Sour Sam and Goodtime Charley: A Tale of Two Brothers

October 21, 2001

Summary

Sour Sam and Goodtime Charley: A Tale of Two Brothers

One day, when some of the religious hardliners in ancient Israel were grumbling about the valuable time Jesus spent with social outcasts, he told them what someone has called “The most divinely tender and most humanly touching story ever told.” I would add that it’s also a scathing indictment of religious conceit, which means that every parishioner and every preacher should read it at least once a year. We are several years overdue, so please join me in getting reaquainted with a story that never goes out of date.
There was once a man with two sons, Jesus told his critics, and one day the younger boy said, “I want my share of the property, and I want it right now.” It’s not hard to imagine how he worked himself up to that moment. In the farm fields, on his walks, or in his bedroom at night this boy has been talking to himself: “I’ve got to get away from this dull place and have some fun while I’m still young enough to enjoy it. Otherwise, I’m gonna miss out on all the good stuff.” He’s sure there must be a better life out there in what the story calls the “far country,” an unforgettable phrase for whatever place promises freedom and excitement. When Rudyard Kipling of The Jungle Book fame read this story he decided the boy’s older brother may have been one of his reasons for wanting to leave. We will meet this one, whom I have nicknamed Sour Sam, in an ugly fit of envy and self-righteousness — a man who stays in his pew and does all the things expected of him, but apparently without much joy in the doing of them. I’ve met this man, so have you. Respectable but cold, a bit too proud of himself, quick to build himself up by finding fault in others. He wouldn’t have been much fun to work with.
But whatever his list of reasons for leaving home, the younger brother finally makes the big announcement to his father: “I want to see the world, be my own boss, find out what it’s like to be free.” The father probably has a good idea what will happen, may even have done the same thing himself once and learned the the truth: that absolute freedom ends up in absolute misery. There must be some father listening who knows there’s nothing on earth more frustrating than a son who has hatched a grand scheme to conquer the world when you kow he hasn’t the foggiest idea what the world is all about. But home is not home to a boy of alien will, so this father does what parents so often learn to do: wait and hope. If Sour Sam is present, I can almost hear his pious advice: “You know,of course, that if you were a decent sort at all you’d stay here and help me work. You’ll never find me wanting to run off and throw my money away like a fool.”
And across the table the younger boy, who at this time in his life could fairly be called Goodtime Charley, stares down at the tablecloth and thinks, “O God, anything to keep from being like him!” The stories Jesus told were always quick and to the point, so the father makes no effort to stop his son from leaving. He divides the inheritance between the two boys and says goodbye to the rebel. Home, after all, is never home to a boy of alien will. All the father can do now is what parents so often learn to do: wait and hope.
Whatever he feels, there’s no doubt about the boy’s excitement as he heads off with money in his pocket to what is called vaguely “a far country,” a nice touch because it stands for a dream all of us have entertained. New friends introduce him to a reckless lifestyle he has hardly dared imagine — friends who in their scorn for discipline and hard work seem so much more fun than the people left behind. Months pass, a few years even, and suddenly one day the money is all gone, a famine hits the country, and the friends discover they have other other business which does not include him. Desperate and facing starvation, Goodtime Charley hires himself out to a farmer who gives him a job feeding pigs, utter shame for a Jewish boy reared to call them unclean. The great dream of freedom dies in the dirt of a pigsty.
There is so little food that he’s willing to eat the scraps thrown out for the hogs, but the pigfarmers won’t even let him do that, and as low now as he can get Charley suddenly awakes from the dream: there is no way to be completely free. We are always in bondage to something, or someone. Some bondages are more rewarding than others, that’s all, and it occurs to Charley that there was more real freedom in his father’s house than he had thought, and that he has left behind the only unconditional and abiding love he can count on.
So Charley gets a confessional speech made up and heads home in his rags, hoping he can bear the humiliation. But there is a tender hint that his father has looked down the road a thousand times, and now — catching sight of his wayward son — runs to meet him. The bit about running may have a special force easy to miss in our Western world. I’m not sure how useful it was for Aristotle to say that “Great men never run in public,” but a few centuries later when this story was told it was still considered undignified in Eastern eyes for older men to run, so Jesus may be deliberately stressing how this welcoming father has abandoned all dignity in the ache of his longing. father There is a Buddhist parallel to this story which makes the father put the son through 20 years of tests to prove he has truly repented. Jesus seems to know that life punishes us in its own way when we miss the mark, and that what we need then is not a quarantine but acceptance and healing. And then there is Andre Gide, the French writer, who invents his own ending to the story, in which the son comes back and sends his brother out into that same far country so he, too, can sow his wild oats and grow up to be a man. Gide’s premise is that you have to renounce God before you can find him, that you have to go out and tarnish the shining image of the heart before you can really know how much it means to get that brightness back.
I leave you to speculate later on whether that makes sense, but this story is not that sophisticated, so a wiser Goodtime Charley simply says “Dad, I’ve made mistakes and I realize I have no claim on you. I’m not even fit to be called your son, but here I am.” Think how many sons and daughters have said it over the years. And this father, like so many others, gives up the chance to say “I told you so” and cuts short the confession with a kiss so he can start the celebration. Servants are told to bring not just any robe to cover the rags, but the one kept in reserve for honored guests, and to come back with a ring as proof of a son’s authority, and fresh sandals because sons do not go barefoot. No word of reproof, no probation, no making sure the personality disease has run its course
And that is why this story is at the very heart of the Good News. When all the other stories are forgotten, this one stays in the mind with its saving vision of someone’s waiting love in that crucial moment when we have to decide where to live. Beyond our mistakes and disappointments, on the far side of our pretence and our false starts, there is — this immortal story says — the chance and the glory of coming home. We are meant to remember, in gatherings like this one, that there is always someone who needs our help in finding out how to do that.
But the great realist who told this story knew that people who proudly think they’ve been safely at home all along are sometimes too smug and self-righteous to help anyone, so he uses the second half of this parable to make us take a long hard look at ourselves. We have known the story of the lost prodigal son since we were kids in Sunday School, but what it may be even more important to know is that it features two lost sons, and that those of us who come to church are at more risk of being the second son than the first. So let’s take a good hard look now at Sour Sam, on his way home to dinner after a long day’s work in the field when he suddenly hears the unfamiliar noise of music and dancing. He calls one of the servants to ask, “What’s going on?” and the servant says, “Your brother has come home, and your father is celebrating because we have him back safe and sound.”
You would expect a brother, if he had any love at all in his heart, to drop the hoe, forget how tired he was, and lunge into that house with so much joy that he would practically knock his brother down. But not this man, who is furious. The dialogue in his head must have gone something like this:
“What are they doing, celebrating the return of a wild kid who has disgraced himself and the whole family? If there’s to be a party, it should be for me, the one who stayed home and did everything expected of him. Let ‘em have their party, I’m not coming.” His pouting is reported inside, and the father, who had already run to meet his other son, now takes the initiative again and comes outside to plead with this one, who is kicking the dog and grumbling under his breath about irresponsible kids who run off and do anything they damned well please and then come home — can you believe it? — to a party!
“I guess you know,” he says to his father, “how I have slaved for you all these years. Never once disobeyed your orders, up at the crack of dawn, home late at night, and never once did I get a party like this. Now this son of yours (not “my brother,” notice, but “this son of yours”) turns up after wasting his money on bad women and street bums and you throw a party!” The father’s reply is all gentleness: “Son, you have always been here, and everything I have is yours, but how could we help celebrating this happy day? Your brother was lost to us and we have him home again.”
So, did it work, this tender plea? Well, we never find out, because the story ends right here, on purpose, so we can how we would have acted. Sour Sam is a legalist, which is to say that he goes through all the right motions with the wrong spirit. He makes me remember how many years of my life were spent among people whose religion ordered them to be in church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and any other time the doors opened. Some went gladly most of the time, but there were others who went only because they were afraid not to, and in their unhappiness they grumbled about others who had not shown up to do their duty as they had done.
This always seemed a curious thing to me. It was if they had to endure some kind of punishment and they wanted to be sure others shared their misery. When I began to speak in pulpits they sometimes asked me to castigate those who had missed a Sunday, or failed to come out for the Wednesday evening Bible study. It seemed to me that if we had a good thing going — a banquet, a fellowship that counted enormously when we were sick or discouraged — then we’d simply be glad when others came among us, and that when they didn’t it would not be resentment we felt but simply a quiet regret that they had missed something good.
Reluctant goodness. I blame it for more malicious gossip and more church strife than any other single thing. No wonder Sour Sam couldn’t stand the sound of music coming from his house. There hasn’t been a song in his heart for years — only the click of a calculator, adding up his virtues. The sad thing is that as far as we know, self-righteous Sam is still sitting out in the field somewhere, watching happiness from a distance.
There is a reason why Pride tops the list of the Seven Deadly Sins, so every member of every church, every preacher in every pulpit, needs to ponder the honest response of one student of this story when about the identity of the older brother. “Who is that self-righteous older brother? I learned it only yesterday. Myself.”
Not likely true of anyone present this morning, but it never hurts to be reminded.
Help us know know this morning which son or daughter we are, so that love may know how to reach us.

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