Sometimes people ask me what I miss about England. I usually think of food; cheese, gooseberry jam, cream teas, or marmite toast eaten sitting in front of a coal fire when you’re cold and wet. I often forget to mention one important cultural event. Pantomime. Every December, theaters around the country stage a pantomime, a musical comedy based on one of the old children’s tales. Favorites are Jack and the Beanstalk, Mother Goose, Aladdin, and Cinderella. It’s a very specific art form where young men are played by women, and the hero’s mother, the dame, is always played by an older man. It’s gender-bending, silly and often bawdy humor with the audience participating in songs, and booing and hissing the villain. Yet it captures the imagination. Will the ugly sisters be able to get the silver slipper onto their large misshapen feet, or will the handsome transgender prince once again successfully find the misrepresented but beautiful and virtuous Cinderella in the kitchen?
Where would Cinderella be without her ugly, bossy sisters? In a world of virtuous beautiful people Cinderella would be unremarkable.
As I think about the story of the Prodigal Son, I wonder about the other brother. The one who stayed home and was good, and then resentful. At first glance it seems that the story would work just as well without him. Our hero says his Dad is so useless as to be virtually dead so he demands his half of the family fortune and goes off to play in the casinos and golf courses of the rich. But after a remarkably short time it’s all gone and he find himself earning minimum wage putting out the trash, and as so many in our county know only too well, you can’t live on minimum wage. So he decides to go home and get a job on the family ranch where at least the workers are paid enough to eat and have a roof over their heads too. When he gets home his father sees him coming and goes out to greet him with tremendous joy. Then he throws a party and invites all his friends to come and celebrate the return of his son who he feared was dead.
The story could end there. A wonderful portrayal of God’s love which is greater than all our sins, faults and stupidity. A love which always comes out to meet us halfway and is ready to welcome us home. Love which rejoices and is ready to embrace us as soon as we are willing and ready to turn towards the divine.
But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. This father has another son who has stayed home and done all that a faithful son should, but somehow no-one thinks to tell him about the party until he is coming home late after a hard days work and hears the music. He is furious that his father is rewarding his loser brother, rather than he himself who has done all that a good son should.
Jesus may have just included the older son for contrast, as a foil for the younger son. We only see things which are different from other things. We perceive by noticing difference. Cinderella would not stand out in a world where everyone was beautiful and humble. The prodigal son would not stand out in a world where everyone went off and squandered their father’s fortune.
But we have all done exactly that. Over and over again we take our inheritance as the daughters and sons of the living God for granted. We forget that we are part of the household of God and the rights and responsibilities that come with that. We have all ‘gone astray like lost sheep and followed the devices and desires of our own hearts’ as the prayer book of my youth put it. We have as a civilization squandered the inheritance of the planet and have taken for granted the resources and the gifts we have been given.
So where’s the difference that helps us see? Who is the older brother whose life helps us to see where we are going wrong? For Christians, Jesus is our older brother whose life and teaching helps us to see the difference, helps us to distinguish right thinking and right livelihood from foolish and wasteful living. Not just in his earthly life and his teachings that we read in the Bible, but in his living presence with us through the Holy Spirit who reminds us that it is never too late to come home.
But of course there is a big difference between Jesus and the older son in the story. Jesus does not become resentful and angry when we come to our senses and return to God, in fact it is Jesus who has made that possible for us. He comes running alongside the Creator God to welcome us home to the great party.
I don’t know who Jesus had in mind or who his original audience thought he meant by the elder brother. With my current bias I sometimes think that the beloved younger son represents the gay, lesbian and transgender people who have been excluded from the church for so long, but now are returning and the older son is those who say that they are clinging to the historic faith of their fathers in wanting to deny our participation. But when they claim the position of the younger son, saying that they need to be welcomed back and have a party thrown especially for them, I become resentful.
On the other hand, we are so used to thinking of the father in this story as representing Creator God that we consider his behavior to be blameless. Perhaps it was, within the context of the Mediterranean family in the first century, but from today’s perspective he was rather foolish not to have sent word out to the oldest son to come and welcome his brother and join the party. There is a place in the story for the father too to ask forgiveness.
There is no moral high ground. We are called to be reconciling forces in the world, to reconcile people to each other and to God. But we can never do this while we continue to think of ourselves as the prodigal son and not the older son, or as the older son and not the prodigal son. All of us need to ask forgiveness. And we all need to play the father’s role too - to offer forgiveness and welcome one another back into communion and community. It’s a natural extension of our experience of God’s forgiving and reconciling love towards us, but it is not easy.
It is always easier to see ourselves as the ones who are right and others as needing to change. It is easier to see the differences between us than the similarities. But God calls us all to the party, to the heavenly banquet, to the wedding feast.
The prince always does find Cinderella and they have a wonderful wedding and live happily ever after. That’s our story too. God always does find us and sooner or later we find God and then will come the wedding feast after which we’ll all live happily ever after.
As we come to the Eucharist together today, let us remember that it symbolizes that reconciliation of God and humanity and is a very small foretaste of the wedding banquet that is to come.