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We can all think of examples of that. Buzzer-beaters in the basketball tournaments these past couple of weeks. One team ecstatic, the other in the depths of despair. If you were watching the conclusion of the PGA Tour event last Sunday, you saw Davis Love, III interviewed at the conclusion of his round - he was in the lead by one shot over Todd Hamilton, a tour rookie who had been leading the event at the beginning of the day, and who was still on the course with two holes to play. The interviewer said he knew that Davis would never wish Todd anything but well, but... Davis, of course, agreed, but... Well, against all odds, Todd Hamilton birdied those last two holes to beat Davis Love by one stroke. As you might expect, Todd delighted, Davis dejected. "Every shot makes somebody happy."
Our lesson from Luke a few moments ago is the conclusion of another of those "every shot" tales, the one with which we are all familiar as the story of the Prodigal Son. Junior comes to Dad and demands his portion of the inheritance, takes the loot and heads off only to blow it all in high living, eventually having to take a job feeding pigs. Finally he decides that life back home was infinitely more appealing, so he heads back to what turns out to be a joyous reunion. It has been called the greatest short story ever written. Most sermons on the passage correctly point out the eternal analogy...that in spite of our rebelliousness and sin, our Heavenly Father not only wants to welcome us back home, but actually chases down the road to bring us back with a love that is beyond measure. It is a great comfort, especially to those who have led really wretched lives.
But that is only half the story. Besides Dad and Junior, there was another in that household, the elder brother. Call him "Sonny Moneybags," because now all of the family wealth would come to him, not just a portion.
Let us look at Sonny. His story is pretty sad. Here he was, the older of the two, the one who should have been preeminent as they grew up. He would have been bigger, stronger, faster than Junior just because he had a couple of years on him. But somehow, that never mattered. When it came to getting any kind of notice, it was always Junior, the personality kid. Aunts and Uncles would come to visit and say, "Hi Sonny, where's Junior?" Junior was the laughing boy, the fun one. Sonny was just left to watch. No one ever intentionally slighted the older boy. It was just that the younger one's vivacious character always seemed to be the one on center stage.
When it came to school, I suspect that Sonny got B's and C's...not a brilliant student, but certainly not dumb either. He would come home in the afternoon, do his homework just like he should, and then go out to play. Junior, on the other hand, followed along a couple of years later and got A's, with a few F's mixed in. He did his homework only when he was absolutely threatened, otherwise he would let it slide. It did not matter to him anyway; he had no problem getting good grades. The only bad ones he got would be when some teacher got fed up with his not ever doing any more than he absolutely had to to get by, and gave him an F on general principles.
If there had been such a thing as a high school football team, I am sure that Sonny would have tried out. But even here, Sonny would have been average. If he made the team at all, he was probably third string. More likely, he ended up as equipment manager. Then along came Junior...star quarterback, what else? And of course, with that, all the girls.
College? Sure. For Sonny, it was two years at Nazareth Community College because it was near home, then transfer for the third and fourth years to Judea University with a major in agriculture so he would be better prepared to some day take over the family farm. He got his degree, not with any particular honors, but he plodded his way through. After all, he had always been a plodder. For Junior, it was right off to Jerusalem Tech, where he majored in drinking and carousing. Of course, he flunked out, came home to freeload off dear old Dad, finally got fed up with that, and said "Give me my portion of the inheritance, so I can split this lousy dump." And the rest of the story we know.
You can imagine Sonny's reaction when he heard of his brother's plans: "Goodbye and good riddance!" It had been a tough life for Sonny, as far as any self-esteem was concerned. At least when he had gone off to college, he had had a chance to blossom to a certain extent without always being outshone by his younger brother. But back on the farm it was the same old story: Junior, this...Junior, that...always Junior, Junior, Junior. Finally, he would be rid of him. Sonny would be his own man. He would be more than just Junior's brother.
As it turned out, Sonny had some appealing characteristics. In the gospel account, we find him out working in his father's fields, right up till suppertime. He was an industrious young man, laboring for the success of the family business. He was conscientious and dutiful. He might have given some thought at some time or another about striking out on his own. Every boy does. But his duty to father and family won out and he remained to do what was expected of him. He was a righteous young man...a little self-righteous, really. But he was virtuous enough to be able to claim that he was righteous to his father without Dad laughing at him. But then nobody ever laughed too much at anything Sonny said. After all, Junior was the one that got the laughs.
I wonder what would have happened had Junior met Sonny on the road instead of their father. I doubt that the boy would have ever made it to the house. Sonny would have rightfully pointed out that Junior had renounced this place in favor of another. Just because things had not worked out as well as planned was no reason in the world for him to be welcomed back with open arms by these people whom, not so long ago, he had said he could care less about. It would have made no difference that Junior had seen the error of his way and wanted to straighten himself out. Had it been up to Sonny, Junior would probably have been sent packing.
Look what happened. The work day was done. Time to go home. But as he approached the house, Sonny heard the sounds of a party going on...music, laughter, celebration. What could it be? He asked one of the household servants and found out that Junior had returned...this time for good.
Sonny could not believe it...not that his brother had come back. He just could not imagine that his Dad would have taken him back. "Call my father out here," he told the servant. Sonny had no intention of going into this uncalled-for celebration.
A few minutes later, his father came out, tears in his eyes. "Come into the party, son. Your brother is back."
"I know. I heard. But what's the big idea? I have worked and slaved for you all these years, never a complaint, never a whimper. I have always done everything you asked me. And what thanks do I get? None, that's what! This idiot son of yours takes your hard-earned money, blows it all on hookers and booze, then comes crawling back when the cash runs out, and what do you do? You throw a big party for him, and in the process, you kill that prize calf we were fattening up to enter into the competition at the county fair. But good, old hard-working Sonny, the one who never gives any trouble, what kind of party does he get? None, that's what! Good old Sonny not only does not get the fatted calf, he doesn't even get a goat. Go into Junior's party? You must be kidding!"
It was quite a speech. The tears of joy that had shone in Dad's eye just moments ago had dried now. He wanted to reason with his first-born son, to make him understand just how much Junior's return meant, and at the same time, just how much Sonny's faithfulness through all the years had meant. "My boy, you will never know how grateful I am for all that you are and all that you have done. Everything I own belongs to you. But please understand, Junior...your brother...is important to me too. Even though he squandered what he had, he is back and he is again a member of this family. It is as if he had been dead and is now come back to life...as if he had been lost and now is found. I love him. But Sonny, I love you too. Won't you please come in and join the party?"
And there the story ends. After a long moment, the father turned back to walk into the house. His older boy just stood, watching him go. There is no indication as to whether Sonny ever went in or not. The greatest short story ever written. "Every shot makes somebody happy."
Until we think specifically about Sonny, we probably do not realize that almost half of the parable is about him. We hear lots about his father and brother, but only little about the older boy. We appreciate the first part of the story...that no matter how low we go, no matter how vile our sin is, our Heavenly Father is not only waiting to take us back, but so anxious for our return that he comes running to meet us. But if that is the only point of what Jesus was trying to get across, why did he not quit after verse 24, and move on to some other subject? I think the answer is that there is a whole lot more Sonny in most of us than there is Junior.
Sure, most all of us have fallen to sins of the flesh during our lives. As we look back, there are probably episodes we wish had never happened, and we are grateful for the knowledge that God has forgiven them when we repented. But we are not drunken derelicts, pushers or pimps. We are solid citizens... hardworking, industrious. We live by the Golden Rule...as much as we can. We obey the Ten Commandments...as many as we can...as many as we know (and most people could not quote you half of them). We do our level best. We admit that we are not perfect, but somewhere, way down deep, we think we are pretty close...just like Sonny.
You see, those sins of the spirit do not amount to all that much in our eyes. If someone pushes dope, engages in prostitution, is a thief or a murderer, we and everyone else recognize the sin. Even the government recognizes it and takes steps to stop it. That is why we have courts and penitentiaries. But no one was ever arrested for stealing the laughter from a child's eyes with their angry words. No one ever went to jail for killing a marriage with constant bickering and ill temper. It is not a criminal offense not to love your neighbor as yourself. And the result is that we do not think too much about them. Neither would Sonny.
But Jesus did. He took all those sins of the spirit...the self-pity, the anger, the pride, the envy, the lack of compassion, the self-righteousness, and all the rest...and pointed out that it is not what enters into a person that defiles but what comes out. Then Jesus gave one sign by which people would be able to recognize us as Christians: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."(1)
In I Corinthians 13, one of the world's most favorite Bible chapters, St. Paul points out that no matter how eloquent we are about our faith, no matter how insightful and knowledgeable we are about deep theological mysteries, no matter how generous we are, even if we have a tremendous faith in the abiding presence and power of God, without love, all is for nothing. We miss out on the joy of God's banquet table. But we do not have to. The invitation is there for us just as it was that afternoon for Sonny Moneybags so many centuries ago.
Are there sins of the spirit that are keeping you on the outside looking in, missing the joy? Perhaps today can be the day that you take them out, pack them up and ship them off. Then, one day, when you come to the end of your earthly road, you can look forward to those glorious words, "Well done,...come into the party...enter into the joy...of your Lord."
1. John 13:35