He was angry then and refused to go in…
As much as I have wanted to ignore Older Brother and somehow pretend that he doesn’t exist, I am drawn to reflect on this sibling. It is much easier for me to identify myself with Younger Brother than the other son, as I am more sympathetic toward one who has some realization of his lostness and attempts to return home. Older Brother relies totally on himself, his own personal sense of righteousness—self-righteousness, in fact—to demand his standing. He has earned his place in the family, in the community, and in the world, and this wastrel has squandered what he was given. There is no sense of thankfulness, no gratitude in his heart, no openness to anyone who is not equal to him. As the writers of the Gospels describe the Pharisees as they relate Jesus’ life, I see a reflection of Older Brother, or maybe more precisely I see the Pharisees reflected in Older Brother in the parable.
My deep issue is that I do not want to see myself in any way as the first son of the Father. He is compassion-less, stern, rigid, and it seems, devoted to his father out of a sense of self-serving or “I will do this because I can get something for myself.” His superiority over all the others in the story drips with an iciness that is bone-chilling, from his servants, to his brother, to his father. He has every right to make demands because he has been faithful.
To put a not-so-subtle point on it, I see myself being tempted to relate to those who have left The Episcopal Church precisely as Older Brother relates to Younger Brother’s return. We may be on the verge of receiving a judicial decision in our favor regarding the property that has been taken from us. With that return, there is the likelihood of individuals who were less than kind to those of us who remained a part of TEC being again a part of our communities. For well over 18 months, we as a diocese have been talking and praying and planning for the future, using such terms as reconciliation and reunion. And yet, in my heart of hearts, do I really want to welcome with the kiss of peace those who snubbed us—me? Or would I rather stand outside with arms crossed in defiance and say, “All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours…” with the implication that I deserve to say who is welcome and who is not? This will be especially poignant for me personally should there be clergy who took their share of the inheritance and left for a far country. Will we—will I—be willing and able to receive them as brothers, or again will we rail against them?
I again encourage you to re-read this parable, taking for yourself the position of Older Brother, trying on this role as a cast member playing that part. Reflect on how you have received Younger Brother in the past, and how the Holy Spirit is calling you to receive these brothers and sisters in Christ who may have hurt you deeply. This is Gospel work that every one of us in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth must enter into now, before the day comes when we cast ourselves as the one who refuses to welcome anyone. If you want more Gospel imperative, read Matthew 25:31-46. Pray with me this Advent to heal the divisions in our hearts that we might welcome the Christ in absolutely everyone.