One day a young polar bear came home from school. Now this is a true story. He went up to his mother and asked “Am I a real polar bear?” His mother said "of course you’re a polar bear." The next day he came home from school and asked his father “am I a real polar bear?” The father assured him that yes he was a real polar bear. But every day for a week the young bear came home and asked his parents the same question, “am I a real polar bear.” Finally, his father couldn’t take it any more and he said “yes, you are a real polar bear. Both your mother and I are real polar bears, your grandparents are all real polar bears, all your relatives are real polar bears, in fact everyone we know are real polar bears so why do you keep asking?” The young polar bear looked at him and said “because I’m freezing.”
Anyone who attends church regularly has probably heard at least one sermon on the prodigal son. It probably had something to do with how God is always grateful to welcome those who have been lost back home, and about God’s overwhelming love for us. But all of the wonderful stories that get told about this parable usually revolve around the younger, prodigal son. But, today I’m going to tackle another aspect of this story which involves the older brother, because one of the messages that I believe Jesus is trying to convey deals with joy.
Now joy is one of those troubling subjects, especially in church. As Christians we are told to do many different things, but probably one of the hardest is to be joyful, and there are many different reasons for this. Much of it rests with the traditions of the church which in many ways have tried to suck as much joy as possible out of the faith. But, in many places in scripture we are told to express our joy about our life and our relationship with God, but I think it is best summed up by the writer of Psalm 100 who tells us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.
A teenage boy approaches his father and asks to borrow the car. “No,” his father says, “not until you cut your hair.” “But,” the son replies indignantly, “Jesus had long hair.” “Your right,” the father says, “Jesus did have long hair, and he also walked everywhere.
As the story begins, the younger brother tells his father that he is dead to him, which is what he does when he demands his inheritance, then proceeds to fritter away everything he has through what would probably best be described as sins of the flesh. Then once he has nothing left, he debases himself by working with pigs, something forbidden for Jews, then he decides to come back home. The older brother certainly must think that the younger brother might be turned away by the father, or at the very least would at least get a severe tongue lashing for what he has done.
Instead what the older brothers finds when he comes out of the fields is that his father is throwing a party for his wastrel of a son. Doesn’t the older brother have the right to be upset? What seems to be most galling to him is not just the younger brother’s prior behavior, but that he seems to be receiving even more than the older brother as a result of his negative behavior. What sort of standard is this setting up? As it turns out, while the younger brother’s lifestyle was inappropriate, the older brother has been approaching his life and relationship with the father inappropriately as well.
Somehow the older brother, in his allegiance and love for his father, has turned his duties and responsibilities into a task and a chore to be undertaken. He even tells the father that he has been obeying all of his commands and because of that has been “working like a slave.” I’m sure this must come as somewhat of a surprise to the father. Certainly the older brother has been working hard, after all he is out in the fields when the younger brother comes home, and he most certainly has been the most obedient son, but there is no indication that the father has ever told him that he must act like a slave or to be so obedient that he loses all sense of joy and pleasure in what he is doing or in his life. This is something that the older son has taken on, not something that is required of him. He wrongly believes that in order to be the good son he must work tirelessly and view everything as a task which must be undertaken, and because of this, he has lost any sense of joy and pleasure which he may have had in his life.
This is very similar to the parable we covered last week of the laborer’s in the vineyard, where those who work twelve hours are paid the same amount as those who only work one hour, and they begin to think that their reward is based upon their labor rather than the generosity of the landowner. The laborers and the older son begins to think that everything they are going to receive, or should receive, is based upon their own work and merit. It is through their own efforts that they are to receive their reward, but the father indicates that his love has nothing to do with what we do, but instead who we are.
On one of John Calvin’s good days, and certainly he could not have been a grump all the time he must have had at least one good day, he said that the sole purpose of our existence is to glorify God. How do we glorify God by looking at everything as drudgery, a task that must be undertaken, or that we are slaves to our responsibilities? How many people here have attended a worship service, and most certainly a church committee meeting, where we have walked out and felt flat because there was no sense of excitement or joy about anything? The gospel literally means the good news, but how often does our news actually look like another job which must be undertaken. Where is our sense of joy about being in the presence and being loved by the father?
After a long, dry sermon, the minister announced that he wished to meet with the church board following the close of the service. The first man to arrive and greet the minister was a total stranger. "You must have misunderstood my announcement,” the minister said. “This is a meeting for the board members.” “I know," the man replied, "but if there is anyone here who was more bored than I was, then I'd like to meet them."
Certainly, the father has already proven his generosity and willingness to see he sons be happy by answering his younger son’s unusual request for his inheritance. He has already shown that he wants his sons to be happy, but the older son does not get the message. He is upset because he sees the fatted calf being given to the younger son when he has not received anything for his hard work. He has not squandered his inheritance, he has not been profligate in his living, he has been the good son, doesn’t he at least deserve something?! As someone in one of my Bible studies so eloquently put it: Shouldn’t the father have at least bought him a box of cheese-its occasionally as a reward? But, instead it is he who is chastised by the father. “Son, you are always with me,” the father says “and all that is mine is yours.” All that is mine is yours.
The fatted calf was available to the older son the entire time, but he became so preoccupied that he missed it. He could have been feasting and enjoying the bounty provided by the father, but instead he thought himself to be a slave. He could have been expressing his joy for everything given to him and available in his life, but instead he rejected it. He could have been taking pleasure in life, but instead he was keeping track of the immoral deeds of his brother.
Originally, the only thing we are told about what the younger son has done is that he wasted the money in dissolute living. It is only once we hear from the older brother that we find out some of the details of what was taking place. The older brother was not content to let his brother go and lead his own life. Instead it appears as if he was tracking his brother’s activities which only added to his resentment and anger; not only about his brother but also about his position in the father’s house. Again, he is like the laborer’s from last week’s parable who have joy in the morning when they receive their jobs, but then in beginning to look around and comparing themselves to others, they begin thinking they are clearly more worthy than the others, and in the it is they who end up getting in trouble and being rebuked. If the older son had focused on himself and his relationship with the father, had enjoyed the joy and benefits that came from living in the house the whole time, then he would not have felt the resentment that he felt.
I once attended a lecture entitled “Why doesn’t God have a sense of humor?” There were many different reasons given as possibilities, one being that by having the power of omniscience God would already know all the punch lines and therefore nothing would be funny. But, rather than saying that God doesn’t have a sense of humor, the person delivering this particular lecture went the opposite way. It is not that God does not have a sense of humor, he said, simply look at the world around us, in particular the platypus, and you’ll see that God must have a sense of humor. Instead it is as Voltaire one remarked “God is comedian who is playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh.” I think that hits the nail right on the head. For some reason we have come to believe that in order to be obedient Christians, that in order to inherent eternal life, we need to remove all sense of joy and pleasure from our lives. That we need to be dull, that we need to be worry warts, we need to be a bump on the log that sucks all the excitement out of the air. We have wrongly come to believe that if we express our joy in life, if we express our love of God, in any exciting way that we have gone astray and are no longer doing the right thing.
A man breaks into a house and in the living room he finds a parrot sitting on a perch who keeps saying “Brock, Jesus is watching.” Everywhere he goes, the burglar hears, “Brock, Jesus is watching.” Finally he walks over to the parrot and says “what’s your name?” “Brock, my name is Moses.” “What kind of people would name their parrot Moses?” “Brock, the type of people who would name their rottweiler Jesus.”
The older brother could have been appreciating everything he had in life and giving praise, glory and honor to the father, but instead he was focused on being the good one, the one who didn’t mess up, the one who did all the work, and as a result he turned into the sourpuss, someone without any sense of joy in his life, and therefore he even misses the bounty that surrounds him. He could have had a banquet but he never thought to ask. He could have taken the fatted calf, but he never even considered it. He could have been happy in the father’s house, and he should have been happy, but he pushed all the joy and happiness aside and instead felt like a slave.
God does not want us to view our life or our service to God as drudgery. God wants us to be joyful. God wants us to enjoy our lives, because, in doing so, we follow Calvin’s instruction and glorify God. God is generous in loving, understanding, and compassion. God does not want us to view life as if we were slaves, and one reason we can know this is because we have a sense a humor. We have the ability to laugh, that in and of itself should prove that God wants us to be joyful. Laughing is one the few things that we don’t have to be taught how to do. We have to learn how to walk, or to talk or how to tie our shoes, but everyone knows how to laugh by nature, we don’t have to be taught, and laughing is good for us.
Among other things laughing lowers blood pressure and reduces stress. There is a very simple reason why we say laughter is the best medicine, because it is. Of course, having had a kidney stone last spring, I can also say that dilaudid is pretty good medicine too. But that’s the point, the simple act of laughing releases endorphins into our brains, the same response which comes through the use of narcotics, and this is true even if the laugh is faked. Laughing is also contagious, which is why we have laugh tracks on television shows that aren’t even funny. Children seem to understand this better than adults and they have a joy and zest about life that most adults simply do not have. Children laugh, on average, between 300-400 times a day. Adults laugh, on average, 16 times a day. As we grow and “mature” we inadvertently leave our humor behind.
One day, the Pope dies and he is greated at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter, and is told that he has complete access to heaven and can go anywhere anytime that he likes. “Is there anything you would like to do first?” St. Peter asks. “Well, the Pope says, there is something that I have been puzzling over for a long time and could never find a satisfactory answer in the Vatican’s archives, and so I wonder, is there a library in heaven?” “Of course there is,” St. Peter replies, and so they head off to the library. The Pope spends two years in solitary research, never coming out, never interacting with anyone else, and then one day, people hear a cry of anguish coming from one of the study tables. When people rush over they find the Pope there, with a large book in front of him pointing to one line and crying out “there’s an r! There’s an r! Look, there’s an r. The word is celebrate not celibate!”
God wants us to be joyous, because all that God has is ours already. The fatted calf is ours for the taking. We do not give glory and honor to God by frowning and acting as if we are slaves. We spread the gospel, the good news, by being joyful about our lives, by being joyful about our relationship with God, and by being joyful with each other. We should not be like the older brother who has become so wrapped up in being right, in being the good son, that he has missed the simple pleasures in life. He has rejected the joy not only of his father and brother but also for himself. Instead we must recognize the bounty that is in our lives, take the fatted calf and celebrate, for God is good and generous. Live well, love much and laugh often, and as the psalmist says, make a joyous noise unto the Lord! Thanks be to -size:12.0pt">God sisters and brothers. Amen