Prodigal - Part 2
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
As Jesus’ parable continues, the Father now has to deal with the older son, who isn’t the paragon of virtue or the “good son.” His disregard for the Father is just as egregious as that of the younger son; perhaps even more. The thoughts for our parable today come largely from the work of Kenneth Bailey. I want to make sure and mention him today, as he passed away yesterday and his work in the area of the parables and the Gospel is unparalleled. So much of what you read today will be quoted from his work Poet and Peasant (pages 190-206).
The elder brother would no doubt know what was happening immediately on hearing “the beat of the music” for “village rhythms are specific and known.” Such music would only accompany a grand event. Indeed, music itself was quite rare, and the elder son had left for the fields knowing that no such feast was planned. This feast, then, is unexpected, and he asks about what is happening. Already with this action, he is departing from normal and expected behavior for an elder brother. The sound of the music should have caused him to rush in and join the festivities, for he would be required by custom to serve as the host-steward of the meal. The elder son would be responsible for the arrangements so that the father could be the gracious host. But his cautious reaction, his questioning, and his anger when he finds out the reason for the feast prepare the hearer for the insult that is coming.
Jesus repeats the reason for the feast in the words spoken to the elder brother: “Your brother has come, and your father has sacrificed the calf, the fatted one, because he received him back in good health”. What angers the elder brother about the prodigal son’s return is the feast. It becomes the center of his first complaint to the father: “To me you never once gave a goat in order that I might make merry with my friends”. The elder brother sees the contrast: the father sacrificed the fatted calf for his prodigal brother, while the father had never even sacrificed a goat for him and his friends. (Note that he mentions his friends and not his family.) It is clear from his reaction that his anger is enormous and that there is no way that he will enter into this feast because the feast itself is the problem.
Into his elder son’s fury the father enters with a third expression of unbelievable love and grace. The father comes to the elder son and pleads with him to enter the feast, and the son turns him down by arguing with him in public at the feast. This is a great insult to the father, which shows that “there is now a break in relationship between the older son and his father that is nearly as radical as the break between the father and the younger son at the beginning of the parable.”
Ken Bailey sees seven insults in the elder brother’s words:
- “The older son addresses his father with no title.”
- “The older son demonstrates the attitude and spirit of a slave, not a son.”
- “He has insulted his father publicly and yet is able to say, ‘I have never disobeyed your commandment.’” Bailey concludes that this is the “spirit of Pharisees.”
- “The older son accuses his father of favoritism with the word, ‘To me you never gave a kid.’”
- “The older son declares that he is not a part of the family.”
- “The older son announces his concept of ‘joy.’ For the older son, a good meal with his cronies is an appropriate occasion for joy. The recovery of a brother as from the dead is not. He is not willing to rejoice at this banquet.”
- “The older brother attacks his younger brother [accusing him of living with harlots].”
The Father doesn’t really address the older son’s insults. And we the readers are left with the story largely unresolved because we don’t know how the older son ultimately responds. But that is okay because this story is NOT about the sons. This story is about the compassionate love of the Father and His loving, gracious response to the sin of His children. You may identify with the younger son or the older – perhaps at different stages of your life you can identify with both. But in the end, no matter your place in the sin-filled world, the Father is reaching out to you with His compassionate forgiveness. We can ask nothing more.