Saturday, March 13, 2010
My Brother, Myself: Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
I wrote this sermon many years ago (12!) and have not preached it since (though I did post it here three years ago). It will be preached tomorrow.
They are all in there—I can hear the music from here, the stamping of the feet, the voices as they raise the cups in toast after toast. They are celebrating as if it were the harvest, or a wedding. I can’t go in there. I can’t go in there. If you had seen what I have seen, you would understand why.
A year ago my father was an honorable man, with not one but two sons to share his good fortune. As the oldest, naturally I had a place of honor at my father’s table, and beside him at prayers in the synagogue. After all, I would inherit the lion’s share of his estate: two thirds, as it is written, a double-portion for the firstborn. My father never had a moment’s anxiety on my account. I was there, by his side, every day from the time I left my mother’s care, learning from him: the land, the accounts, the servants. I learned how to manage his estate by his wisdom, and I gave him the honor he was due as my father. And I ate my daily bread by the sweat of my brow.
But my brother… from the day he was born you could see that his eyes never properly focused on what was right in front of him: his family, our honor. He walked about as if in a dream. Far off lands. Exotic tales of strange peoples. He saw no good in the bread that was before him on his plate, but longed for strange and alien feasts.
I remember well the day he left. He stood in front of the house, in broad daylight, in front of the hired servants, and said, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” He stood there with no shame on his face, and all but told our father, “Your only use to me, old man, is as a corpse.” With his words he wished our father dead. The servants hid their faces and scurried away, so as not to look upon their master’s shame. And, in truth, something in my father did die that day… I could see it in his eyes. His younger son had killed him just as surely as if he’d driven a knife into his breast.
My father walked slowly away from the house, and gestured to a parcel of land. “There. That is your third. The servants will draw up the contracts. So be it.” And then he took his tunic between his great hands, and I thought, for a moment, he was about to tear it. And I thought, “Ah, he will tear his garments to show that this son of his is dead to him.” At least, that is as a man of honor would have seen it. But my father… he did not tear his tunic. It fell from his hands, and hung limply about him, and he shuffled back into the house.
No one said good-bye to my brother. He took his deeds and a parcel of clothing and he disappeared over a low hill.
So. Now I too was a landowner, and not just the oldest son, for my father had divided his property. The servant had handed me a deed of ownerships just as he had handed one to my brother. My father left his place as head of the household, preferring, for some months, to sleep beneath a shade tree in the garden. His ceremonial robes hung unworn inside the house, and he never left to go to the village to trade or to the synagogue to pray. He ate only such food as would sustain a child, and so took on the lean look of a hired man, even though he did no work. And I… well, I was put in the most impossible position of all.
I became the head of the household, but my father lived on. I had accepted my inheritance while my father still breathed! How could I sit in the place of honor at the table beside my own father? How could I wear his robes and trade with the merchants who knew that he had been shamed by a vile, ungrateful child? The other men of the village—they knew as well as I that my brother had marked our family as disgraced. I heard the plan they had for my brother should he ever dare to show his face again in our village. My brother would be dead within the hour he reappeared, they said. What was the alternative? That their sons be permitted to think a father could be so misused and his wicked son live on?
So my brother was a dead man. And my father was a dead man. And I was a man half-alive in my own home.
After a time my father roused himself from beneath his shade tree. He washed his face and put on a clean tunic. He stood out in front of the house, staring off at the low hill. And then he began to walk. He would set out early, before the heat of the day, and usually return in time for the meal, though not always. He would take his staff and walk in the direction of the low hill over which my brother had disappeared. When he returned, he would take his meal, saying little, but eating more now that his body was working again. And then he would sit on a little cushion outside the door, and watch. He sat there watching the horizon, the servants coming and going, every day. The sun hardened his skin, and he had only the occasional clouds for his shade.
I ask you, what am I? I am a child who has done his duty towards his father, no more and no less. If I had taken my pack and followed my brother, would my father’s grief have led him to hold this vigil for me? If my brother was all but dead—and the men of the village vowed never to let him return alive—why did my father hope for his return? Did he not have a son who loved him, who showed him honor? What am I?
Today my father went out for his usual three hours of walking. We had our meal together, as always. I saw nothing unusual—just some vagabond child off in the distance, coming over the hill as my father sat upon his cushion. No one worth noticing. I went out into the field to supervise several men who were digging a drainage ditch. I did not return until the sun had sunk low over the horizon.
When I returned I could smell the aroma of veal roasting, and I could see that the house was lit with lanterns, and I could hear the music that was playing, and the sound of the stamping of the dancers’ feet, and the voices as they raised their cups in toast after toast. I called a house servant to me and asked him to account for all these goings on.
“It was the most amazing thing master! One moment your father was seated, as always, on his cushion. And in the next he was up and running towards some beggar who we could see coming up the road! Yes, running, I tell you, his robes flapping about him! And still we had no idea what or who it was all about. And then we could see that he had embraced this beggar, and kissed him, and that he was bringing him back towards the house! And then I realized who it was. Master. It is your brother.”
So. He has returned. And apparently the men of the village have not stoned him to death or cut his throat. Of course, once my father had kissed him, they could not. It appears that my father has taken his place once again as the head of this family, and that he has taken my good for nothing brother under his protection. So the men of the village are now raising the glass with him instead of describing his death in detail to their sons. So this is how it is.
Why is it that my father, who was so shamed, can forgive? And why is it that I, who have never shamed my father, find myself now standing outside the great feast, looking in? How can I go in?
And yet, there is my father, and he looks altogether unfamiliar to me, as if he were a stranger! Why is that so? Is it that the expression on his face is so alien to me I do knot know him when he wears it? He is smiling. He is smiling so broadly his eyes have disappeared into the deep creases on his face. He looks utterly at peace, completely happy.
And there is my brother. He looks like one who has been imprisoned, like a child who has been released from a prison. He looks as if he had suffered, truly. Gone is the face of that arrogant young man who demanded his portion of the inheritance. What remains is the face of a child. And he too is smiling as if the joy within him is too great to be contained.
My father came to me, just now, and he asked me—he pleaded with me—to come in, to raise the cup for my brother as well. “My son,” he said, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and has been found.” All that is his is mine? Including this lost-and-found child, my brother?
Oh my father… your heart is so deep, so wide! Is that because it has been broken? Can a broken heart love all the more? Then let my heart stop its straining and break so that I too might come into the fold of your love again. Can I come in? Can I let my heart break once and for all so that I too can yield to love?
*Information about social customs and family relationships was taken from Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg/ Fortress Press, 1992), 370-373.
Image from artist Charlie Mackesy.