March 14, 2010

“An Angry Brother”
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Can I assume that you know the parable of the Prodigal Son? It is a story rich with ethnic and religious implication. The imagery is compelling and moves the story along. It has captivated artists and preachers, perhaps since the first telling of it. When this son get’s home, it’s a reunion story, not a repentance story. It’s about the high cost of reconciliation, in which individual worth, identity and rightness all go down to the dust so that those as good as dead in their division may live together in peace.

I do not identify with the Prodigal Son. At this point in my life you may believe that I more easily identify with the Father. But for the most part, let’s face it, I am the ‘Angry Brother.’ In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, anger is a common theme. The Ames family has a long line of preachers in it. The narrator’s grandfather stood in the pulpit in 19th century Kansas with a pistol on his hip. The story contains a series of relationships that need reconciliation. Dysfunction is not a single generational issue with the Ames. This is also a community issue: his best friend, another minister in town, Rev. Boughton, also knows about alienated family members. But the story of the father and grandfather’s estrangement, unable to be restored because anger kept them apart till the old man’s death. The Father and son go on a journey during the dust bowl to find the Grandfather’s grave, and after clearing off the makeshift grave,

(Father) stayed there for a good while plucking at little whiskers of straw that still remained on it, fanning himself with his hat. I think that he regretted that there was nothing more for him to do. Finally he got up and brushed himself off, and we stood there together in our miserable clothes all damp and dirty from the work…and the first crickets rasping and the flies really beginning to bother and the birds crying out the way they do when they’re about ready to settle for the night, and my father bowed his head and began to pray, remembering his father to the Lord, and also asking the Lord’s pardon, and his father’s as well. (John Ames said) I missed my grandfather mightily, and I felt the need of pardon too. But that was a very long prayer. (Marilynne Robinson, “Gilead” Farrar: New York, 2004, p. 14)

Disagreements about the faith are blown into major issues and are the key to the story, and why some stay and why some go away in the small town, Gilead.

In our story, the key to understanding this story is the first 3 verses:

1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.
2 And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Luke’s Jesus is being surrounded by Tax Collectors. You may picture someone like the bank auditor in that movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I don’t know, but you should realize that these people were ‘one of us,’ in that they were not Romans, or Greeks, they were Jews who were working for the authorities, collecting taxes, such as another character you might know, Zacchaeus. Farmers who tried to move their goods outside their home territory for greater profit had this very profit ‘ate up’ by tolls and taxes. The usual governmental perks such as graft, fraud, and corruption abounded in this situation. Worse than all of that, of course, was that these ‘Tax Collectors’ broke the ‘law of Moses’ by their association with Gentiles; thus they were made ‘unclean.’ In a word, they were sinners like others who by their actions distanced themselves from God. That is what Sin is, those behaviors that distance you from God. These people were drawing near to Jesus.

“And the Pharisees and the scribes complained: ‘This guy is hanging out with sinners.’ And, the implication is that he, too, is now ‘unclean.’

We are so familiar with this story that we cannot even be moved by this condescension. Look at it another way: A minister was kept properly poor by his congregation, and his old car was always breaking down. One evening, returning from visiting in the hospital, the car quit. The pastor coasted into the parking lot of the local tavern, locked the car, and walked home until he could get a tow truck the next day. As it would happen two of the church busy-bodies noted the presence of the pastors car there in the lot the next morning. Pretty soon, word was swirling around that the pastor was hanging out with “sinners.” The minister knew, of course, who was perpetrating this rumor so he confronted them. He told the true story, which didn’t satisfy the ladies, so he promised them that the next evening his car broke down on the way into town he’d park it in their driveway overnight.

Like other religious busy-bodies, the Pharisees were a group of particularly observant and influential religious folk. They were very concerned about not getting their hands dirty with any worldly stuff, paying close attention to the ‘rules’ of the faith, and they made sure the Sabbath was kept ‘decently and in good order.’

These are the ones who have done everything right, who have maintained their fidelity to the faith, ‘slaved’ as it were, for their “father.” They are the one’s in the cue to heaven, they have followed the rules of civility in ‘line keeping’ and are getting disturbed that some folks are milling around the line, looking like they are going to ‘gyp.’

We ‘older brothers’ need to admit, straight away that we prefer justice over mercy. By that I mean that they should get what they deserve, go to the back of the line, if we admit them to the line at all.

It is tempting to exaggerate their situation, just as other ‘angry brothers’ have done. It is easy, when jealous of others, to embellish the depths of their sin in an attempt to highlight the differences between us and them.

We may even wonder how the admission of these folks might effect us, rather than how their admission into the Body of Christ might benefit them…if they were to be truly admitted.

There are so many disturbing angles in this story. But the worst, the absolute worst in every family is the divide caused by the fear of scarcity. When I was a nursing home administrator there would be families who would hide most of mom or dad’s money, maybe put them in a cheaper care setting so they could ‘get their inheritance.’ This older son cannot understand why, if the other son has already received his share, why anything further should be offered him. Because I am an older brother who didn’t do ‘too much’ swine research, I can understand why these frivolities and extravagances are offered to this ‘ner do good.’ If, dear Father, you would be interested in properly rewarding me for my faithfulness, I’d appreciate it. But as it is you are cutting into what remains of my reward. And for what?

Angry, pouting, brothers like us serve as a reminder that in the Kingdom of God that Jesus announces, our sense of “the way things should be” isn’t the way things are. Mercy overcomes justice. Affection trumps anger. Wayward children are welcomed home because their parent loves them, not because they’ve done good. This is hard to hear sometimes, but it is the Good News of the Gospel.

At the end of the novel “Gilead,” the narrator John Ames describes all of the anger and jealousy between those who have left and those who have stayed in that small Kansas town, saying,

As I have told you, I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father’s house – even when his father did, a fact which surely puts my credentials beyond all challenge. I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained. And that’s all right. There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?

It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire. Another reason why you must be careful with your health. (Gilead, p. 238)