Home for the Holidays: The Loving Father, Prodigal Son, and Older Brother
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday of Advent, November 28, 2010. It was the first sermon I preached in White Plains, and is posted here this week as a further reflection on the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C, 2013.
Isaiah 2: 1-5 Luke 15: 11-32
It’s a common expression, and for some, the defining feature of this season: “Home for the holidays.” But these weeks before Christmas that the church knows as Advent, is also a season of the blues, holiday depression. Many people are screwing up their courage to face their family, or to face the holidays without their family. AA meetings fill to overflowing, especially on Christmas Eve.
Earlier this year, when my junior high youth went on their annual Fall retreat to our Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center in Holmes, we spent a good bit of time talking about home-leavings and home-coming, about this parable of the loving father, the prodigal son, and the older brother. For in going away for the weekend, we had left home in order to challenge ourselves and would need to return home. So during the weekend, we imagined our way into this parable by first thinking about the younger brother. Why do people leave home?
Well, we can be invited out: to play, to work, to have an adventure, such as much like our Fall retreat, we thought. But we can also leave home with our own intentions: to learn, to go to school, to see the world. Maybe we’re one of those folks for whom home feels small, we’re bored, we need larger horizons. Some people are forced to leave home: they need to relocate to keep a job, or because they lost a job; children are moved to a new school when their parents move. A few kids are actually kicked out of their homes. Some people leave out of rebellion or spite. But others are escaping: escaping abusive homes, alcoholic homes, fearful homes and angry homes.
Why did the prodigal son leave home? We have no idea. But it was an important part of our retreat to realize that he had a story.
But once we have left, there are also many ways to go home again. Many of us, especially when we are young, go home seeking to retreat from a world with an overwhelming number of possibilities and opportunities. Home is a place to recharge our batteries, a safe place from which to go back out into the world, a launching pad of sorts for new adventures.
But some of us go home in defeat, beat up by the world. Our luck run out. We’ve set goals for ourselves and failed. We go home because we’ve been hurt – taken advantage of, betrayed. We thought the world worked a certain way, and we made plans accordingly, but we were wrong. Going home when we’ve been defeated is not easy; it’s humiliating and sometimes shameful, like our prodigal in the parable. In fact going home can be so hard that many of us never do go home, because our welcome is not assured. We like to say “home is where they always have to take you in” but honestly, that’s not always so.
These are the kinds of scenarios we imagined on our junior high retreat. We made up stories, acted them out (something I love to do not only with youth but with adults); we tried to play all the parts. The story of the prodigal son, the little brother, is a story about going out and coming back, leaving home and returning home. Some sort of being away and a homecoming. On the retreat, we read the parable as a story about growing up, of the very real need we each have to go out and find ourselves, or test ourselves, and then the equally strong desire to share that person we’ve become with our families.
But in the telling and retelling and imagining, we realized that it’s not just a story of the prodigal son. It’s not even just the story of his forgiving father. It’s also a story about the older brother. For in our parable, the older brother has to figure out how to come home even though he’s never left home.
So what about this older brother who stays home? Why does he stay home? Is he just a prop in this parable, the loyal son, the good son, the voice of sour grapes? I have to agree with the member of my congregation who once told me that she always sympathized with the older brother. I think many of Jesus’ followers did too. During the last several months since I first re-read this parable with the youth group advisors in preparation for the retreat, I’ve begun to think about it as the parable of the older brother.
Did he have dreams? Hopes beyond the town? Had he wanted to leave too? Was he afraid he would fail? Does the father’s extravagant welcome of the prodigal son suggest that the older brother had sacrificed too much? And is he good for staying home, or simply frustrated that he never left?
There once was a father who had two sons.
Their names were George and Harry. George was the older brother, and Harry was the younger. Ever since he was little, George dreamt of seeing the world. He even held a membership in National Geographic’s young explorer’s club. He carried around maps of the world in his pocket, travel brochures, and would tell anyone who would listen stories about the each place on his maps.
After high school George went to work for his father. For four years, he saved his money so that he cold pursue his dreams: a trip to Europe, and then to college. When he announced his plans, his father said to him, “I suppose you’ve decided what you want to do when you get out of college.”
And George replied. “You know what I’ve always talked about: Build things, design new buildings, plan modern cities. I want to do something big, and something important. I just feel that if I don’t get away from this town I’ll bust.”
And to the girl, Mary, who was sweet on him he said, “I’m gonna shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and then I’m gonna see the world: Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. And then I’m gonna come back here and go to college and see what they know, and then I’m going to build things. I’m gonna build air fields. I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…”
But George never left. When his father died, George gave up his trip to Europe so that he could help out with things at home. He took over the family business, gave his college money to Harry. For one reason or another, every one of them good, George never left.
But he never stopped dreaming of leaving home – doing big things. He once asked his uncle Billy, “Do you know what the three most exciting sounds are? Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles.” When his younger brother Harry arrives home from college on a train, with a brand new wife and plans to leave town himself for good, Harry asks, “What’s mother doing?” And George says, “She’s home killing the fatted calf.”
Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, is a parable of the older brother. He is, in many ways, no different from the younger brother except that he never left. He is deeply conflicted. In the film he doesn’t resent his little brother’s success, but feels deeply the loss of his own dreams. He’s not the “good son,” in fact in the film he can be downright mean, when frightened. He’s not the “good son,” he was, as his father said, “simply born older.”
Many of us read Jesus’ parable through the eyes of the older son and have great sympathy; some of us feel or have been told that we’ve just “been born older.” (bearing responsibility for our family prematurely). And like the older son in the parable, we feel that our story hasn’t had the opportunity to be told, let alone understood.
The movie, It’s A Wonderful Life begins with a conversation in the heavens where God has a discussion with two other angels, Joseph and Clarence about the need to help George Bailey understand the importance and value of his life. We the viewer watch the film through the eyes of Clarence, the angel – seeing George as God has seen George. And then, at a moment of desperation, Clarence reveals himself to George so that George himself can see and know himself as God sees and knows him. George is able to see that despite his disappointments, his unfulfilled dreams, betrayals, griefs, and doubts, that his life is valuable and worth living. This is not to say that at the end of the movie George’s doubts or longings are resolved. The movie has a simplistic ending – George “adjusts” and learns to love his life as it is and Clarence the angel gets his wings.
But in life, we real Georges don’t have our doubts and longings and hurts resolved that simply. The good news is that in our parable from Luke this morning, Jesus doesn’t give us an easy ending, either. The parable’s point is NOT when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Rather, the parable invites us, just as the movie did, to see our life’s story through God’s eyes. The parable invites us to allow God to tell us, to show us who we are. And then we are left with the hard decision of how to move forward. What does it mean for us to have a wonderful life in the midst of grief, unfulfilled dreams and betrayals? Whether we are the older brother or the younger brother? How does knowing God is with us through these traumas help us, aggravate us, give us hope?
It is fitting this first Sunday of Advent, as we prepare not only for the coming of Christ, but for our own returns home to family during the holidays, that we that you direct our attention to the communion table around which you will gather next week. For this table is not an idealistic, easy table of happy endings. It’s a lot more like our family’s kitchen table: full of unfulfilled dreams, grief, hope, betrayals, longings. This table, like our family’s kitchen table, is the place where we are invited to live God’s story together, nonetheless. This table welcomes us home, but it also sends us forth. It sends us forth with the challenge and possibility of re-imagining and re-forming our relationships with one another. May we, through remembering and reconciling, through conversation and communion – as we begin a new liturgical year today and as we begin a new time in the life of this congregation – may we be able to see our life through God’s eyes, that we may turn and see the lives of our family, our friends, and even our enemies, through God’s eyes as well. I anticipate this journey with you. Welcome home.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a complicated film with a complicated history. Always popular, it experienced a particular rise in popularity during the nineteen-eighties. It is no coincidence that during the Reagan years George Bailey could represent the kind of anti-New Deal businessman (Mr. Potter himself appears modeled on FDR) that Republicans in the 1930s claimed got our country through the depression. At the same time, banking and lending institutions were being deregulated and encouraged to merge into gigantic operations through takeovers, friendly and hostile, and leveraged buyouts. One of the results was the final collapse of savings and loans in weekly stories of scandals – this in an age when S&Ls controlled more assets and lives than Mr. Potter’s bank ever did. Thus the film could feel both nostalgic and eerily contemporary at the same time, a dangerous combination which encourages us to seek solutions for contemporary problems in an imagined past.
For an enlightening look at Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, see Max Meyers, “Christmas in Celluloid: Hollywood Helps Construct the American Christmas,” pages 39-54 in Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture. Edited by Richard Horsley and James Tracy. Trinity International Publishing: Harrisburg, PA., 2001.
The script of the film can be read here.
© 2010 The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary