29 – The sins of Two Sons
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you”
We have taken a summary look at the three main characters in this parable: the father, the runaway and the older brother. But we must look at the very thing that has caused a breach in the lives and relationships of the man and his two sons. We must look at the thing called sin.
The Sins of the Younger
The sins of the younger son are primarily the sins of commission. Listen to the litany of his sins.
The words “Give me… what belongs to me.” (verse 12) may indicate that selfishness, greed and impatience are at work in this man.
The words, “dissolute living” or “reckless living” (verse 13) and the words of the older brother, which may be accurate, though vindictive, when he claims his brother, “has devoured your property with prostitutes,” speak of lust, of intemperate behavior, and sheer stupidity.
The words, “squandered”, (verse 13) and “He had spent everything.” (verse 14) remind us that he foolishly spent his money, his youth, his talents, his integrity, his character and his reputation. He spent everything and in consequence he lost everything.
The result of all this is a terrible downward spiral. In short order he moves from wealth to want, from prosperity to poverty, from an inflated bank account to bankruptcy, from pleasures and parties down to the pigpen, and from sonship to slavery. He is a young man who has snatched defeat out of the very jaws of victory.
And the young man puts this downward spiral of his fortunes down to one thing. Twice he says it. “I have sinned.” He makes no excuses. He doesn’t blame his play partners for his bankruptcy. “I have sinned, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” About that there is no doubt in any of our minds. He has “done the things he ought not to have done!”
The Sins of the Elder
But as we continue to read this story about the older son, we have no doubt that he too is a sinner. He may not know it, but we do. His sins may not be the sins of commission, but he is guilty, beyond all doubt, of the sins of omission. If his brother’s sins can be called “the sins of the flesh,” his can be called “the sins of the spirit.”
Are you familiar with those lines in the general confession in an Anglican Communion service? “We have done the things we should not have done and we have not done the things we should have done, and we are unprofitable servants.” They remind us of Paul’s words in Romans chapter 7 when he cries out “I do not do the good I want to do, (omission) and the evil I do not want to do, is what I end up doing.” (commission.)
Jesus’ attitude towards the various sinners that he encountered has been of long interest. For the men and women who had squandered their virtues with the sins of the flesh, and for those who had done damage to the economic lives of their neighbors, Jesus appears to quickly grant forgiveness. To such he speaks words of healing and hope. But for the religious who rarely saw themselves at fault, his words are like hammers and lightening bolts. He seems to infer that the sins of commission are nothing compared to the sins of omission.
In the book Ecce Homo[i] by John Seeley it is pointed out that there is a radical difference between the villains in the parables of Jesus and the villains that figure in all other literature. In the stories that others tell, the villains are usually perpetrators of foul deeds. The wicked go around stealing, maiming, raping, plundering, killing, deceiving, lying, blaspheming, etc. They do the things they should not be doing!
But the villains in the parables of Jesus are villains who do nothing! and that is precisely their crime. His villains leave things undone that they should have done. The Priest and the Levite pass by on the other side. They do not add insult to injury. They do not ransack the body. They add no more bruises. They just do nothing. They are villains. The aphorism reads, “All that is needed for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.”
The story of the three stewards who are given talents to invest is particularly vivid. One man does nothing with his resources, and Jesus relates to us the rage of a master who cries out “You wicked and slothful servant… cast out the worthless servant into outer darkness.” And as though that had not gotten the message over, Jesus tells another parable of the sheep and the goats. The villains are those who did nothing. “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” The villains of our Lord often are guilty of simply doing nothing. They did little that was wrong. But they did little that was right.
The tragedy about the older son, however, is his enormous failure to recognize that he too is in the wrong. No words of confession spring from his lips. It is true that he has not done the dastardly deeds of his younger sibling. But he may have refrained from them, not because of virtue, but perhaps out of sheer prudence. He too may have longed for the far country, but he was afraid to gamble. He would have liked the drink, the drugs and the dancing, for he too wanted to eat, drink and be merry, but he dreaded the consequences. He had made his choice, but he may have resented it as the lesser choice, but more profitable than profligacy. He may have envied his younger brother his freedom, but he feared the consequences, and so refrained. But it may not have been the love of the father, or the love of all things true or beautiful or valuable that stopped him, it may just have been fear. It may not have been conscience, but cowardice, that prevented him from the commission of sins.
The older son cuts a sorry figure, and it is not only because of his anger on the day of the return. Listen to his words to his father, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I never disobeyed your command.”
Interesting commentary on his character. For all those years he had acted like a servant, for he had never felt like a son. He had worked “for his father” but never for the joy of the work. He had worked “for” his Father. He had not worked “with” him. He had performed the servant’s role instead of that of the heir and co-worker with his Father. He had treated himself as a hireling.
He had also never disobeyed his father. He sounds likes the rich young ruler who could make the same claim, who went away sad as well. He had never disobeyed his father, but he may never have loved him either. The obedience of a slave is not the same as the love of a son.
The older brother also noted that he had never celebrated with his friends. Was it because he had never been given permission? But the property had been divided between them. The estate was his to do with as he wanted. But it had never occurred to him to celebrate anything. The man is a sad son of a joyous father.
There is a sin in this kind of sadness. The sin is called sloth. The Latin word is “acedia” which simply means, “to be without care” or, “I couldn’t care less”. It is love-lessness. It is inertia in the face of the possibilities of joy. It is the sin of the pious audience of Jesus that refuses to join angels and neighbors in joy over the recovery of the lost.
Dorothy L. Sayers[ii] says about this sprawling monster called sloth,
It is the sin which believes in nothing
cares for nothing
seeks to know nothing
interferes with nothing
finds purpose in nothing
lives for nothing
and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.
Both the sins of commission and the sins of omission have their dire consequences. One, however, is not to be preferred over the other. The great difference in the attitude of Jesus may be that the “sinners” know themselves to be guilty and sense their need for grace. The “saints” have presumed themselves to be righteous, and in consequence have become insufferably self-righteous, incapable of penitence.
There is a strange understanding about sin that pervades this parable. The younger son is a good theologian. Listen to his words, “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you.” Twice he says it. He is not the only person to say something like this.
When David writes the 51st Psalm after his sin with Bathsheba, he says to God, “Against you, and you only have I sinned.” The modern mind says “You’ve gotta be kidding? He sinned against Bathsheba, Uriah, his other wives, and his nation. How can he say, “Against you only have I sinned.”
Listen to a similar statement from Joseph as he runs from Potiphar’s wife, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” But I thought it would be a sin against Potiphar and against friendship. Why against God?
In the story of Abraham there is a similar story. Abraham has passed off his wife Sarah as his sister. King Abimelech takes her into his harem intending to add her to his coterie of wives. But before he is able to follow through on his intent, God appears to him in a dream and says “It was I who kept you from sinning against me.”
Those are not isolated instances. The scriptures are clear, All sins are against God. How so?
Crimes are committed against society, and break the laws of the state.
Injuries are perpetrated against persons, and offend against the laws of our common humanity.
Sins, however, are offences against God because they violate the moral law.
To sin is to do something, or fail to do something, that causes grief to God. If you hurt one of my daughters, you hurt me. If you destroy something I have made, you injure me. If you steal something that is mine, you injure me. Even if you are my own child, and think you only hurt yourself, you injure me. Ask any parent and they will quickly inform you that this is true! And “he who touches you touches the apple of my eye,” says God. God the creator and reclaimer is the only rightful owner of this world, regardless of the deeds to land and houses that we may hold. When anyone damages the world, or its creatures, or its people, it does despite to God. It is for this reason that the son must apologize to his own father for his bad behavior, yet also confess to God that he has injured the fatherly heart of God.
Sin is a serious business – not only because of what it does to self, though that is bad enough – not only because of what it does to the person I have hurt, and that can be tragic, but sin does damage to that which God loves. It is not that God is hyper-sensitive to personal offences against himself, so much as he is protective towards all he loves, and protective for their sake, and we must answer to him for any liberties we take that harm those he has compassion for.
There may be one other reason why the Scriptures tell us that all sin is against God. It reminds us that there are times when we have done evil and we cannot forgive ourselves. We often cannot forgive each other either. We are also aware that others will not forgive us. What then are we to do? Live in the paralysis of unforgiveness?
No. Sins are against God. And God forgives sins. From being forgiven by him, I then can learn to forgive my neighbor, and to be daring enough to believe that others can forgive me too.
The good news of this great story of the two lost sons is that the Father offers to both wayward sons the forgiveness of sins. The good news in this story is that one of those sons embraces it and comes home. The bad news is that the other one may refuse it and never feel at home again.