Through the Eyes of the Younger Brother…

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

I was in the self-checkout at the grocery store the other day when I overheard an animated conversation between two of the workers there: a young man and an older woman.

I have no details as my ears tuned in late to their exchange, but what I overheard was this.  He was speaking about his broken relationship with his sister and of how once betrayed he could never let it go. From what he offered, it seemed he was entirely cut off from her now. The older woman was trying to talk him into taking another perspective on it, but even though I was only privy to a few minutes of her reasoning before I headed out with my purchases, I didn’t think she was making much headway. Even so, clearly, she has seen enough of life to know that such brokenness between siblings early can lead to fissures that, if they heal at all, can leave lifelong scars.

I witnessed the same up close at a funeral I officiated a few weeks back. In that case, the siblings had met with the funeral director and paid for the cremation.  Beyond that, though, they were washing their hands of what remnants of their relationship with their brother remained. Someone else stepped up to pay for the funeral and neither his brother nor his sister had any part of what was shared.

Perhaps this is why the familiar story we stand still in now resonates so deeply.

It is about families.

It is about one family that is broken, which is ways small or large could be any of our families.

For even though most of us, hopefully, will not find ourselves precisely where the families I describe above found themselves, many of us, I expect most of us, can at least imagine ourselves in the outline, or even the details, of the one before us now.

For yes, I get that older brother, as many do.  As would both the young worker at the grocery store and the two siblings who refused to have anything more to do with their apparently wayward brother.

And from this distance I can see how his, how their, holding on to their resentment harms not only the one with whom their relationship is broken, and not only themselves , but it also damages their relationship with the parent, and also with God.

And yet, here is my wondering about this perhaps too familiar story this time through.

How do we bring it home in such a way that it is not simply a ‘moral tale’ about not holding on to resentment or about welcoming others — even or especially those most would consider unlikely — and make it so that those engaging it experience the welcome itself with all of its grace and power and unexpected joy?

I mean to say, the manner in which it is set up with Pharisees and scribes grumbling about who Jesus is sharing a meal with seems to inevitably lead us to the former, but in the end, I’m not sure how much that helps.

For we have heard it our whole lives haven’t we? These familiar words of Jesus’  story echoes in our ears even as we hear the religious leaders of his time speaking aloud their discontent.

  • And yet, until we can also see ourselves in the one so apparently undeservedly welcomed, my sense is that nothing really changes.
  • Or until we can begin to even in a small way see with the eyes of God’s love the humanity of the other who too often we are inclined to exclude, nothing changes.

Indeed, somehow it doesn’t seem to be enough that the mirror is held up and I only see myself in the older brother now. Or in those who were so unwelcoming in the hierarchy of the institution at the time.

It just doesn’t.

So it is I offer these thoughts as prelude now to those of us who will be offering this story so familiar its hard to hear anything new in it now.

And I wonder what it looks like to totally immerse ourselves in what we know of the experience of the younger brother.

  • This one who probably always lived in the shadow of his responsible older brother.
  • This one who perhaps sought to make his mark on the world in a different way than anyone he had ever known.
  • This one who was seemingly unafraid to venture into the world on his own terms — even to a far distant place, where language and custom and culture were likely far different from anything he had ever experienced before.
  • This one who had an appetite for adventure, who was willing to risk it all.
    • And who did.
    • And who lost it all.
    • And who found himself far from home, hungry and alone.
    • And who was just able to begin to imagine himself going home again — even if only as a slave in his father’s house.
  • And who risked it all again and just went home.
  • This one whose imagination, his hope for what his father’s welcome would encompass was almost as paltry as his older brother’s.

Indeed, this one.

Can you see yourself in him even a little bit?

And can you imagine yourself sharing his oh-so-limited imagination of what would be possible should he finally make his way home?

And can you, for even an instant, rest in the wonder of that welcome beyond measure?

The one that is yours simply because you are a beloved child?

Oh, we have to peel away the layers to get there, I know.

Many of us have to look the resentment of the older brother square on and recognize how it also diminishes and depletes us even now.

But having done that? The story only opens us up if we can see ourselves in that younger one.

For it is only then, it seems to me, that our hearts break open enough to see God’s love for the other as well.

And we come in from the ‘field’ and join the party, too.

  • There are a number of ways to enter a story so familiar. I think the way the parable is set up invites us to see ourselves in the older brother and a strong case can be made for that among long standing faithful ones who resent those ‘younger, newer ones’ for one reason or another. Even so, perhaps you hear the story through another lens.  How do you find yourself approaching it this time?
  • I wonder if this story is especially apt right now as we consider those who have ‘gone off to a far country and left us’ in the midst of and in the wake of this pandemic. Should they return, what will our welcome look like? Indeed, will we be able to shed our resentment to do so as the waiting father in the parable would?
  • I am convinced that we must hear this as more than a ‘moral tale’ and enter into the experience as the one so extravagantly, undeservedly welcomed home.  How might you go about conveying that in what you offer this week?  Where have you, where do you, see this coming alive in your own life and experience?



  1. Carolyn says:

    I’m wondering how this connects to the current situation between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine wandered off to leave Russia and maybe join the EU or NATO. There’s no welcoming father in this situation, but we definitely have an angry older brother.

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