The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
—Luke 15:28-32, NIV
Normally when we preach on the parable of the prodigal son, we talk about the prodigal son and the love he experienced when he returned. We ignore the older son, who became embittered and jealous. We preach the wrong side of this parable, because the people in the pews are not prodigal sons, they have not wandered anywhere or squandered anything; they have been right there in their Father’s house all along. They are the older sons, who resent the attention the prodigals get when they return.
Too many of us preach the Good Ship Lollipop, and thus build up false expectations in our congregation’s minds. Most people do not live a life of happiness upon triumph upon providence upon goodness, as many sermons would lead you to believe is the natural expectation of a Christian life. So the congregation is left to ponder their situation, and in their pondering, instead of concluding that they are the recipients of God’s loving discipline, they see themselves as robbed of their prerogatives. They become suspicious of cheerful, recent converts. As they mull this over, they realize some terrifying things about themselves, and not being able to bear the possibility that they are responsible for their own state, they seek someone else to blame. Who do they blame, but their prodigal brothers. The congregation becomes the elder son in the parable.
Preaching the Good Ship Lollipop produces a dissonance, followed by fault-finding, and then actually causes jealously and intolerance! I notice that most of the bigots who call themselves Christians have a Good-Ship-Lollipop heritage. They see themselves as disenfranchised even as they rule the world, they see themselves as oppressed, even when they are oppressors, they see themselves as disadvantaged, when they themselves are in control. Why have they fallen into this delusion? Because the captains of the Good Ship Lollipop taught them by implication that their struggles are unusual, that God’s discipline is punishment, and that God’s love and blessings are their reasonable expectation, and that their absence is the result of external evil forces.
Paul said at one point that he wanted to give the people spiritual meat, but they were only babies and could only take milk. This situation hasn’t changed. But instead of giving the infants milk, which is nutritious, we give them candy, which makes them hyperactive.
In this world you will have nothing but good times. Cheer up! I have overcome the world.
—John 16:33b, Reversed Fractured Version (an impostor, posing as Jesus)
How shall we then preach? That life is a test, and you only give a hard test to a good student. That life is hard, and when it is over, we are glad that it is. That God leads us to the promised land, but the road passes through the wilderness. That God is glorified when His little ones struggle and prevail, and that God’s discipline is always pedagogical, to lead us to greater glory.
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
—John 16:33b, NIV (Jesus speaking)
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds
—James 1:2, NIV