our lesson of the Elder Brother reminds us, it turns out it’s just as difficult to accept that we have everaccepted grace. Not only am I unworthy of receiving grace now, but the things I have I must have earned, because surely what I have could not have been the result of someone’s generosity

I’ve wondered about this for a while and I think that both attitudes about grace come from the same place: a place of scarcity.

Could it be that what keeps us from extending grace to the others is the implicit belief that there’s not enough to go around? We are evolutionarily wired to think in terms of scarcity because for a really long time things were scarce. The only food we had was what we could hunt or pluck off of trees and bushes. We eventually developed farming and were able to produce tremendous amounts of food, but the hunter-gatherer mind never left us.

There was a time when wealth was determined by particular items: gold or silver pieces, different kinds of gems, and so on. And so, there was a finite amount of money, and if one person had it, it meant there was less for the others.

But then we invented an economic system that literally creates money out of nothing. A system wherein capital is generated through the process of investment and spending. And that system is capable of generating more wealth than has ever been known in human history. And yet, our hunter-gatherer, hoarder mind has never left us.

There was a time when we believed in gods who bestowed favors based on the sacrifices we had offered them. Whose caprice could be tempered by bribes and appeals to their vanity. 

But then we came to understand through the prophets that there was a God who stood above all that nonsense. Who extended an invitation to a Mesopotamian herder to be the founder of a great nation in an as-yet unknown land. Who delivered a people who barely knew this God from bondage and oppression, not on account of their merit, but on account of divine Grace. Who sent a Son, to embody what this love and grace were, and who taught us in parable and story just how abundant this grace of God was.

But still our hunter-gatherer, hoarder, idolater mind has never left us.

We are in a world of plenty, a world of great riches, a world of abundant grace, but we sit in our caves, clutching our stuff close and withdrawing from those around us. And it’s all so pointless. We lament other people getting a party because we’ve forgotten that we’ve been long invited to the greatest celebration of all. 


The parable of the Prodigal never tells us what the Elder Brother does. Does he ever go in to the party? Does he take that journey toward grace or remain on that road too often taken? The story leaves us with an open ending, and a choice for us as to how we’ll respond.

It’s so easy to walk down this road. It’s so easy to believe that the good things we have are the ones we’ve earned and the good things that others receive are unmerited handouts and charity. It’s so easy to be the Elder Brother.

But maybe, just maybe, if we can get to a place where we are willing to accept grace for ourselves, to accept that we can be loved for who we are, that we can be welcomed into God’s fold as we are, then perhaps we can be more willing to accept that others are as well. And perhaps that can lead us to a place where we can more actively extend that grace to others, and get off this road too often taken and back on the redemption road Christ has called us to walk.

The Texts:

2 Corinthians 5:16–21 • From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Luke 15:1–3, 11–32 • Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable:

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

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