Week Two: The Older Son

God Gathers Us for Worship

Opening is structured as congregation is accustomed.

God Embraces Us in Grace

Reading: From Madeleine L'Engle's And It Was Good:

Reflections on Beginnings

We are so familiar with the parable of the prodigal son that we forget part of the message, and that is the response of the elder brother. As I read and reread Scripture, it seems evident that God is far more loving than we are, and far more forgiving. We do not want God to forgive our enemies, but Scripture teaches us that all God wants is for us to repent, to say, "I'm sorry, Father, forgive me," as the prodigal son does when he comes to himself and recognizes the extent ot his folly and wrongdoing. And the father rejoices in his return.

Then there's the elder brother. We don't like to recognize ourselves in the elder brother who goes off and sulks because the father, so delighted at the return of the younger brother, prepares a great feast. Punishment? A party] Because the younger brother has learned the lesson he has, in a sense, already punished himself. But, like the elder brother, we're apt to think the father much too lenient.

Prayer of Confession

O Father, the sense of salvation is too simple for us to accept. "My grace is sufficient for you" is what you say, but how can it be, when in our hearts and minds we want to earn our own way?

More sadly yet, sometimes we think we've almost earned it, and then resent the notion of grace, particularly that it be shown to others.

"My grace is sufficient for you" is hard for us to take when we realize the "you" is plural and that your grace embraces people we don't like, people we are uncomfortable around, people by whom we are scandalized.

Then you throw a party and invite us all as guests of honor, and we stand sulking in the corner because it isn't all just for us. Lord, touch us with your healing grace that frees us from this silliness. Amen.

Hymn: "We Cannot Measure How You Heal" Gather 575

God Speaks a Word of Grace

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture: Luke 15:25-32

Sermon: "The Elder Son"

What can be said about the older brother? Well, he's a good person. That's OK. There's nothing wrong with being good. The father never rebukes him for being good. Jesus never criticized the Pharisees for being too good either. The older brother's problem is not his behavior, it's his attitude. He worked hard, stayed out of trouble, did all the right things, but he failed to be a true child of his father. He never caught on to the party spirit of the home where he lived.

All that looked so good on the outside turns out to be only skin-deep. Beneath the surface there lay a resentful, bitter person. Although he only says a few sentences, there's enough in those two sentences to keep a therapist occupied for years.

All these years I've been slaving for you. His work wasn't the joyful obedience of a thankful heart. It was the resentful duty of a household slave.

And when he speaks of his kid brother, he calls him "This son of yours." He disowns his brother and almost seems to blame the father in part for his brother's behavior. And then he exaggerates his brother's immorality, filling in all the blanks. In his mind's eye he's imagined his brother's sensuous life, a hooker on each arm and an entourage of drinking buddies in tow—one almost gets the impression that his disgust is mixed together with more than a pinch of jealousy.

The scandalous extravagance of the father's grace rips the elder son up and brings to the surface the dark and bitter side of his existence. His virtue has a shadow side of anger and resentment. It's frightening to consider how much hate and condemnation and judgment can lurk in the cold hearts of saints.

In his book on the prodigal son, Henri Nouwen describes his own experience as the eldest son of a large family. His siblings, says Nouwen, live the good life— fine jobs, big money, nice homes, fast cars—while he became a priest, served the poor in Latin America, then moved to the L'Arche community to minister to the severely disabled. He admits that he often feels resentment when he thinks about their lives of luxury compared with his own of frugality and service. He says: "My resentment is not something easily distinguished and (rational). Its far more pernicious . . . something that has attached itself to the underside of my virtue. Isn't it good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, self-sacrificing.... and still it seems that my resentments are tied to my most praiseworthy attitudes. When I want to be most generous, I get caught in anger; when I do my best to accomplish a task well, I wonder why everyone doesn't work as hard as I do."

Saint Augustine said, "A darkened heart is the far country, for it is not by our feet but by our affections that we either leave or return to you." In a way, this older brother is more lost than his high-rolling sibling. So close to grace, beloved of his father, yet he feels he must earn that love. Home on the farm but really living in a far country. The younger brother has come home; the older brother is still in the far country of his heart.

Do we suffer from elder-brother syndrome? If so, we need to hear the gracious invitation of this story—the invitation to come to the party!

Hymn: "The Summons" in Gather (see review on p. 46)

God Prompts Us to Respond

Closing: See comments in week one.


For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.

Rolf Bouma (rbouma@umich.edu) is a pastor at Campus Chapel Ministries, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Reformed Worship 43 © March 1997 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.