Friday, March 29 — The Elder Brother
Today, we continue Jesus’ parable commonly known as that of the “prodigal son”. In the last part of the story, the younger brother fades to the background and the elder son and father take center stage.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.
He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.
He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’
Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.
But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.
But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”
Have you noticed how often sibling rivalry shows up in the Bible? Way back in the fourth chapter of Genesis there’s Cain and Abel, followed soon afterwards with Jacob and Esau and then Joseph and his brothers. Last week, we heard about two brothers arguing over inheritance, and then Martha getting angry with her younger sister Mary. And now we have these two brothers.
Maybe there is a suggestion in all these stories that if we can work our way through our sibling rivalries to reconciliation, we will find our way to God. In our parable the Father is a stand-in for God, and he is imploring the elder brother to be reconciled to his brother.
I have always been struck by the way the parable ends. There’s this incredible party going on with feasting and music and dancing. Apparently, the father had been there but he’d been troubled by the absence of his elder son, so he leaves the party to go search for him. (In those days a well-to-do father should have been able to send a servant out with the message: “Your Dad says get your butt into the party NOW!” There is an echo here of the Father running out to meet the wayward younger son’s homecoming.)
The elder brother is seething with what many of us would find to be an understandable anger, complaining that a party was never thrown for him. Lashing out at his father (God?), he refers to “this son of yours”, refusing to acknowledge, any longer his own kinship to his younger brother.
Imploring his son to come into the party the father says in essence that he could have had a party anytime he wanted. The father firmly defends the appropriateness of the party, “because this brother of yours” (he won’t let his older son’s disavowal of his brother stand) “was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
That’s how it ends — the invitation to go into the party, hanging in the air. Will he, or won’t he go into the party? It is as if Jesus, intentionally, left the story unfinished with the implication that we have to decide for ourselves in our own lives how the story ends.
Once again, this parable emphasizes how God values our freedom. Just as the father, wouldn’t force the younger brother to stay home on the farm, neither will the father compel the older brother to go into the party.
It’s as if the elder son is in a prison cell with the door wide open, but it’s up to him to decide whether he will step forth from that prison cell.
How would you describe the nature of the elder brother’s bondage?
Who to you find yourself resonating with in the parable? The younger brother? The elder brother? The father?