As a family of six, jokes were in abundance. My brothers would share ones like: “My sister” (me) is so dim she thinks that a cartoon is a song you sing in a car.” I would retort with jokes like, Mom asked” Why does your brother jump up and down before taking his medicine? I would respond: Because he read the label, and it said 'shake well before using.” It is rare to grow up with siblings, no matter the depth of connection and closeness, without some tension, teasing or fighting.
At least 80 percent of Americans have at least one sibling. Our sibling relationships outlast marriages, survive the death of parents, resurface after quarrels that would sink any friendship. They flourish in a thousand incarnations of closeness and distance, warmth, loyalty and distrust. Our relationship, or lack thereof, with our siblings has a profound effect on our lives.
Poet Maya Angelou once made the observation: “I don't believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.” How true this is. Growing up with five older brothers, I’ve witnessed the long journey from being siblings in rivalry to growing into brotherhood and sisterhood.
Over the years, like many siblings, we’ve grown closer, grown to care and love for each other and respect our differences of opinion and celebrate the people we’ve become. My brother Mike, who still teases me mercilessly, made it a point to say to every perspective date of mine: “You better treat my sister right, because I got a shotgun and a shovel, and I know how to use them both.” (He really didn’t have a shotgun, but I never told.)
Our gospel lesson today invites us into a serious family drama. It’s perhaps the most famous parable Jesus told. A family with two sons. Often called the “parable of the prodigal son,” it’s the age-old story about siblings struggling with each other – struggling to become brothers in God’s eyes. Both Charles Dickens and Mark Twain called it this parable “the greatest story ever told.”
The rebellion and appalling behavior of the younger son toward his father and mother is well known. The younger son – comes to his senses – repents and returns to the Father. The Father for his turn has been waiting patiently, watching the horizon, and when he sees his son, receives him with arms open wide, and orders a party to celebrate the boy’s return. The end of the story, right? Wrong. It just begins.
The real focus in the story is the tension between the brothers: the older sibling is enraged at how easily his Father received the younger son back, and at how inappropriately his brother took his inheritance, left the homestead, and wasted it on riotous living. Jesus ends the story with this tension unresolved: the brothers unreconciled –the older son seemingly unmoved by the Father’s reassurance of his love and his plea to celebrate and rejoice the younger son’s safe return.
This story has deep roots in the human psyche. It points us back to the first sibling pair, Cain and Abel. Cain is jealous of Abel’s offering that is accepted by God, while his is rejected. Cain eventually murders his brother, defiantly asking God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is first question posed to God – and has echoed down through the ages. In the scriptures we see the descendants of Ismael (Abraham’s first born) and Isaac, the Arab and the Jewish nations, battling it out. Jacob and Esau are at each other’s throat. Leah and Rachel compete with each other for their husband’s love. Joseph and his brothers are estranged over jealousy of the father’s affections. King David’s sons scuffled for the throne. On it goes. The listeners of Jesus’ tale, the grumbling Pharisees and scribes, would know Jesus is singling them out, pointing them out as the elder brothers, who struggle for power in family, clan and nation.
The unspoken dynamic in the story of the prodigal son is the place of privilege and honor held by the first-born. The first-born son held a special place in the family and culture. The biblical tradition created an elaborate system of redemption, where the parents made an offering to the Temple to “buy back” their child, as in the offering of Mary and Joseph to the Temple of turtle doves. The firstborn inherited a double portion of his father’s estate, he received the father’s powerful blessing, and had a place of leadership and privilege in the family can system.
The firstborn concept spread to biblical theology. Israel is seen as the firstborn of the nations. Jesus is called the “firstborn of all creation” and “firstborn from the dead.” From this context we can understand both the horror and implications of the striking down of the Firstborn of Egypt as the last plague in the Passover story. This plague struck a fatal blow to Egyptian privilege power, and a taunt to Egyptian deities.
So the elder brother in our story, just by dumb luck, is in a place of honor and privilege. Like Cain, like Joseph’s older brothers, he becomes resentful when the younger brother is accorded special honor. Abel’s offering is received. Joseph gets the multi-colored coat. The younger son is accorded a place of honor – the best robe, a ring, sandals, and the fatted calf. The established code of honor is disrupted. The Father (who stands for God) reverses the established human order of privilege. God does this not to humiliate or drive out the firstborn, but to create balance that includes all people – to make brothers and sisters out of mere siblings, to say, indeed we are each other‘s keeper.
Look at this elder son in the story. He lived by the rules because they benefited him. But it nursed in him a demon of entitlement and resentment. He never left home because his lot is cast. He blames his father and brother for his dour life – he practically spits – “I’ve been working like a slave for you, you never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends”. Maybe he’s even envious of his younger brother. Indignant at his brother’s failure to follow proper order. Most of all he’s enraged at how generous his father is. He would have preferred his brother publicly humiliated, reduced to a slave. He cannot forgive. He refuses to acknowledge kinship with his brother; instead he says to his father “that son of yours” instead of “my brother.” He clearly does not see himself as his brother’s keeper. The family feud continues.
Like the younger son who hasn’t sought love and acceptance in the wrong places? Taken people for granted? Who hasn’t been lost, struggling to find their way home? The bottom line is both siblings need the love and forgiveness of God to become brothers – to know what family is truly like.
In Jesus in whom we have been reconciled, the answer is yes, I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper. I am your servant. We are called to protect each other, watch over each other. What a different world we would have if we acted as true brothers and sisters – instead of like estranged siblings. Let us come to our senses. Repent, forgive and join the waiting celebration. Then we will make of this world a true home, where all are brothers and sisters – in Jesus, the Firstborn . Amen